OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet could find itself moving faster than anticipated to deal with anger in the West over challenging economic conditions, in the face of a rail strike that a growing number of industry leaders say could trigger layoffs and closures and cost millions.
The Liberals are being urged to step in with legislation to end the strike by roughly 3,200 Canadian National Railway Co. workers, which began early Tuesday after the workers and CN failed to reach a deal.
The governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan, along with federal Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer, have already pledged to keep the Liberals’ feet to the fire when it comes to responding to the demands and needs of the West. All three on Tuesday urged Trudeau to act fast to deal with the strike.
Trudeau unveils his new cabinet on Wednesday before the planned return of Parliament Dec. 5, but Scheer and Alberta officials called on him to bring legislators back sooner.
“The CN strike is hurting all aspects of our economy, from agriculture, to manufacturing, to mining,” Scheer said in a written statement late Tuesday. “That is why Justin Trudeau must recall Parliament as soon as possible to enact emergency legislation to get the rail cars moving again.
“In the West, the CN strike poses a devastating threat to an economy in crisis. Already reeling from delayed pipeline projects, a rail strike means even less western Canadian oil that can reach markets. And after an especially challenging harvest season, western Canadian farmers would be further squeezed if the strike is allowed to continue.”
Jobs in other provinces could be threatened as well, Scheer said.
Patty Hajdu, the current minister of labour, said the federal government understands the importance of the rail industry to the economy.
“While we are concerned about the impact of a work stoppage on Canadians, we remain hopeful they will reach an agreement,” Hajdu said in a statement.
“The government of Canada supports and has faith in the collective bargaining process.”
Three critics for the Bloc Quebecois issued a joint statement calling on the Liberals to ensure a supply of propane for grain-dryers if the strike lasts any length of time, citing the damage already done to soybean and canola farmers by restrictions on imports of their products in China. The government should press for a solution but in a way that doesn’t lead to an unfair advantage for the employer’s side, the statement said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Parliament needs to give the workers and company an opportunity to negotiate in good faith and his party would fight efforts to interfere.
Both sides need to be encouraged to find a resolution, he said.
“The people in the West deserve good services, they deserve a CN line that’s working effectively and safely, they deserve high-quality services,” he said.
“Workers need to make sure their working conditions are safe and they’re not being put into a dangerous situation that puts their lives in danger.”
Hajdu could be among those moved to new portfolios Wednesday in a cabinet shuffle that will set the tone for the Liberals’ minority government. Addressing the palpable anger of voters in the West — the Liberals won no seats in Alberta or Saskatchewan in last month’s vote — is one of the government’s dominant challenges.
The rail strike, and the subsequent potential fallout on the agriculture and energy firms so crucial to the western economy may only exacerbate the current tension, said Conservative MP John Barlow, the party’s critic for Hajdu’s portfolio.
The Liberal government doesn’t react quickly enough to issues that can be make-or-break for Canada’s farmers and other natural-resources producers, said Barlow.
He pointed to the fact it took the Liberals more than a year to deal with a massive grain backlog in 2018, and said there continue to be international trade barriers on Canadian canola, peas and other pulses.
Barlow said while farmers and ranchers don’t rely on the government for much, they do count on infrastructure and trade deals to get their commodities to market, and the Liberals failed to provide those in their first four years.
“What a way to start their next mandate — right off the hop, here we go again, another trade and infrastructure crisis.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2019.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press