Wet’suwet’en rail blockade could impact food prices in Atlantic Canada

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Wet’suwet’en rail blockade could impact food prices in Atlantic Canada
WATCH: As the rail blockade in Ontario enters its eleventh day, there is concern it could have an impact on food prices in Atlantic Canada. Alicia Draus brings us that story. – Feb 17, 2020

As the rail blockade on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont., enters its eleventh day, there is concern it could have an impact on food prices in Atlantic Canada.

The protest, which is in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the $6-billion, 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline that crosses their traditional territory in northwestern B.C, has cut off rail links across the country and ceased all rail operations in the Atlantic region.

READ MORE: Wet’suwet’en protests: Here’s what’s happening across Canada

Sylvain Charlebois, the director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, says much of the food on shelves makes it’s way to the East Coast by rail.

“For long distances, rail is the preferred choice, it’s much cheaper,” said Charlebois.

“As soon as you put cargo on wheels you’re increasing your logistical costs by anywhere from 30-50 per cent.”

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Charlebois says that there is a chance the cost could be passed on to the consumer.

“Distributors won’t play around with prices if the situation lasts a few days,” said Charlebois. “But if it goes on and reaches the 20 day mark, or the 30 day mark you have to get your money — you have to cover your cost. So, you may actually see [food] prices fluctuate a little bit.”

The region is already facing a propane shortage due to the rail blockade, with companies rationing propane to stretch out the remaining supply.

Click to play video: 'Blockades impacting Atlantic Canadian businesses'
Blockades impacting Atlantic Canadian businesses

On Friday, Wilson Fuel president Ian Wilson warned if they hadn’t started rationing early on, they would have been out of propane by the weekend.

When it comes to food, Charlebois says he’s already noticed some empty shelves at stores, which is unusual this time of year.

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“I saw empty shelves for ketchup, mayonnaise, jello. These types of products typically wouldn’t run low this time of year,” he said.

Charlebois says he cannot confirm the empty shelves are a direct result of the rail blockade. Global News requested an interview with Sobeys and Loblaw to speak about the impact but both retailers directed comments to the Retail Council of Canada (RCC).

Karl Littler, senior vice-president of public affairs with RCC, could not speak about how stock is already affected in local stores, but he confirmed that the rail shutdown is having an impact.

“Anything that’s imported typically, a lot of it, especially from California, from the western coast of South America and Mexico, a lot of that comes in through the port of Vancouver,” he said.

Products are then moved from Vancouver to Atlantic Canada by rail.

“If you think of it like a tree, rail is the trunk for significant heavy volume, trucks are the branches,” said Littler.

READ MORE: Almost 9 out of 10 Canadians feel food prices are rising faster than income: survey

Charlebois says trucks are now being used to move products instead of rail, but he says relying on trucks for the duration of the rail blockade comes with more complicated challenges than just increased costs.

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“A lot of trucking companies are getting more contracts, so there could be shortages in terms of capacity for trucking,” said Charlebois.

Littler says not only are there not enough physical trucks to replace trains but there are also limits in terms of how many qualified truck drivers are available.

“There are limits on distances and hours they can cover, therefor you can’t just rely on additional trucks to offset the bulk affected by rail.”

But both say consumers shouldn’t worry about extreme food shortages.

Charlebois notes that the region also imports products from Europe by sea, which so far has not been impacted. But Littler does warn that consumers could notice a difference in what’s available.

“It’s more a matter of what is it going to do to choice? What is it going to do to variety?” he said.  He also said it’s important to note that the concerns are not limited to just food.

“Hygiene products, hand sanitizer, paper towels, toilet paper, a multitude of different things in our household are shipped by rail,” he said.

Charlebois says this whole situation has pointed to a failure in Canada’s supply chain, calling it fragile and vulnerable.

“The disruption points to that fact so we need to think differently about logistics overall beyond whats going on with this event.”

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