‘This has rapidly shifted’: Alberta companies raise alarm over lost business as rail blockades continue

Supporters of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs block a CN Rail line just west of Edmonton Alta, on Wednesday February 19, 2020. Jason Franson, The Canadian Press

As rail blockades across the country continue in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs against the Coastal GasLink project in B.C., businesses in Alberta, especially in manufacturing and agriculture, say they are beginning to see cracks in imports and exports.

“It’s a bit of a perfect storm,” said Krisjan Jones, the operations director at Canadian Bio-Systems Inc., on Tuesday.

“We export to and from around 15 countries at any one time, and we’re also a consumer of ingredients that we source internationally as well. It’s a bit of a double-ended problem at this point.”

Canadian Bio-Systems, which develops natural supplements and enhancers aiming to replace antibiotics in animal feed, has manufacturing plants in Calgary and Oshawa, Ont.

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Jones said that he’s been told the delays Canadian Bio-Systems is dealing with are mainly at ports and CN depots, where the company’s shipping container will arrive but then be highly delayed because of backlogs.

“We stay in contact with our customers, but we’re in the feed business and feed mills don’t shut down,” Jones said. “If we need to start air-freighting our material to fill some of these gaps, we’re going to start losing money in a pretty serious way.”

Canadian Bio-Systems isn’t alone. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said Tuesday that it has been surveying its members and found that businesses in the country’s four western provinces are being most affected.

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“At the beginning of the blockade, small business owners tried to grit their teeth and kind of get through it, assuming that this was only going to be a couple of days,” Marilyn Braun-Pollon, CFIB vice-president for Western Canada and agri-business, said.

“This has rapidly shifted and now it’s affecting businesses in every province and every sector.”

CFIB said that some of the more extreme cases it heard from its members in Alberta included a business that normally receives 100,000 pounds of steel each day by rail that may have to lay off 400 employees. Another told the organization its business has “stalled” while it waits for $750,000 of equipment from Germany.

Worries about losing business to U.S.

Braun-Pollon said that one of the major concerns CFIB is hearing, especially in Alberta, is the impact the blockades and international shipping delays could have on investor confidence in Canada.

“[There are] U.S. competitors that will be more than willing to take that business space,” she said.
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“Our members are concerned about not only their own reputation… but they’re also telling us they’re concerned about how the blockades will affect investor confidence going forward.

“[There’s] also worry about Canada’s reputation as a dependable trade partner as well.”

The survey, which so far has received answers from 6,802 CFIB members across the country, saw 97 per cent of Albertan business owners worried about investor confidence, compared to 90 per cent nationally.

“I’m looking at moving a certain percentage of our export production business to the United States because of this,” Jones said.

“We’ve been looking at that anyway because the U.S. is a growing market for us, but this is really pushing us along to move faster.”

Premier Jason Kenney said Monday that he believed the CN blockades had a sway in the decision for Teck Resources to abandon its Frontier mine project, along with delays on the decision from the federal government.

Click to play video: 'Kenney says he believes CN blockades had sway in Teck Resources decision to abandon mine project'
Kenney says he believes CN blockades had sway in Teck Resources decision to abandon mine project

“What have we seen over the last 10 days?” Kenney said. “Shutting down of key elements of the national infrastructure — railways — through which Teck, as one of the largest mining companies, ships enormous amounts of products.”

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The UCP introduced a bill Tuesday that proposes stiffer financial penalties and smoother routes for police intervention for anyone trying to shut down economic infrastructure, including railways.

CFIB said it has also sent a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, urging the federal government to work with provinces and law enforcement to get rail service moving.

“We want a speedy, peaceful and durable resolution to this issue,” Braun-Pollon said.

CFIB has a membership of 110,000 Canadian business owners, including 10,000 in Alberta.

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