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Canada’s industry groups worried as Wet’suwet’en protests block ‘vital artery’ of railways

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WATCH: Protests over the Coastal GasLink pipeline slated to run through Wet'suwet'en traditional territory in northern B.C. have triggered days of railway blockades across Canada. – Feb 12, 2020

The looming threat of a widespread CN Rail shut down due to demonstrations in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs has many branches of Canada’s supply chain holding its breath.

For about a week, supporters have set up blockades at rail lines and highways across the country in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who are opposed to the construction of a $6-billion, 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline that crosses their traditional territory in northwestern B.C.

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READ MORE: A look at what led to the Wet'suwet'en protests in B.C. and beyond

Solidarity protests sprang up on rail lines in Ontario, Montreal and B.C. after RCMP moved into the Wet’suwet’en camps to enforce a court-ordered injunction, removing and arresting protesters to allow workers to resume construction.

Click to play video 'Protests growing across Canada against B.C. pipeline' Protests growing across Canada against B.C. pipeline
Protests growing across Canada against B.C. pipeline – Feb 11, 2020

The demonstrations have choked service on Via Rail’s lines between Montreal and Toronto and Ottawa and Toronto, and near New Hazelton, B.C.

CN Rail could be next. The company has already halted more than 150 freight trains and says if blockades aren’t cleared soon, it will be forced to closed a “significant” part of its Canadian network.

Many of Canada’s industry groups are bracing for impact — if they aren’t already feeling it.

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Nathalie St-Pierre, the CEO of the Canadian Propane Association, said a suspension on the rail network would put the propane industry over the edge.

Click to play video 'Wet’suwet’en Nation divided on Coastal GasLink pipeline' Wet’suwet’en Nation divided on Coastal GasLink pipeline
Wet’suwet’en Nation divided on Coastal GasLink pipeline – Feb 11, 2020

The week-long blockades have already squeezed propane supply, she said, leaving some regions with concerningly low reserves. Coupled with a recent government order to reduce speed limits for trains carrying dangerous goods, St-Pierre said a network suspension would be “a bit of a nightmare.”

“We obviously have no control over any of this,” she told Global News in a phone interview. “We’re hoping that there will be an understanding that it’s impacting the lives of a lot of people, including Indigenous people who rely on propane for a variety of reasons.”

Producers of wood, pulp and paper products have already lost millions of dollars since the blockades began a week ago, according to the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC).

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READ MORE: Anti pipeline blockades put Canada’s freight, passenger railways under stress

The Montreal to Toronto corridor and the access to the Port of Prince Rupert in B.C. — both impacted by blockades — are “vital” to the foresty products industry, said FPAC CEO Derek Nighbor.

He said a suspension across the network would create “absolute chaos.”

“It’s not like you can just flip a contingency switch and everything is fine,” he said. “That rail line is a vital artery for us. If there’s any disruption there, we can’t get raw materials in, we can’t get empty cars in to load the product, and we can’t get our stuff to customers — that’s an immediate hit.”

“Our footprint is significant and we’re really worried about where this heads.”

For Canadian farmers, the consequences could be “huge,” as the industry is still recovering from a strike by unionized CN Rail workers, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) said. The week-long November strike brought rail service in key regions to a halt, hampering grain crops and exports and affecting all players along the supply chain.

Click to play video 'Pipeline protest near CN rail tracks in Tyendinaga enters 7th day' Pipeline protest near CN rail tracks in Tyendinaga enters 7th day
Pipeline protest near CN rail tracks in Tyendinaga enters 7th day – Feb 12, 2020

“Farmers don’t get paid until their products reach the market,” spokesperson Matt Houston told Global News in a statement.

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“Interruptions in rail service amplifies the stress that farmers and rural communities are under, creating a huge amount of uncertainty in their day-to-day lives. While the CFA respects the rights of Canadians to protest, we feel these protests should not endanger the health and livelihoods of other Canadians.”

READ MORE: Band councils, hereditary chiefs — here’s what to know about Indigenous governance

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce appealed on Thursday to all levels of government “and law enforcement” to restore rail service by removing the blockades.

“The rail system affects the entire Canadian economy and Canadians everywhere, including people trying to get to and from work,” the business advocacy organization said in a statement. “They must be allowed to continue to serve the thousands of businesses that depend on them.”

READ MORE: Wet'suwet'en demonstrators in Ontario say they want their voices heard

But the demonstrators at the heart of the debacle are standing their ground. They say blocking the tracks and disrupting rail service is their only way to be heard.

“For us here in the community, that’s really the only option that we have. We don’t have a voice,” Jaylee Thompson, a Mohawk supporter who was at the blockade near Belleville, Ont., on Wednesday.

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“When we talk and we speak and we try to make ourselves heard to corporate Canada, the Canadian government, however you want to put it, they just don’t listen.”

Police have served injunctions at some of the sites, but few have been enforced. Protesters were cleared of the Port of Vancouver on Monday, ending in the arrest of 43 people.

Thompson said, at this point, there has been no indication that police are going to move in and forcibly remove demonstrators at the camp in Tyendinaga Township, near Belleville.

Click to play video 'Trudeau says pipeline protests across Canada ‘an issue that is of concern’' Trudeau says pipeline protests across Canada ‘an issue that is of concern’
Trudeau says pipeline protests across Canada ‘an issue that is of concern’ – Feb 12, 2020

If they did, he said they would be impeding on a peaceful protest.

“That’s going to start a whole new issue. It won’t be over the pipelines anymore. It’ll be: ‘What are you doing? Is this is still genocide? Why are you not letting us have our day, have our voice, have our freedom?’”

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that while he respects the rights to peaceful protest, the rule of law must also be respected. He said he would be working with federal ministers on “next steps.”

“I’m encouraging all parties to dialogue to resolve this as quickly as possible,” he said.

— with files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Alexandra Mazur