Via Rail lays off 1,000 employees temporarily as blockades drag on

MONTREAL — Via Rail says it is temporarily laying off 1,000 employees due to blockades that continue to halt service on CN tracks in Eastern Canada.

The Crown corporation has suspended passenger trains on its Montreal-Toronto and Ottawa-Toronto routes for nearly two weeks due to the protests that have disrupted rail service across the country.

The layoffs come amid growing pressure on the federal government to take action against rail blockades in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose a natural gas pipeline that is scheduled to pass through their traditional lands in British Columbia.

“Until CN Rail opens the remaining tracks for service, VIA Rail has no choice but to continue the cancellation of its services on a large part of its network,” Via said in a release Thursday. ”It is with sincere regret that we must proceed with temporary employee suspensions.”

Via will resume partial service in southwestern Ontario and along its Quebec City-Montreal-Ottawa route Thursday morning after announcing a full network shutdown last Thursday.

Chief executive Cynthia Garneau called the ongoing interruption due to a 13-day blockade east of Belleville, Ont., “unprecedented.”

“In 42 years of existence, it is the first time that VIA Rail, a public intercity passenger rail service, has to interrupt most of its services across the country,” she said in a statement.

Via said it commends the ongoing dialogue efforts between government and demonstrators at the rail blockades.

The company has cancelled more than 530 trains since blockades began on Feb. 6.

Earlier this week, Canadian National Railway Co. temporarily laid off about 450 workers from its operations in Eastern Canada after cancelling more than 400 trains since protests arose.

The Belleville-area blockade on a line bisecting Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory has forced CN to shut down one-quarter of its network — all in Eastern Canada — clogging its system from coast to coast.

“It really is all across the country,” Dan Kelly, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) said in a phone interview.

“The whole system starts to break down, and that has effects on a lot of smaller and medium-sized companies,” he said.

“I know one small manufacturer of flags and banners in Quebec that is waiting on a shipment of goods from Taiwan is set to lose a $100,000 contract because she’s not available to fulfill, since they’re stuck on the rails right now.”

The looming threat to jobs and goods prompted Kelly to send an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warning of dire consequences and reputational damage if the crisis continues.

Agriculture and natural resources are the sectors most affected, but retailers and wholesalers are increasingly feeling the pinch — and have fewer financial resources to weather extended disruptions than large companies — according to the CFIB, which represents 110,000 small and medium businesses.

Slower rail operations and shorter-term blockades hampering access to ports in Vancouver, Prince Rupert, B.C., and Halifax have led to backups, with some ships turned away and cargo rerouted to docks in the U.S. or on to less efficient truck transport, according to the Association of Canadian Port Authorities.

“These are serious effects,” Kelly said.

He is calling on Ottawa to work with the provinces and law enforcement to get trains back on the tracks.

RBC economist Nathan Janzen says the blockades have “clouded” the economic outlook for Canadian manufacturing. The crisis is stranding an estimated $425 million in goods every day, according to the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters trade group.

The Via layoffs and the call from the CFIB come amid mounting criticism of the Liberal government from Conservative MPs and provincial premiers, with some demanding Trudeau denounce the blockades and articulate a plan to end the them.

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