The Port of Vancouver says more than 40 ships are waiting at anchor amid rail blockades by supporters of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in their battle over a northern B.C. gas pipeline.
“Due to the recent disruptions in rail operations and protest activity, the demand for anchorages is currently exceeding the availability, causing a backlog of ships waiting to get into port,” said Port of Vancouver spokesperson Danielle Jang in an email.
“During times of congestion, the port authority manages anchorages in a way to ensure continued fluidity for all ship types and ensure anchorages continue to be available for essential services.”
Jang said the port manages 60 anchorages, of which 40-50 per cent are usually in use.
Protests have sprung up around B.C. and across Canada in the week since RCMP moved in to enforce a B.C. Supreme Court injunction on Wet’suwet’en traditional territory, enabling crews from Coastal GasLink to get to a key work site.
Some of those protests have snarled commuter traffic, while others, including two in Metro Vancouver, have blockaded rail lines — sometimes with an overt intent to disrupt the economy.
“This isn’t a symbolic action, it’s not protests,” said Isabel Krupp with activist group the Red Braid Alliance (formerly Alliance Against Displacement) last week at a blockade in Coquitlam that disrupted West Coast Express service.
“It’s direct defence of the land through disrupting the flow of capital, through disrupting the flow of commodities, to put direct pressure on Canada to back off Wet’suwet’en.”
Demonstrators, who call themselves land defenders, say they are acting in support of the rights of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who are fighting the Coastal GasLink pipeline through their territory. The hereditary chiefs, who claim exclusive authority over unceded traditional territory, say the project does not have their consent.
President and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia Greg D’Avignon said it’s too soon to say how much of an economic effect that disruption is having, but that there’s no question it’s happening.
“It’s having an immediate impact on the ability of supply chains to move goods within Canada, but also as the gateway through Vancouver and the biggest port in Canada, they’re moving goods in and out of our nation,” he said.
D’Avignon said imports being disrupted range from vehicles to medicine to cell phones, while Canadian exporters are also feeling the pinch.
But he said his biggest concern is the impact the blockades have on Canada’s reputation as a reliable trading partner.
“The world is watching and it’s undermining our reputation as a certain place for trade in a certain place for investment,” he said.
“Ultimately, that has a long term impact on the prosperity and the very reconciliation that we’re looking to achieve in British Columbia and Canada.”
Greg Wilson, director of government relations with Retail Council of Canada, said the backlog would affect small communities more seriously than Metro Vancouver, and posed a risk to shipments of food and medication that are prone to spoilage.
“Any time you have shortages or outages on the shelf it costs a retailer money,” he said.
“For small retailers that can mean the only shipment they have coming in for a month or a quarter are stuck in a delay.”
On Monday, B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser and federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations Carolyn Bennett met in Victoria to strategize finding a peaceful solution to the blockades.
The pair released a joint statement saying they had reached out to the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs with the aim of setting up a meeting.
“There is no doubt that the blockades and other events of the past several weeks have been, and continue to be, a significant challenge,” said the ministers in a joint statement.
“We acknowledge that this is a difficult time for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and are determined to work with all our partners to find the solutions.”
The last rail blockade to hit the Lower Mainland cropped up at Renfrew Street and the Grandview Highway on Saturday, with no major protests turning up Sunday or Monday.
The Port of Vancouver said it expects its backlog to persist “in the short term.”
-With files from Robyn Crawford