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Saskatchewan legislature passes motion for Ottawa to get grain moving

REGINA - Saskatchewan lawmakers have passed a motion to support the federal government if it brings in emergency legislation to deal with the grain transportation backlog that has been hurting farmers.

Premier Brad Wall introduced the motion on the first day of the spring sitting at the Saskatchewan legislature.

"We're definitively saying the federal government should look at all of its legislative options," Wall said Monday in Regina.

Federal legislation allows a government arbitrator to decide if a signed service agreement between a shipping company and a railway has been violated, but most grain handlers don't have such contracts.

Wall said it may be time to mandate service agreements or mandate the number of rail cars to get grain moving.

He also said maybe the federal government can do something by regulation or through an order-in-council.

"Let's go," he said.

"We're way past the point when we're losing international customers, when a sector of Canada's economy is under the pressure it is, we are now past the point of trying to accommodate everyone's interests on a volunteer basis. We need action."

The premier said a legislative move "should be a last resort," but added "that's where we're at today."

A record grain crop is sitting in bins across the Prairies and grain-handling companies have told the province that it might be 2015 before the backlog is cleared.

Saskatchewan Agriculture has said the backlog could result in the loss of billions of dollars. Farmers don't get paid until the grain gets to market.

Farm groups across Western Canada have given the federal government some ideas on how to get the clogged grain transportation system back on track.

The groups met with Transport Minister Lisa Raitt last week in Ottawa to discuss what they call the "dire situation" facing grain farmers.

Producers told Raitt that Ottawa should fine grain shippers that don't meet their commitments. The groups also suggested the government should toughen and enforce rules that pertain to railways.

The Alberta Federation of Agriculture, the British Columbia Agricultural Council, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan and Manitoba's Keystone Agricultural Producers warn the backlog is so bad that some farmers won't have enough cash to pay for seeding this year's crop.

"A record harvest is tied up in grain bins and temporary storage across the Prairies, while producers have very real concerns that they won't have the cash flow to fund this year's seeding," Doug Chorney of Keystone said Monday.

Railways blame the backlog on the size of the harvest and cold weather. They say they must use shorter trains during the cold to ensure brakes can be used properly — and that means less capacity.

Canadian National (TSX:CNR) has said that it's doing its best to move the record crop to market.

The company said its goal is to return to a more normal level of winter service as soon as extremely frigid temperatures abate.

— With files from John Cotter in Edmonton

The Canadian Press

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