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The south needs Churchill

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Canada claims it is an Arctic nation, yet its only Arctic seaport, Churchill, has been struggling for survival since the military abandoned the place 35 years ago.

Russia has 13 thriving ports on the Arctic Ocean, Norway at least four, the Americans have two in Alaska. The Russians recently opened a new port in the gas-rich Yamal Peninsula in northwest Siberia. It will be open year round, handling more than 30 million tons of goods per year.

Yet Churchill hangs by a thread, even as Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes Arctic sovereignty a strategic goal.

Both the province and Ottawa have a stake in ensuring the commercial success of the port, which is why they jointly established a task force two years ago to report on its economic opportunities.

It's the latest in a series of studies -- the issue has been on the federal agenda since the 1950s -- but unlike the others, it should not be filed in a drawer and forgotten.

The task force came up with some of the same recommendations as previous reports, but they are updated and expanded for current conditions, including a restructured grain industry, expanding resource development and climate change that could lead to much higher volumes in Arctic shipping and navigation.

Among other things, the report says an oil pipeline that could carry Alberta crude to Churchill should be considered once the environmental risks have been assessed. In fact, it says the private sector wants to build such a pipeline.

It also says U.S. and Canadian producers are interested in moving light sweet crude by rail to Churchill and possibly returning south with a cargo of bitumen diluents for Alberta's oilsands. The task force endorses this idea, even though Manitoba is officially opposed, citing the environmental risk. It's possible the northern railroad is unsuitable for oil shipments, but the Selinger government should at least retain an open mind.

The report identifies numerous obstacles to achieving progress in Churchill, particularly on the energy side, but also on the suitability of Churchill as a viable port. It's relatively shallow depth at low tide, for example, is not suited to loading the heavy ships that carry oil.

The goal of expanding tourism -- the report talks about promoting the Arctic Safari Experience -- is complicated by a limited season, which itself explains the limited hotel options. In fact, there are obstacles and barriers for just about every proposed solution, but nowhere does the report suggest they are insurmountable.

The federal and provincial governments have primarily been responsible for keeping Churchill afloat in the past, but the report says the private sector must be the principal driver in the future.

With new Arctic sea routes emerging and renewed interest in developing the North, however, the chances of success have never seemed higher. New resource exports, such as potash, minerals, liquefied natural gas, oil and bitumen, in addition to grain, are a natural starting point. Churchill also offers numerous opportunities for travellers drawn to adventure, nature and the rugged outdoors.

The real problem is Churchill has been a political sideshow for too long. No government wanted it to die, but neither did they do anything to ensure it took off.

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 words were never truer, but they will be just as meaningless unless Ottawa and Manitoba lay the groundwork for a surge of entrepreneurial activity in and around Churchill.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 A16

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