Quebec and federal officials search for 'peaceful solutions' to end rail blockades

Quebec Premier François Legault is turning up the heat on Ottawa, insisting the federal government put an end to nationwide Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests that have paralyzed key passenger and freight rail service in the Montreal region.

Business leaders worry railway blockage will negatively impact provincial economy

Community members and supporters on Kahnawake Mohawk territory on Montreal's South Shore stand guard at the blocked rail line Wednesday. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Quebec Premier François Legault is turning up the heat on Ottawa, insisting the federal government put an end to nationwide Wet'suwet'en solidarity protests that have paralyzed key passenger and freight rail service in the Montreal region.

"We are going to try to do everything in the next few days to resolve the problem without any muscular intervention," Legault said Wednesday.

It's a federal issue in a shared jurisdiction, Legault said, and he doesn't understand why Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau and the Trudeau government aren't getting more involved.

On Montreal's South Shore, Kahnawake Mohawks are blocking the Canadian Pacific tracks that run through their territory in a show of solidarity with protesters who are preventing access to a pipeline construction site on traditional Wet'suwet'en land in northern British Columbia.

Other First Nations have taken similar action, including near Belleville, Ont., and New Hazelton, B.C.

Quebec Premier François Legault says the province is looking for non-violent solutions to get trains rolling again but needs Ottawa to step in. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

Trudeau calls for dialogue

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Garneau said Ottawa is monitoring the situation closely.

"We are working with our provincial counterparts; ministers across our government continue to engage with their colleagues, and our officials have an open line of communication with the provinces," he said.

As for the prime minister, Trudeau has called on "all the different parties to work in dialogue to resolve this issue very quickly."

François Bonnardel, Quebec's minister of transport, said a committee is being formed with provincial and federal officials across the country who all want to find a solution quickly in the coming days.

After he met with Trudeau's Quebec lieutenant, Honoré-Mercier MP Pablo Rodriguez, Bonnardel tweeted Wednesday that the two levels of government have agreed to "co-ordinate our actions in the coming hours and put an end to the conflict which has been going on for too long already,"

Business leaders concerned

Business leaders in Quebec are increasingly worried as the protests continue to block the shipment of goods, ranging from food and grain to propane and lumber.

The Quebec association representing manufacturers and exporters (MEQ) is asking federal and provincial authorities to enforce an Ontario Court of Justice order to restore rail transportation.

In a statement Wednesday, the MEQ said the interruptions "have a real impact on the economy and are already being felt throughout the entire supply chain of the manufacturing sector."

Véronique Proulx, the association's CEO, told CBC that Canadian manufacturers ship 4,600 train wagon-loads across the country, and some of those trains cross into the United States. That represents 47 per cent of all wagons, she said, and up to 40 per cent of those wagons are loaded with Quebec products. 

"It will have an impact all over the economy," Proulx said.

For example, yogurt producer Danone has products stuck in wagons, and the company is unable to gain access to the market, Proulx said.

There's growing concern among business leaders in Quebec that the blockades along rail lines, like this one in Kahnawake on Montreal's South Shore, will have a negative impact on the economy. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Manufacturers can't simply turn to the trucking industry for help, due to a labour shortage and the extra costs involved. 

"That's why we're asking all governments to work together and solve this situation immediately."

Propane association watching closely

Last fall's Canadian National Railway labour dispute disrupted deliveries and gave Quebec a taste of how vulnerable its economy is to railway shutdowns.

However, Raymond Gouron, general manager of the Quebec Propane Association, said the provincewide crisis sparked by November's walkout is so far not repeating itself because the demand for propane is not what it was at that time, when farmers were counting on the fuel to dry crops.

For now, the association is watching the situation closely, he said, and hoping for a quick but peaceful solution.

 "We are all being taken hostage and just want the economy to be rolling," Gouron said. "We are not at critical mode yet, but we are very much concerned"

Mohawk grand chief says Peacekeepers ensuring safety

Kahnawake Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton said his council supports the right of people to express their displeasure with anything that is happening across the country, but "we would prefer it was done in an organized way."

Norton said his council and the Kahnawake Peacekeepers are working to ensure everybody involved in the protests stays safe. The council is also in touch with the RCMP, railway security and provincial police, he said.

A Coastal Gaslink pipeline protester is hauled away by police last week. Kahnawake's grand chief says images like these have inspired protests across the country. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Though Legault said Tuesday that his government is in discussions with Norton, the grand chief said there has been little contact.

"There's nothing that has happened between myself and the premier," Norton said, though he has had one discussion with the provincial official in charge of communicating with Quebec's First Nations.

He said he would like to tell Legault to encourage his counterpart in B.C., Premier John Horgan, to de-escalate the situation there and find a peaceful solution.

"That's his responsibility. Not to send in armed police to arrest and drag people out," he said. "Those images are what is causing, right across the country, the reaction that you see."

With files from CBC's Allison Northcott, Antoni Nerestant and Radio-Canada