Premiers urge Ottawa to end strike by CN rail workers

OTTAWA—Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet got down to work Thursday as the government faced mounting pressure to reconvene Parliament and end a strike by CN rail workers that premiers warn is already exacting a sharp economic toll.

Trudeau held his first meeting with his ministers a day after they were sworn in during the Rideau Hall ceremony with an agenda to tackle climate change and improve affordability.

But it was mounting worries of backed-up rail shipments nationwide and calls for federal action that demanded their attention Thursday.

Some 3,200 employees who work as train conductors and rail yard co-ordinators, represented by Teamsters Canadian Rail Conference union, walked off the job Tuesday. Industries were quick to warn about the knock-on effect of being unable to ship goods by rail.

Alberta’s energy minister and two cabinet colleagues wrote to the federal ministers of agriculture, transport and natural resources, urging them to immediately recall Parliament to introduce emergency back-to-work legislation for CN rail workers.

Waiting until the scheduled return of Parliament on Dec. 5 “would have devastating impacts on the Canadian economy,” warned the Alberta ministers, noting that CN Rail ships some 170,000 barrels of oil a day from Western Canada.

Quebec Premier François Legault added his voice Wednesday, saying his province would run out of propane in days unless rail service is restored.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has also called on Ottawa to take quick action to end the labour dispute and minimize the economic impact on provincial exports, notably potash and grain.

The concern for the Trudeau government goes beyond economics. A rail strike that undercuts the economic performance of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec — the very provinces that Trudeau has said need special attention from his government — is a political problem, too.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the Liberal government recognizes that the strike is having a “large impact economically.” But for now, he said, the best and fastest way for the strike to end would be for CN management and the union to reach a negotiated settlement.

“We believe in the collective bargaining process and that is what we are focused on because that is the best way to get the two sides to find a solution,” he said

But while Garneau put the onus on the company and its workers, he would not rule out forcing an end to the strike.

Privately, federal officials did not deny they were examining contingency plans to introduce back-to-work legislation, but logistics stand in the way of a speedy solution with Parliament now slated to convene on Dec. 5. Bringing MPs back any sooner would require the government to move up some related formalities, such as electing a new Commons’ speaker and delivering a speech from the throne.

Filomena Tassi, the newly appointed labour minister, said she would speak to both sides over the coming days to “impress upon them the importance that we reach a resolution.”

Western concerns were on the agenda for Trudeau earlier in the day when he met with Calgary’s mayor. Naheed Nenshi warned the prime minister that post-election feelings of alienation in Alberta are “very real.”

“We need to understand that the feelings in the West right now are rooted in something very real. It’s not a blind anger or a dislike of Confederation,” Nenshi said after the meeting.

And while he labelled the Western separatist sentiments dubbed “Wexit” as “idiotic,” he said “ it’s also based on something very, very real.”

Nenshi said he had a blunt conversation with Trudeau about Bill C-69, the controversial legislation that sets out new rules for assessments of major energy projects. Bill C-48, which bans tankers along the northern coast of British Columbia, is another “flawed” law, he said.

Nenshi said the prime minister made no specific promise of changes to C-69 but said he was “open” to improvements.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said later that the government would not reopen the legislation, “but we certainly are open to constructive suggestions in the context of how we implement those bills.”

The Calgary mayor also sounded a caution about the heated rhetoric being heard around regional divisions, warning that “careless word and careless thoughts and angry deeds could easily rend asunder what has taken generations to put together in this country.

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“Those of us who believe in the promise of this country, who believe in the promise of diversity and inclusion and pluralism here in this country, have real work to do,” he said. “We’ve got to use our voices and we’ve got to use our actions to speak out for what’s best for this country.”

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart met with Trudeau after Nenshi, and later said he was frustrated by talk of Western alienation. He said Vancouver’s priorities are investments in transit, housing and action to address the opioid crisis, but that the national conversation was being “hijacked by Alberta’s agenda.”

Stewart, a former NDP MP, urged premiers who are quarrelling with Ottawa to “get over yourselves, get down to work, help your residents, get stuff built.”

Bruce Campion-Smith

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