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Adversity not all bad for port

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Setbacks and uncertain futures are not new to Churchill. Adversity, it could be said, is its middle name, and has been since 1782, when Fort Prince of Wales, built to protect the territory, surrendered to the French without a shot being fired.

Some of that adversity is the result of bad luck, but much of it can be traced to northern boosterism, a penchant to overstate and then under-deliver the "vision" of Churchill as the "Gateway to the North."

The Churchill train station is an early example. The largest of its kind in Western Canada, it was built big in 1931 in anticipation of wildly optimistic projections of passenger volumes that never materialized.

Paradoxically -- paradox plays a big part in the story of Churchill -- overselling has not been all bad.

The train station, again, is a good example. In the early days it provided the port city -- the only port in Arctic Canada -- with a fine building for public events that otherwise would not have been available.

Then, 10 years ago, it was taken over by Parks Canada and renovated so that today it provides a first-rate museum attraction, no matter that its original purpose was never realized.

But the biggest unintended consequences were realized more recently. Churchill was at its zenith between the Second World War and the late '60s, when the population peaked at about 6,500. Then the U.S. and Canadian military began to withdraw and an associated rocket range flamed out.

To prevent an apparent disaster, the federal and provincial governments came up with a plan to replace the services and amenities the military presence had provided.

The plan included sewer and water services, about 350 new housing units and -- most spectacularly -- a 220,000-square-foot Town Centre with a view of waves crashing mightily on coastal rock.

The plan, as ever, proved overly optimistic -- it anticipated that Churchill would grow back despite the loss of thousands of military personnel and would have a population of 3,500 by 1987, according to Lorraine Brandson, curator of the Eskimo Museum and author of Churchill, Hudson Bay.

Instead, the population continued to shrink and stands at perhaps 900 today.

But the overbuilt Town Centre, like the railway station, remains -- an incredible amenity in such a small community, housing as it does the school, the library, a 250-seat theatre, a gymnasium, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, an indoor playground, the town administration and a 30-bed health-care centre that is both the envy and health-care hub of the Kivalliq region of Nunavut.

When the overbuilt centre proved too big for such a small population, the province was forced to take over its operating costs.

And that new housing? It's owned by the Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation. What was to be the start of a new, northern prefab housing industry turned out to be the end of it.

Today, those first government-built houses constitute 70 per cent of housing stock in Churchill, all of it available at no more than 27 per cent of income, in accordance with MHRC regulations.

So, for the most part, housing is a good deal in Churchill, one that's being made better by a government program to renovate all of the MHRC stock.

Even the polar bears didn't start out as silk purses. Forty years ago, they were a menace; the risk of polar bear attacks was a blight on Churchill's reputation. A control program had to be developed to keep the town safe. It included a "jail" for problem bears that continues to operate today.

About the same time that bear attacks were problematic, however, a local businessman devised the prototype of the tundra buggy, which made it safe for people to view polar bears. The phenomenon caught the attention of National Geographic, which came to Churchill and introduced the world to its polar bear capital. And that sparked the annual migration of tourists that continues today.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 A15

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