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Headaches grow for trucking sector as Coutts blockade hits 13 days


The end result is an increase in the cost of transporting goods, if a truck can in fact be found

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Murray Mullen does not see a difference between the unlawful blockade at the Coutts border crossing and other blockades of recent memory. To him, they all amount to a disruption of service.

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The CEO of Mullen Group made the comments during the Okotoks-based trucking company’s Q4 earnings call Thursday morning, as the demonstration at Alberta’s most important border crossing hit 13 days. There has been no movement at the border since Tuesday at 8 p.m. when protesters completely blocked off all traffic flow once again.

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“It’s been a pain. There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “But as I said, we’ve endured many, many blockades over the last bit. In the fourth quarter, we endured the floods blockades, you couldn’t get through the road . . . This one is man-made so it’s a disruption and you have to work around it, and costs are going up.”

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He said the company is diversified enough that he is not about to panic, but it is another bump in the road.

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What is affecting the company, as well as others in the sector, is the capacity to deliver goods, because trucks are caught in backlogs or being forced to reroute through other border crossings.

The end result is an increase in the cost of transporting goods.

“If we’re taking that freight and you’re going to and from the United States, as an example, I can tell you the rates are up pretty significantly right now,” he said.

David MacLean, vice-president of the Alberta and Saskatchewan region for Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said in many cases that cost is going up three- and fourfold.

He said the effect of the Coutts blockade is starting to be felt across the trade sector. The CME joined other stakeholders and major corporations in a meeting with federal Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra on Wednesday to express their concerns.

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It is to the point where Ford and Toyota are being forced to wind down production or stop it altogether due to the backlog in shipments. The backlog is not necessarily taking place at the border, but some trucks are not hitting the road at all until the border issue clears up.

The illegal blockades are becoming even more challenging as other major border points, including at Windsor, Ont. and Emerson, Man., are also shut down by protesters.

“I was feeling hopeful as recently as yesterday, and then to hear of these blockades mushrooming across the country . . . just when I thought we had hit the peak or the tipping point that we’d see better flow across the border, clearly that might not be the case,” said MacLean. “We have to look at the real possibility that this isn’t going to end anytime soon, and that’s really disappointing for the manufacturing industry right across the country.”

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Coutts demonstrators have been protesting all restrictions and pandemic-related health orders since Jan. 29 in support of Freedom Convoy 2022, which started as opposition to the trucker vaccine mandate at the Canada-U.S. border, which began Jan. 15.

The Coutts crossing has been blocked since Premier Jason Kenney announced the end of the Restrictions Exemption Program.

Chad Williamson, a lawyer representing the organizers of the Coutts blockade, in a text on Wednesday night called Kenney’s move “tepid.” He said the protesters are there for the long haul.

“Protesters are demanding concrete and immediate deadlines for the lifting of all lockdown and vaccine mandates, both provincial and federal,” he said.

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Fraser Logan, an RCMP spokesman, said the situation at the two blockades in southern Alberta — Coutts and closer to Milk River at Highway 4 and Highway 501 — is fluid, though he noted the numbers are starting to go down.

He said the protest is peaceful but there are serious safety concerns in the way trucks are parked and due to children and families on Highway 501. They are hoping to move the demonstration to a location north of Milk River and off the highway where they can protest safely.

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“We are very lucky that we haven’t had any reported injuries with the situation that is going on there,” said Logan, adding communication remains open as the RCMP continues de-escalation tactics.

He added he was not aware of any charges being filed but investigations are ongoing.

In a joint news conference with the RCMP on Tuesday afternoon, Justice Minister Sonya Savage said there were multiple pieces of legislation and the federal criminal code that RCMP could use to break up the demonstration, but it was at the discretion of police. It could result in fines, criminal charges and potential forfeiture of equipment and vehicles.

On Thursday, NDP Transportation critic Lorne Dach called on the province to suspend the licences of truckers participating in the protest under the Highway Traffic Act.

“We hope it’s a tool that can be added to the enforcement tool box to end this blockade peacefully and quickly,” he said.

“You would hope that wisdom would prevail and they would seek to preserve their ability to drive commercially by removing themselves from the blockade.”

The province did not immediately return requests for comment.

— With files from Chris Varcoe

jaldrich@postmedia.com

Twitter: @JoshAldrich03

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