First Nation Rail Blockades Disrupt Port Operations in Eastern Canada

Blockade in Toronto, February 15 (Towetsuweten / Twitter)

Published Feb 20, 2020 9:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

With a persistent political dispute blocking rail traffic on the CN Rail network in Eastern Canada, Atlantic Container Line has diverted two vessels away from the Port of Halifax so that they can offload their cargo at alternate ports on the U.S. East Coast. 

Early this month, the hereditary leaders of the indigenous Wet'suwet'en First Nation launched protest actions to oppose the planned Coastal GasLink pipeline project in British Columbia, on the opposite side of the country. Multiple first nations across Canada took solidarity action in support of the Wet'suwet'en, setting up rail blockades and impeding freight and passenger service nationwide. CN Rail and Via Rail have both announced temporary layoffs due to suspended service on blockaded routes. 

The effects have been felt at seaports as well. "Our Canadian and U.S. midwest operations have been shut down for almost two weeks now over this ridiculous situation," said Andy Abbott, CEO of Atlantic Container Lines, in a statement to Canada's CBC News. "Customers are finally fed up and we are routing cargo away from Halifax/CN to U.S. ports/U.S. railroads."

The interruption also affects ro/ro operations: 85 longshoremen at the CN Rail Autoport ro/ro port in Halifax have been laid off due to the disruption. The terminal is a busy hub for imported vehicles for the Canadian market, but without a rail connection for onward shipment, it is effectively out of action until the blockade in Eastern Canada has ended. 

Some of portions of the blockade in central and western Canada have already been lifted: service resumed for rail traffic to and from the busy Port of Prince Rupert, British Columbia on February 14, and counterprotesters destroyed a blockade in Edmonton on February 19. Negotiations between the Wet'suwet'en chiefs and the federal government continue. 

Kahnawake Kenneth Deer, Secretary for the Mohawk Nation, told CTV that the Mohawk's blockade in Ontario would remain in place until the chiefs are satisfied with the federal government's response.