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The St. Lawrence Seaway: An overlooked gem

The St. Lawrence Seaway, a critical element in our logistics, is currently paralyzed, highlighting the vital importance of the food chain in our national economy
st. lawrence seaway strike

The ongoing strike that has brought the St. Lawrence Seaway to a standstill presents a significant challenge for the agri-food economy, particularly in the eastern region of the country. Remarkably, this marks the first time the Seaway has faced such disruption since 1968. Grain farmers are urging the Canadian government to ensure the uninterrupted transportation of grain through the St. Lawrence Seaway during this year's harvest season considering the recent labour strike involving Seaway workers.

Approximately 40% of the total trade passing through the St. Lawrence Seaway comprises agricultural products. Every year, ships deliver more than 80 million metric tons of agricultural cargo, worth an estimated $40 billion on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence waterway. Most of this trade typically occurs at this time of year, involving grains from both the United States and Canada destined for international export. These grains include wheat, corn, soybeans, barley, oats and flaxseed. Should the strike persist, it has the potential to cause significant disruptions in these essential trade flows. 

It's essential to recognize that agri-food logistics operate in both directions. Food processors, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, will also be adversely affected as they rely on the timely supply of crucial ingredients to sustain their operations. Accumulated production delays could create a complex challenge for the entire agri-food supply chain.

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This strike's impact on the St. Lawrence Seaway could be more severe for our agri-food sector compared to the strike that affected the ports of British Columbia earlier this year. This is primarily due to its timing, as we are currently during the harvest season, making these disruptions even more detrimental.

It's often overlooked that waterways offer the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly means of transportation, largely due to their energy efficiency. With our collective focus on decarbonizing the economy, the St. Lawrence Seaway which opened in 1959 has aged well. Replacing maritime transport with land-based alternatives would not only be daunting but also have a considerable environmental footprint.

However, the strike on the St. Lawrence Seaway shouldn't come as a surprise, given the significant political influence held by certain unions. Now, two other strikes are also impacting the agri-food sector in Canada. The first began on Sept. 28 at the Lantic-Rogers sugar factory in Vancouver, while the second is ongoing in Toronto, where a distribution center owned by Sobeys has been at a standstill since Oct. 15. Undoubtedly, workers have rights and deserve to be heard, but it's crucial to recognize the far-reaching implications of a labour dispute on our logistics chain, which extends well beyond our borders.

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This situation not only risks tarnishing Canada's reputation but also jeopardizing the quality of goods in transit. As conflicts affecting railways and ports periodically remind us, the strike on the St. Lawrence Seaway underscores the importance of considering food logistics as a vital national service. Having fewer than 400 employees with the power to hold thousands of farmers and businesses hostage is unacceptable, especially today, with all the prevailing market uncertainties.

We often fail to realize the significance of essential elements until they become scarce or a pressing issue. Many Canadians pass by this waterway frequently without appreciating its crucial role. The St. Lawrence Seaway is indeed a gem within our logistics infrastructure, and the fact that it is currently affected by a labour dispute is cause for concern.

Our food supply chain is the backbone of our economy, full stop. It's imperative that we acknowledge this importance and seek solutions to prevent future disruptions in our agri-food logistics, which endanger our economy and international reputation. We cannot afford to let this labour dispute prolong indefinitely.

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