The railway blockades by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in British Columbia protesting the Coastal GasLink pipeline and by sympathizers in various parts of Canada, most notably, in Ontario, were deemed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week to be “unacceptable and untenable.” Yet they were, for almost three weeks, accepted.
As for untenable, let’s take a look at the effects on agriculture, since they are widespread and deep.
A shortage of propane has developed in parts of Ontario. Farmers use propane for grain drying and to heat livestock barns, and some rural residents use propane to heat their homes.
On the Prairies propane is heavily used for grain drying, which has increased so much this year due to the wet harvest that farmers say even the carbon tax on the cost of grain drying is a burden. If blockades spread in the west and access to propane drops, the damage to grain could be incalculable.
Grain elevators, already dealing with backups from weather obstacles and the week-long strike in November at Canadian National Railway, say the blockades are compounding the problem. It’s been reported that some grain elevators served notice to farmers to not deliver grain.
In most cases grain farmers only collect payment for their grain once it reaches market, so these rail obstructions mean they will have less money to pay their bills from last season, and less money to pay for fertilizer and other inputs for the coming growing season.
As well, there are fears a fertilizer shortage looms because a lot of it moves by rail.
In the three weeks before Feb. 21, grain shipments to Canadian ports dropped by 475,000 tonnes from a year earlier, costing an estimated $130 million from lost sales, contract penalties and demurrage. At one point, there were 53 ships waiting for grain in Vancouver and Prince Rupert, just two short of the record.
If grain cannot move reliably, grain companies may have to defer new sales into summer, when average prices could drop.
Much of Canada’s pork is moved by rail. More rail delays could result in extra costs to producers who are unable to move their products to market.
As well, equipment parts are often shipped by rail. A delay in preparing equipment for spring planting may lead to late seeding, which increases risk for growers.
In Ontario, soybeans are no longer being shipped and ethanol plants have stopped accepting corn deliveries because they can’t ship ethanol.
The rail service interruptions follow a trying year for farmers across the country, following bad weather, China’s canola ban, other market interruptions, and the CN rail strike in the midst of harvest.
On top of this, Canada’s reputation as a reliable supplier of quality agricultural products is taking a beating.
Grain buyers in South America were upset after the strike, reportedly concerned about whether vessels sent to Vancouver would be loaded.
And BMO Financial Group chief economist Douglas Porter wondered if the current rail stoppage would do “lasting damage to Canada’s brand.”
Yes, the railway blockage was untenable for Canadian producers.
As of writing, the police have raided the blockade on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory in eastern Ontario, which caused major backups.
It remains to be seen whether other blockades will materialize and whether the trains will move reliably.
Regardless, this is not a wake-up call. We have seen First Nations protests many times before. Many of the issues are well known, albeit highly complex, and have never been fully addressed.
Unless that happens, police raids won’t make the trains run on time.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.