By Patrick Meagher and Connor Lynch
QUINTE WEST — Although police moved in to end a more than two-week rail blockade in native territory at Tyendinaga, east of Belleville on Feb. 24, there were still numerous blockades across the country, proving increasingly painful for Eastern Ontario farmers and agri-businesses.
The initial protests started after the RCMP began enforcing a court order in British Columbia to clear the way for a coastal pipeline. All 20 native bands in the area are in favour of the project, so as demonstrations continued, more and more people began wondering if the illegal blockades were really about indigenous rights or more about environmentalism and anarchy. Many protestors are non-native.
The situation is so bad that the Canadian Federation of Agriculture said on Feb. 25 that it was approaching a “tipping point,” and that the protests were costing the grain sector as much as $63 million per week.
CN Rail reported the day before that 184 trains were parked and unable to move. About 1,500 CN and VIA Rail workers have been laid off. Trains were cancelled for about 100,000 VIA rail passengers.
Vankleek Hill elevator operator Kevin Wilson said the rail shutdown has cost him $165,000 from Feb. 16 to Feb. 27, about $15,000 per day. Speaking with Farmers Forum on Feb. 27, he said “We’ve got US $3.4 million in grain on rails supposed to be in Vancouver.
“It’s a nightmare.”
That same day, 52 ships at Vancouver and Prince Rupert were waiting to be filled with grain. The ships charge fees for each day they sit idle, Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Mary Robinson said. That cost comes “directly out of farmers’ pockets at a cash-pressed time.”
Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie said in a statement that the blockades will have a bigger impact by spring if the situation isn’t resolved. Soybeans have been unable to move and many ethanol plants have stopped accepting corn deliveries since they can’t ship out ethanol. Pork producers have been impacted because most Ontario pork is exported. The shutdown has also cut off propane shipments.
Said Currie: “These serious economic impacts to product delivery and production are being compounded every day and will take weeks to recover from the days of disruption that have already taken place.”
Lindsay-area crop farmer and processor Joe Hickson told Farmers Forum that he has seed that he brings in and sells to area wholesalers that he can’t get now and he has a warehouse full of IP soybeans destined for markets in Asia that he can’t get rid of. If he has to, he can work around the seed issue and get it trucked in at a 15 to 20 per cent greater cost. He’d be losing money but he might not have an option. “We made a commitment to supply that product. So basically, if we want to stay in business, we better provide that service.”
The soybeans are trickier. He can’t get them moved without access to rail, so if the blockades don’t clear, he’ll have to find local storage for beans. “I need that warehouse space to keep processing.”
He added that his buyer told him he might start receiving rail containers for soybeans in early March.
Quinte West mayor and farmer Jim Harrison has watched as the Belleville-area demonstration carried on for more than two weeks. “From Belleville west, there (were) stacked trains on every rail. There’s gridlock.”
Inputs are going to be one of the biggest concerns if the blockades continue, he said. “Propane, diesel, potash.” Come spring, farmers are going to need all of those to get planting. “A lot of people are very upset. They feel that the point has been made. Let’s get on with it.”
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, along with a dozen other farm groups, penned an open letter to the federal government that stated: “We acknowledge that Indigenous Canadians have the right to protest, but these concerns and protests must not endanger the health and livelihoods of Canadians who have no part in the issues being protested.”
Rail blockades pile on farmer pain
By Patrick Meagher and Connor Lynch