Over 200 maritime workers gathered in Vancouver, Victoria and Prince Rupert Thursday to protest what they view as "an attack on jobs" from the federal Liberal government.

They say proposed changes will cost jobs and degrade environmental standards along Canadian coastlines.

Concerns revolve around the Canada-EU trade agreement (CETA) and changes to the Canada Transportation Act.

Canadian crews wanted for Canadian waters

Keeping onboard crews local is crucial, says Robert Ashton, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada

"Right now to work in domestic trade within Canada... you need to be a Canadian-owned vessel crewed by Canadians," Ashton told CBC Daybreak North host Robert Doane.

"My fear is... our seafarers that we have currently that go along our shores will be replaced by foreign crews, underpaid foreign crews, that don't have a stake in our coastline." 

He pointed to the Nathan E. Stewart, a U.S. tug that sank off the coast of Bella Bella last year, as one of the consequences of giving too much leeway to foreign crews operating in Canadian waters.

"Currently if one of our vessels runs aground or gets into troubled waters... we'll call ahead, we'll let the coast guard know 'hey, we're in trouble, we need help,' because it's our coast line," said Ashton.

Underwater

Union leaders says the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart tug is a consequence of allowing foreign crews in Canadian waters. (Heiltsuk Nation/April Bencze)

"If you look at what happened with the Nathan E. Stewart that didn't happen. When they radioed the coast guard, they said 'everything is fine', they sat there and they sat there and they sat there."

'It puts families out of work'

At Ogden Point in Victoria, the protest was more focused on jobs, with workers speaking out against a cable repair vessel that works in Canadian waters but employs a foreign crew. 

Prince Rupert protest

Workers in Prince Rupert were worried about the security of their jobs at Ridley Terminal, and the potential envirionmental consequences of having more foreign crews in Canadian waters. (George Baker/CBC)

"You can't help but feel a little bit worried that we might be losing some of our jobs because they don't want to pay as high a wage as they can get away with foreign workers," said Victoria Cossette, a tugboat deckhand.

Ashton said the CETA deal with the European Union could be "the death knell" for many Canadian jobs and standards.

"Under the comprehensive economic trade agreement, that changes. It opens up the doorway for foreign companies, in this case European ship owners, to bring in vessels that are flagged out of Panama or are flagged out of Marshall Islands to operate domestic trade within our boundaries. So what happens is, the vessels are run at substandard conditions."

Ogden Point

At Victoria's Ogden Point, workers were concerned about local jobs being replaced by foreign workers. (Liz McArthur/CBC)

He said up 12,000 "family-supporting" jobs across Canada could be affected by the deal, with "tens of thousands" of indirect jobs also affected.

Expect more protests

"We're seeking fair trade, not free trade, to keep Canadians working," said Regan Fletcher, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada Local 523 in Prince Rupert.

"[With the] increasing cost of living for Canadians, housing costs, everything, we can't afford to have less wages and less jobs. We need more."

Fletcher said he expects more protests from unions and workers in other industries across Canada.

"Canadians can expect trade unions across Canada coming together in protest of these free-trade deals," he predicted.

A spokesperson for Transport Canada said it is consulting with stakeholders about concerns over changes, but it believes CETA is a "positive opportunity" for Canadian citizens and maritime workers.

With files from George Baker, Elizabeth McArthur and Rafferty Baker.

Vancouver protest

Maritime workers expect more protests against free trade deals to crop up across Canada. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)