Premier Brian Pallister looked quite confounded.
At a news conference earlier this week, the premier tried to explain his government’s strategy for helping residents of Churchill and others in remote northern communities left reeling after sections of the Hudson Bay Railway were washed out by spring flooding. OmniTrax, the Denver-based owner of the railway and Churchill port, has said the line will be out of service until at least next spring.
The province had been quiet for the first few days following news of the cessation of rail traffic to the north, blaming the legislated blackout on government announcements or commentary invoked when Pallister called a June 13 byelection. The very morning after the byelection was over, Pallister was available and fielding questions. The problem was that he didn’t have many answers.
Pallister said his government is studying a "wide array of topics" and is in constant contact with local officials and the federal government to monitor the situation. No timeline was offered for taking action.
It was an underwhelming response from a premier who has been criticized by his political opponents for being indifferent to the fate of northern residents. But is that a fair portrayal of Pallister’s performance on this issue?
First, we need to examine the claim by Churchill Mayor Mike Spence that his town, and many other communities that rely on the rail service for basic transportation and the provision of necessities, is faced with "an emergency."
The loss of the rail line certainly has the potential to be an emergency. The most acute concern right now appears to be fuel — diesel, jet fuel to keep air service operational and propane for heat and cooking. Currently, fuel supplies are in decent shape, with enough diesel and jet fuel for at least six weeks and a propane supply that will take the community into the fall. However, with OmniTrax talking about a delay of months to even begin repairs, if this isn’t an emergency right now, it certainly is one in the making.
The more immediate needs are the crippling of the important tourism industry and the economic well-being of many northern businesses, the steep and rapid increase in food prices and the profound isolation that comes with losing the sole source of ground transportation. For people directly affected by all those forces, this probably already feels like an emergency.
Pallister is not wrong to propose a cautious approach. He has suggested that just throwing money at the problem, perhaps to subsidize rising food and fuel prices, is not the solution at this point. Nor is just leaping to the aid of OmniTrax to offer to pay for repairs. Even Spence said that, for the most part, he was satisfied with the response he got from a meeting with the premier.
However, in the very near future, the province and its premier are going to have to adopt a more urgent tone. Waiting too long to provide decisive action to deal with this emergency-in-the-making will only further weaken the Progressive Conservatives in a region of the province where they have very little traction.
It is an understatement to say the Pallister government is politically vulnerable in the north. The Tories hold only one northern seat and have not, to date, delivered much in the way of a northern policy strategy despite being confronted by myriad economic setbacks that have hammered the north since they came into power last year.
Vale Canada announced recently it will not only cease refining and smelting nickel next year, it will also stop mining at one of its two sites in northern Manitoba. That news came after HudBay Minerals in Flin Flon announced it would likely cease mining activities at one site in 2020.
And then there is Churchill.
Last year, OmniTrax announced it was suspending port operations because of a lack of grain shipments and cutting back on rail service. OmniTrax is thought to be seeking government financial assistance to help a First Nations consortium purchase the railway and port. To date, Pallister has refused to entertain any notion of providing public money to support operation of the railway and port, or fund a sale.
None of the economic issues afflicting Manitoba’s north has been caused by Pallister or his government. Global commodity prices and economic conditions are mostly to blame for the setbacks seen in the northern resource sector. Although some political opponents may believe otherwise, no government of any stripe is ever responsible for spring flooding.
And yet, there is an overwhelming sense here that the Pallister government could and should be doing more for the north. Pallister’s response to date has been the Look North economic development initiative, which is primarily focused on enhancing the northern tourism industry. This could be a worthy endeavour, but it will not mitigate the loss of hundreds of resource-sector jobs or an extended suspension of rail service.
The awful fact of the matter is that Pallister has few political allies when it comes to northern issues. First Nations are skeptical about the Tory government’s intentions, and northern residents still mostly identify with the New Democrats. Pallister has found precious little support from the federal government on northern Manitoba files.
It’s important to note that Ottawa is largely responsible for many of the problems Pallister faces on the Churchill file. In the mid-1990s, another federal Liberal government made the bold decision to have taxpayers underwrite the sale of the rail line — then owned by CN — to OmniTrax. The Chrétien government also allowed OmniTrax to take over the port and provided even more taxpayer money to improve the facility and make it more attractive for grain shipments.
Two decades later, it’s clear the railway is not commercially viable; it should have been kept in public hands to be operated as an important public infrastructure asset.
History aside, the most pressing issue aside from getting the trains running on time is getting the federal and provincial governments on the same page.
Government sources confirmed that Pallister is reaching out directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, requesting food and fuel subsidies for residents of Churchill and other remote northern communities that rely heavily on the rail line.
The Manitoba Emergency Measures Organization has reportedly been in constant contact with federal officials on the status of the rail closure and requesting that an existing northern resident food subsidy be enhanced until regular rail service is restored.
However, on Thursday, the day before Pallister made his direct plea to Trudeau, Transport Minister Marc Garneau told the Free Press he was instead studying a plan to transport fuel and other necessities to Churchill by ship from Montreal. The public release of this plan seems to have caught provincial officials off-guard.
That lack of co-ordination between the two governments may be tolerable in normal times; when a crisis is either upon us or coming up fast, it’s an approach that could make a bad situation much, much worse.
Pallister’s appeal to the prime minister was well-timed ,but it needs to be followed up. The premier must be seen to be doing something for Churchill, with or without the federal government’s help. Only that will help him shed the sense that he is confounded by Churchill and, by extension, the north.