(Recasts with passenger rail firm laying off staff, adds comments by railroad executive, Alberta and Quebec premiers, Canada finance minister, other details)
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Canada’s passenger rail company on Wednesday said blockades by demonstrators had forced it to temporarily lay off 1,000 employees, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to solve a two-week protest.
Freight traffic in eastern Canada has already been halted after campaigners blockaded a main line in Ontario. They say they want to show solidarity with an aboriginal band trying to stop construction of a gas pipeline in the Pacific province of British Columbia.
“This general interruption is an unprecedented situation in our history,” said Cynthia Garneau, president and chief executive officer of VIA Rail. She called for “a decisive resolution” of the crisis.
The dispute spread on Wednesday when a group of around 20 people blocked a Canadian National Railway Co rail line near Edmonton, the capital of the western province of Alberta.
Canada’s main opposition party says the federal Liberal government should send in police to clear the blockades.
Trudeau, who insists using force to end the crisis would be wrong, toughened his language on Wednesday.
“This government is working extremely hard to resolve this situation. We know people are facing shortages, they’re facing disruptions, they’re facing layoffs - that’s unacceptable,” he told reporters in Ottawa before the VIA Rail announcement.
The blockades pose a delicate challenge for Trudeau, who says one of his main priorities is reconciliation with Canada’s marginalized and impoverished indigenous population.
The protesters say they back the Wet’suwet’en indigenous people of British Columbia in their campaign against the C$6.6 billion ($4.98 billion) Coastal GasLink project. Some aboriginal bands claim the right to veto projects on their territory, a stance rejected by a Canadian court earlier this month.
“Reconciliation doesn’t mean allowing a couple of people to shut down the national economy,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney told reporters.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault on Wednesday demanded Trudeau put in place a deadline for ending the crisis “in the next few days, not in the next few weeks.”
Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, asked about the damage to the economy, told legislators “the impacts are significant on multiple fronts.”
Ontario accounts for about one-quarter of mineral production in Canada and the mining industry makes up half of total tonnage moved by the country’s railroads, said Brendan Marshall, vice president at the Mining Association of Canada.
Prolonged blockades could force miners with limited storage for finished products and dwindling critical supplies to shut down operations, he said. (Reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa Additional reporting by Jeff Lewis in Toronto and Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa Editing by Matthew Lewis)