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How Western Canada's sugar shortage is affecting bakeries, chocolatiers

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Across Western Canada, the sugar rush is real.

Store shelves can't stay stocked, and many grocers are rationing sugar sales to one or two bags per customer.

But this year, the sugar shortage isn't caused purely by the holiday baking rush. There's simply less sugar available in Canada right now amid an ongoing strike at Western Canada's largest sugar refinery.

"We all get our sugar from the same place. And those places mostly get it from Rogers. So right now, it's a little bit tricky," chocolatier Constance Popp of Winnipeg told CTV National News.

Rogers Sugar, owned by Lantic Inc., saw 138 workers walk off the job in late-September. The workers are fighting to keep eight-hour shifts that run from Monday to Friday, instead of being subjected to longer shifts and forced to work weekends.

The B.C.-based Public and Private Workers of Canada (PPWC) says the workers want to maintain their work-life balance. The refinery is one of only three Rogers Sugar refineries in Canada, and it feeds the western market.

A solution may be on the horizon: last week, the company applied to the British Columbia Labour Relations Board for mediation to help to reach an agreement.

"We actually agreed last week to sit down with a mediator and the company, and we do that Thursday and Friday of this week," Adrian Soldera, president of PPWC Local 8, told CTV National News.

"We're hoping to get back to the table, we've been hoping to get back to the table from the beginning."

According to Lantic Inc., the Vancouver refinery has "continued to operate at a reduced level" during the strike and has used its other facilities to try and make up the gap to continue supplying customers in Western Canada.

"Still, we know that this disruption has created localized shortages in Western Canada of some products such as brown sugar and packaged white sugar," Lantic Inc. said in a statement Friday.

The company added that it remains "fully committed to engaging in discussions aimed at finding a solution" acceptable to both parties, and will help customers get their sugar access back.

But even if the refinery is back online soon, the growing backlog is sure to keep the sugar supply low for weeks to come.

 

'EVERYTHING WE MAKE HAS SUGAR IN IT'

 

The sugar shortage is an inconvenience for shoppers, but a devastating blow for business owners like Popp, who rely on sugar to make the sweet treats they sell.

"'Tis the season. Everyone is baking something at home," she said. "Even if you don't have a chocolate shop or a bake shop, people are using sugar this time of year and so sugar is scarce."

She says brown sugar is especially hard to find. She's had to cut back on baking cakes at her business to ensure the sugar she has goes to her specialty chocolates.

"Once I know the strike is over, I'll feel more confident in releasing sugar for our cake products, which are also popular," she said. "Everything we make has sugar in it."

The question of where to find sugar amid the shortage is a frustrating one for Lyle Barkman, co-owner of Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co. in Winnipeg. The bakery sources mostly local ingredients, including the wheat for its cinnamon buns, but there are no options to buy local sugar in bulk in Manitoba.

"During COVID, we've become used to supply issues, all of us have," Barkman told CTV National News. "But this one was a little in our face because of the upcoming holiday season."

His business primarily uses brown sugar and he is currently "managing to source it through various suppliers and other brands."

Barkman can remember when there used to be sugar beet factories in Winnipeg in his youth, an alternative to sugar cane, which provided a source of sugar much closer to home.

"Now we're at the behest of Vancouver?" he said.

He would like to see a provincial government initiative to help launch sugar beet businesses in Manitoba again.

"We could sure use a beet factory here."

 

CONTINUOUS SHIFTING

 

Canada produces approximately 1.2 million tonnes of refined sugar annually, according to the Canadian Sugar Institute, but around 94 per cent of that is produced in just three refining operations in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

Redpath Sugar owns the Toronto refinery, while Rogers Sugar operates the refineries in Vancouver and Montreal, marketing its products under the brand names Rogers and Lantic. Rogers Sugar also operates a sugar beet processing plant in Taber, Alta., which is currently the country's only sugar beet factory.

With Canada's sugar supply coming largely from just three locations, one of them operating at reduced capacity has a huge impact nationwide.

One bakery manager in Regina, Sask., told The Canadian Press earlier this month that her wholesale costs have doubled since workers at the Vancouver refinery went on strike.

"We used to pay $24 to $28 a bag, and now we're paying about $50 to $62 a bag," Tasha Henderson, manager at Sinfully Sweet Cathedral Bakery, said, adding that her own prices will likely have to increase, as well.

The PPWC is hoping that mediation will mean getting back to work soon, Soldera said.

Although the issues in contention between the union and the company include wages and benefits, the main sticking point is the company's proposal to increase production to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

"The company wants to put in weekend work and they want to put in mandatory 12-hour shifting," Soldera said.

Currently, he explained, the refinery operates 24 hours a day between Monday and Friday, with workers booked on eight-hour shifts.

He said that back in January, 100 per cent of the workers voted against continuous shifting.

"I've never seen (a) 100 per cent strike mandate before, so our members are very strongly against it," he said.

For months, the union has been bargaining with the company, but every offer included continuous shifting, he said, pushing them to decide to officially strike in September.

"We've been without a collective agreement since Feb. 28. The membership did not want continuous shifting, they want to have their weekends as their family time," he said. "We've told the company on several occasions that (it should) hire more people now. Upgrade your equipment and you're going to get more production, but they're refusing to do that.

"Realistically, we didn't think that (the strike) would be going on this long."

Lantic Inc. said it was limiting its comments due to the imminent mediation, but added in an email to CTV National News that it is committed to "negotiating an agreement that provides fair wages, benefits and working conditions, including an adjustment to work schedules for roughly one quarter of the Vancouver workforce.

"The demand for sugar in Canada is growing as our population increases and as food manufacturers who employ thousands of Canadians expand their businesses. That's why we are building capacity in Eastern Canada and seeking to run the Vancouver plant on the same schedule that successful manufacturers all around the world employ." 

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