Blockades only part of grain movement backlog

Canadian agriculture supply chains have remained largely paralyzed, despite efforts to ease blockades across the country.

Latest figures from the grain monitoring organization Quorum show grain shipments to Canadian ports have dropped by roughly 1.3 million tonnes, with the majority of the losses occurring over the past month.

The backlog stems from numerous transportation issues, including late harvest, a Canadian National Railway strike, and recent bad weather along the rail line and at the Port of Vancouver.

Blockades that were established in February by protesters along some CN lines had exacerbated the backlog.

“They are starting to fill up port terminal elevators and traffic is beginning to move again, but it’s still pretty tight,” said Mark Hemmes, president of Quorum Corp., which oversees the federal grain monitoring program, on March 2.

“It’s a little bit disconcerting.”

The blockades had been established by protesters in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who oppose a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia. The pipeline, however, has support from the 20 First Nations band councils that have signed agreements in favour of the project.

As of March 2, key rail blockades in northern British Columbia and near Belleville, Ont., were removed, allowing movement to flow again, but slowly. One barricade in the community of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, was still in place.

Provincial and federal ministers on March 1 reached a draft arrangement with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Details of the deal weren’t disclosed because it has to be ratified by Wet’suwet’en clan members.

However, in a joint statement, they said they discussed the recognition of Wet’suwet’en rights and title in the territory, as well as issues arising from the pipeline project.

Despite the efforts, it’s expected to take weeks or months before the agriculture industry will be able to recover from the backlogs.

The Western Grain Elevator Association expects the delays have cost the industry roughly $9 million per day.

The Grain Monitor report from Quorum indicates many elevators are full, with the system at 89 percent capacity as of March 2. There were more than 50 grain vessels waiting to be loaded off the West Coast.

“Things are backed up in a big way,” said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association, on March 2.

“We’re still experiencing heavy losses and expect we will for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Quorum data shows farm deliveries are down, which will cause delays in cash flow. The window to market grain is closing as seeding work begins.

Like grain, the movement of meat products has lagged.

The Canadian Pork Council has said slow movement has reduced storage capacity. Processors have had to use trucks instead of trains to ship products.

As well, farmers in Quebec had been rationing feed and propane because of the stoppage, turning to trucks to get needed supplies.

Last week, agriculture organizations continued to urge the federal government to act swiftly to end the blockades, saying they have caused serious economic hardship and have damaged Canada’s reputation as a reliable exporter.

In a letter Feb. 29, Grain Growers of Canada chair Jeff Nielsen said major international grain buyers are turning away from the country and looking elsewhere. The buyers weren’t named in the letter.

He said if the blockades end, the government should ensure disruptions don’t occur in the future.

“If Canadian farmers are going to meet the 2025 target of $75 billion in exports, there needs to be serious improvements to the conditions that govern the agriculture industry,” Nielsen wrote.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, an independent MP who was formerly a cabinet minister with the Liberal government, offered four proposals to reconcile the issue.

In the House of Commons Feb. 18, she said the situation stems from past and present governments not doing the basic work of resetting foundations with indigenous peoples.

She said reconciliation requires supporting nations to rebuild and revitalize their own systems of government. Until that’s done, she said, it will be unclear as to who truly speaks for nations.

Wilson-Raybould said the government must lead. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should have flown to British Columbia immediately to meet with Wet’suwet’en and broader indigenous leaders, she said.

Second, she said, the government should make fundamental changes by implementing comprehensive legislation that upholds and recognizes indigenous rights, allowing nations to rebuild their governments.

As well, she said, it should implement a cooling-off period when construction isn’t occurring, allowing everyone to step back and assess the situation.

Lastly, she said, RCMP should leave the area where it conducted enforcement activity. If they leave, she said, it would allow indigenous governments and leadership to look to reconciliation.

On Feb. 22, RCMP closed its office on Wet’suwet’en territory.

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