As the Canadian National Railway Co. (CN) strike enters its fourth day, the Union des Producteurs Agricoles du Quebec (UPA) staged a protest in Châteauguay Friday, urging officials to find a solution that would allow propane delivery to resume.
On Thursday, Quebec Premier François Legault sounded the alarm, saying the province’s propane reserves could run dry within five days because of the strike.
About 85 per cent of the province’s propane comes via rail, the bulk of it from refineries in Sarnia and some from Edmonton — the country’s two propane trading hubs.
The UPA, which represents 26 specialized groups of agricultural producers from various sectors including dairy, cattle, pigs, poultry and cereals, demonstrated outside the offices of Brenda Shanahan, the Liberal MP for Châteauguay-Lacolle in Quebec’s Montérégie region.
For farmers, the situation is critical.
The UPA says the agricultural sector relies on propane for 15 per cent of its energy needs,with grain and poultry producers being among the most affected.
“This shortage of propane comes at a particularly critical time for grain producers, who have been struggling with one of the wettest crops in decades,” said UPA producer Marcel Groleau in a written statement.
“Extraordinary measures are required and both levels of government must move quickly. At the moment, it is the priority in the agricultural sector, because if the situation does not disappear and it continues, it will quickly become dramatic.”
The demonstrators, on an impulse, decided to take their protest directly to CN headquarters in Montreal with a convoy of roughly 20 tractors, crossing the Jacques-Cartier Bridge Friday afternoon, to reach their destination on de La Gauchetière Street.
Conductors, trainpersons and yard workers took to the picket lines early Tuesday morning, halting freight trains across the country.
The railway workers, who have been without a contract since July 23, have said they’re concerned about long hours, fatigue and what they consider dangerous working conditions.
The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) union issued a statement Friday, accusing CN management of manufacturing the propane shortage in Quebec and Ontario.
The TCRC says that despite the strike, CN has the logistical capacity and enough personnel available to continue operations.
“Over 1,800 locomotive engineers and over 600 supervisors are free to cross picket lines and continue to operate freight trains every day,” the union says.
The teamsters allege CN is trying to force back-to-work legislation.
“We wonder if CN is choosing not to ship goods like propane in order to manufacture a crisis and force back-to-work legislation,” the statement reads.
For its part, CN is advocating for voluntary binding arbitration.
On Friday, it rejected the union’s claim that the strike concerns workplace health and safety, suggesting instead that it revolves around worker compensation.
“While the current average salary of a Canadian conductor is $114,000 plus benefits, including a defined benefits pension plan, the union is seeking wage and benefit improvements beyond those negotiated this year with Unifor and another bargaining unit of the TCRC,” CN said in a release.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau acknowledged the strike was having important repercussions — not only in Quebec, but across the country.
“We know that with this strike there is a large impact economically to all regions of Canada,” he said.
“CN is a national railway system. It is a very important for the economy of the country. We are a trading nation.”
Garneau, however, defended the government’s actions, saying it has been encouraging the two sides to find a solution.
“We believe that mediation, collective bargaining is the right way to do this,” Garneau told reporters on Friday.
“We believe this is not only the most probable but also the fastest way to find a solution.”
The minister also confirmed that CN managers can operate limited trains and possibly move products to where they’re needed most including Quebec where there is a propane shortage, and Alberta where grain farmers need propane to dry their crops.
Quebec Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonatan Julien said that while Quebec was feeling the immediate pinch, it was up to the federal government to intervene.
“The federal government is advocating for negotiations and we will let the federal government do its job,” he said at a press conference in Quebec City Friday afternoon.
Julien explained the province is currently evaluating all its options, should the situation drag out. He indicated propane reserves were sufficient to meet essential needs for about a week.
— With files from The Canadian Press, and Global News’ Amanda Connolly, Amanda Jelowicki