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Via Rail issues temporary layoffs to nearly 1,000 workers as blockades continue

Via Rail says it will be temporarily laying off up to 1,000 people as rail blockades in B.C. and Ontario have brought the passenger rail services network to a virtual standstill.

Parts of the rail network are back up and running but system is still well below capacity

A supporter arrives at a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in southern Ontario on Monday, in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to an LNG pipeline in northern British Columbia. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Via Rail says it will be temporarily laying off up to 1,000 people as rail blockades in B.C. and Ontario have brought the passenger rail services network to a virtual standstill.

Some Indigenous protesters and sympathizers have shut down a key rail line in northern B.C. because they oppose the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on the grounds that it would run through the hereditary land of the Wet'suwet'en people.

Another group has blockaded another key rail line near Belleville, Ont., in solidarity with the B.C. protest. Other stoppages have happened near Montreal and Edmonton.

Those rail shutdowns have drastically reduced Via's ability to continue its service, so the network has been stripped down to a shadow of its former self while the protests go on. 

As of Tuesday, Via said the rail blockades have led to the cancellation of 532 regularly scheduled passenger trains.

The carrier got permission from CN Rail to resume partial service on its Quebec City-Montreal-Ottawa corridor, but cancelled that plan late Wednesday, saying service would not resume between Quebec City and Montreal before at least Saturday. Via said it would contact passengers who were scheduled on those trains.

Via did say it would resume regular service Thursday in southwestern Ontario between Toronto, Sarnia, Windsor, London and Niagara Falls, and partial service Thursday between Montreal and Ottawa. But network-wide, the system is running at well under its usual capacity.

"It is with sincere regret that we must proceed with temporary employee suspensions," Via said in a statement to CBC News on Wednesday. "Starting today, close to 1,000 Via Rail employees will receive a notice regarding this matter."

It's the first time in Via's 42-year history that the carrier has had to interrupt most of its passenger service across the country, the company said.

WATCH | The prime minister and leader of the Opposition disagree on how to resolve the blockade situation: 

During question period in the House of Commons Wednesday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call in the police to forcefully remove GasLink protesters blocking the railways. 1:32

Via's largest union, Unifor, confirmed to CBC News that 875 of the layoff notices were issued to its members: 175 to members of Unifor Local 100, along with 700 to members of Council 4000.

Members of the first group have been told they will be laid off for at least four days. The latter group have been given layoffs of at least two weeks, to start.

"We recognize that these are a result of external factors outside both the employer and the union's control, and expect these to be temporary disruptions," Unifor national president Jerry Dias said in a statement.

CN Rail, which owns the rail lines over which Via runs its service, said Tuesday it would be temporarily laying off 450 workers of its own because of the blockades.

With files from The Canadian Press