Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Churchill club invests in future, preserves past

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FLIN FLON -- Polar bears and deep-sea shipping aren't the only keys to survival for Manitoba's northernmost community.

Situated on the west shore of Hudson Bay, tiny Churchill relies equally on people such as Susie Bunka.

"Like any small town, if you want stuff to do, you have to go out and be part of it," says Bunka.

Bunka, along with other members of the Churchill Ladies Club, or CLC, certainly walk that talk.

Together these 14 women make up what is one of northern Manitoba's most accomplished service groups -- and one of its best-kept secrets.

It all started in 1947 when about 32 local women attended a meeting to mobilize support for a much-needed new school for Churchill.

The CLC hit the ground running, relentlessly fundraising and lobbying government for a new learning facility that would open just three years later.

As the CLC's official historical account colourfully puts it, political officials were "bombarded by letters and telegrams" before they were "finally worn down" enough to promise the new school.

It would be the first of many accomplishments. Throughout its 67 years, the CLC has raised or helped secure nearly $2 million to benefit Churchill, helping to build a new arena, buy a fire truck and appliances for the Town Centre Complex, the hub of Churchill.

When there was no other guardian of Churchill's chronicles available, the CLC stepped up and published two history-preserving books.

"We have such a rich history in our community and we think it's important that our community is aware of it," says vice-president Louise Lawrie.

Today, sales of those books, along with catering jobs, grants and other revenue-generators, allow the club to continually give back.

Earlier this month, Greg Selinger named the CLC a recipient of the Premier's Volunteer Service Award for its local efforts as well as its outreach to broader causes such as Doctors Without Borders.

It was a high-profile moment for a notoriously informal group, one that meets in individual members' living rooms and kitchens.

As Bunka, the club secretary, puts it, membership carries one prerequisite: "Be willing to participate."

For generations of Churchill women, it has been a vital social outlet, a way to forge friendships and welcome newcomers to the Polar Bear Capital of Canada.

"We still hear from a lot of the members that have left the community," says Lenore Johnson, a longtime member and current president.

The next thing the CLC hopes to get for Churchill is an assisted-living facility to let the elderly live out their years north of the 58th parallel.

It would also serve Tadoule Lake, York Landing and communities in Nunavut.

Though CLC members remain enthusiastic about such projects, like so many other volunteer groups across the north, their foundation is greying.

It doesn't help that Churchill's population, now at just 813, has been falling for decades, meaning fresh blood must be drawn from an ever-dwindling pool.

Yet Bunka is not overly concerned about the future of the CLC. She points out that while the current membership is on the low side, the size of the club fluctuates and there are some younger members.

"There will always be a certain amount of attraction," says Bunka.

And for that, Churchill is grateful.


Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2014 0

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