It was just spilled grain, but for First Nations and other residents in northern Manitoba, a 13-car derailment Monday was just another example of their extreme isolation and of the danger they believe they could face if Omnitrax proceeds with plans to ship oil to Churchill.
The derailment stranded some residents in various communities, causing them to miss work, medical appointments and other responsibilities. Nor was it an isolated incident. Some 53 derailments were reported on the northern railway between 2003 and 2012.
The affected communities are focused on two main issues: the need for an all-weather road to Churchill (and beyond); and concerns the rail owner has not taken safety issues seriously.
The idea of a road linking Nunavut to Churchill and Gillam, which is already connected by road to Thompson, has been discussed for many years, but the $1.2-billion price tag to serve roughly 10,000 people has squelched serious discussions.
The cost-benefit equations, however, never consider that much infrastructure in Canada has been built for the public good and not because it would generate new revenue. In addition to forging a stronger connection with the North and the Arctic, an all-weather road would also reduce the cost of shipping goods by air or rail to northern communities, while potentially stimulating new resource development.
In any event, it is hard not to sympathize with fellow Manitobans whose lives can be dramatically interrupted by a single rail accident. For its part, Omnitrax says it has invested millions of dollars in the rail line over the last five years, which has significantly reduced accidents and derailments.
The more immediate issue, however, was Omnitrax's interest in shipping more than three million gallons of crude oil every year to the Port of Churchill. The company had planned to conduct a test run last year, but it has been put off indefinitely pending further consultations and safety studies, including testing track performance.
Merv Tweed, president of Omnitrax Canada, says the firm will not proceed until it is confident the venture is safe and financially viable. The company is also fully occupied moving the Prairie grain surplus to the northern port, so there is no financial imperative for rushing a decision on oil.
Environmentalists and many northern residents, particularly First Nations, are opposed to moving oil to the port because they fear a spill would cause serious damage to the sensitive ecosystem. Residents are also concerned about the possibility of an explosion, similar to the one that devastated the town of Lac-Mégantic, Que.
They should not, however, close their minds to the possibility of oil traffic, assuming reasonable assurances of safety can be offered.
The Port of Churchill, owned by Omnitrax, is itself a vital resource for Manitoba and Canada, but it needs more regular and lucrative traffic in order to achieve its potential as an Arctic gateway.
The people of the North cannot demand an all-weather road and other services, while simultaneously shutting the door on potential economic development.
At the same time, southern Manitobans need to pay more attention to the hardships and challenges facing the people of the North.
Canada is falling behind other countries in northern development, but Churchill itself faces competition from Quebec and even Tuktoyaktuk, which will soon be connected to Canada's highway network through the Yukon.
As the author of a 1969 report on Churchill said: "The majority of people in southern Manitoba, as the majority of Canadians generally, fail to appreciate that it is the south that will be the beneficiary of northern development."
Those mighty words will be just as meaningless unless Ottawa and Manitoba lay the groundwork for a surge of entrepreneurial activity in the North.