OTTAWA: Indigenous-led protests against a natural gas pipeline forced the third-largest railroad in North America to close its network in eastern Canada, the operator said Thursday.
Canadian National Railway (CN) said all trans-continental trains across its Canadian network would be parked after protesters blockaded a key corridor east of Toronto, the latest in a series rail shutdowns in the country.
"With over 400 trains cancelled during the last week and new protests that emerged at strategic locations on our mainline, we have decided that a progressive shutdown of our Eastern Canadian operations is the responsible approach to take for the safety of our employees and the protesters," CN chief executive JJ Ruest said.
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The company, which moves Can$250 billion ($188.4 billion) worth of goods annually, said the stoppage could lead to "temporary layoffs."
A union representing railway workers said the freeze could affect up to 6,000 employees from multiple companies and asked the government to intercede.
State-subsidised transport company Via Rail also halted nationwide its passenger trains that use CN tracks.
Over the past week, protestors have blocked roads, rails and ports across the country and occupied government offices in a bid to "shut down Canada."
The demonstrators support certain leaders of the indigenous Wet'suwet'en First Nations people, who are fighting construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline through their traditional lands in westernmost Canada.
The pipeline is part of a Can$40 billion natural gas export project that also includes a new Pacific coast terminal.
Elected councils representing indigenous groups along the 670-kilometre (415-mile) pipeline route support the project, but traditional hereditary chiefs who say they hold land title rights have expressed concern over its potential environmental impacts.
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Their arrests after federal police raids last week -- enforcing a court order to allow access for workers building the pipeline -- became a flashpoint for protestors nationwide.
Blockades in Ontario and British Columbia forced more than 650 train cancellations in Canada and the United States this week, affecting tens of thousands of passengers.