Ottawa rejects calls to shut down rail blockades, will focus on negotiation

The federal government is ramping up its efforts to convince Indigenous communities to peacefully end a series of rail blockades, as Canadian National Railway Co. announced 1,000 temporary layoffs on Sunday, reflecting the growing economic impact of the protests.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday cancelled a trip to the Caribbean to focus on the blockades and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said that Ottawa doesn’t believe police intervention is the solution to anti-pipeline protests that have shut down much of the country’s rail system. Some premiers and the federal Conservative opposition had called on the government in recent days to take a hard line, enforce injunctions and remove protesters.

Businesses have warned of economic damage as trains typically carrying tens of thousands of commuters and billions of dollars worth of freight have been idled in railyards and sidings across the country since the blockades began on Feb. 6. CN sent out 450 of an estimated 1,000 temporary layoff notices on Sunday, spokesman Alexandre Boulé confirmed, as protests have shuttered much of the railway’s eastern Canadian network.

Late Sunday, federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau relaxed a ministerial order that had limited the speed of trains transporting combustible cargo such as crude oil. The order followed a fiery derailment in Saskatchewan in early February. CN said the change would allow it to increase the speed of its shipments in Western Canada, which would help compensate for the blockades in the east.

The protests have been spearheaded by groups opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia and the RCMP’s enforcement of injunctions to dislodge protesters who had been blocking construction of the $6.6-billion pipeline. All 20 elected First Nation councils along the natural gas pipeline’s route support the project, but a group of eight Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chiefs have led a vocal campaign to oppose the pipeline’s construction.

Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett is expected to meet with Indigenous leaders in British Columbia on Monday. The Gitxsan First Nation temporarily took down a rail blockade near Hazelton, B.C., last week pending a proposed meeting with the minister, provincial officials and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

Chantal Gagnon, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister, said Mr. Trudeau has been in communication on the weekend with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Mr. Garneau and Ms. Bennett.

“Our priority remains the safety and security of all Canadians and the swift resolution of this issue to restore service across the rail system in accordance with the law,” she said in a statement.


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