A long-rumoured rival group of northern Manitoba communities keen to take a run at acquiring the Hudson Bay Railway and Port of Churchill from Omnitrax Canada has finally made its presence known publicly.
Unlike the "consortium" that Omnitrax is currently talking to, this new group, called One North, appears to have broad representation from both municipalities and First Nations of northern Manitoba all along the rail line as well as the Kivaliq region of Nunavut.
In fact, membership in the Missinippi Rail Consortium, with whom Omnitrax has a memorandum of understanding to negotiate the sale of its assets, may now by down to just one community — the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation.
Christian Sinclair, chief of Opaskwayak Cree Nation, one of the key organizers of One North, said, "This is an unprecedented coalition of communities — indigenous and non-indigenous. There is a historical significance here. Never in the history of northern Manitoba have all these communities come together like this in a shared vision."
Twenty communities are signed on to support One North, including the City of Thompson, The Pas and all the First Nation communities along the rail line including War Lake, Fox Lake and York Factory.
Many communities, if not all of them, have rescinded year-old letters of support to Mathias Colomb First Nation Chief Arlen Dumas for his effort that’s now called Missinippi Rail Consortium. They are now signatories to the One North coalition.
Betsy Kennedy, the chief of War Lake First Nation, about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is one of them.
"We have never been able to hear any of the details of those efforts," she said of the Dumas-led initiative.
The group has come together because Omnitrax Canada made known its interest last year to sell its assets. Its efforts are focused on acquiring those assets but its broader goal is to shape the future economic development of the north.
Mike Spence, mayor of Churchill, has co-led the work with Sinclair.
He said, "We have a real issue here. We need to rectify it. We are putting together a model that will sustain these communities for a long, long time."
In December 2015, Omnitrax Canada president Merv Tweed announced the company wanted to sell its Manitoba assets and said at the time he hoped to have a deal in place before the end of 2015.
In January 2016, Dumas and Omnitrax said they were in talks which, to date, have never seemed to progress beyond the conceptual stage.
In late July, just prior to the start of the short shipping season into Churchill, most of the port staff was laid off and the 2016 shipping season was cancelled. The Port of Churchill is the only deep sea port in the Canadian Arctic.
Since then, both Dumas and Omnitrax officials have said only that talks are proceeding well and that a deal was imminent. Omnitrax officials were unavailable for comment on Thursday. Dumas claimed not to know of One North’s interests and when told who they were said, "Well, ask them to give me a call if they want to buy the assets and the interest off us."
Even if it is true that One North is more representative of northern interests, it currently has no real standing in the process. Joe Barnsley, a lawyer with Pitblado who is working with One North, said efforts to meet with Omnitrax and Dumas representatives have been denied.
Sinclair said they continue to try to get an audience with Omnitrax. In the meantime, they have assembled a team with some technical expertise including Marv Tiller, the original CEO of the North West Company who has had a long career assisting First Nations in successful economic development projects, and Paul Power, an international railway specialist who was a founding director of the Keewatin Railway Company, a First Nation-owned line that runs from Sherritt Junction to Lynn Lake.
Power said, "We think Omnitrax does not want to talk to us because they want to get a management contract from the buyer, Missinippi Rail Consortium, so they can make $10 to $15 million advising and managing and have someone else take on the risk as well as cash out on all the government money that has been sunk into the line."
One North has received modest funding from the new $4.6-million Churchill and Region Economic Development Fund, established by the federal government in September, but it has been largely self-funded to date. Sinclair said it is applying for additional money from that fund to allow it to see if there is a business model before it actually produces a full-fledged business plan.
The group has met with Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and the Manitoba caucus in Ottawa as well as Cliff Cullen, Manitoba’s minister of growth, enterprise and trade.
They intend to continue to develop their business case and lobby for support from government.
But Spence made it clear that One North has no intention of depending on government handouts to survive.
"That model does not work any more," he said.
"The federal government is fully aware of where we want to go," Spence said. "They have indicated to us that they like the model, they like where we are going. It plays into what the government wants to do to develop a new strategic plan."