Port of Churchill closes, 30 people given layoff notices

'This is devastating to the community,' says Mayor Mike Spence

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The Port of Churchill has been shut down and will not ship any grain for the first time since the Second World War.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/07/2016 (2319 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Port of Churchill has been shut down and will not ship any grain for the first time since the Second World War.

About 30 employees received two-week layoff notices on Monday afternoon from owner, OmniTrax Canada. Many more employees were still waiting to be recalled for the shipping season, which runs to the end of October.

“It’s a shock to all of us. We figured it would be a poor year but not shut down completely,” said an employee who received his notice. He asked not to be named.

SUPPLIED PHOTO The port at Churchill.

About 50 grain cars were in The Pas enroute to Churchill Monday, said the Hudson Bay Route Association. Those cars are apparently turning around and heading back.

“This is devastating to the community. We’re affected big-time,” said Mayor Mike Spence.

The Port of Churchill is the town’s biggest single employer. The port employs up to 90 people when it’s operating at full capacity, or about 10 per cent of the town’s population, Spence said.

Phone messages to Merv Tweed, president of OmniTrax Canada, went unanswered.

Employees said management told them Monday there were not enough grain shipments contracted to make shipping worthwhile this year.

That contradicts what OmniTrax told the Free Press earlier this month. Tweed indicated there were good sales in the offing for both grain and pulse crops. “We’re open and looking forward to a successful season,” Tweed said.

It couldn’t come at a worse time. Farmers are preparing to harvest a potentially record-sized grain crop.

Elden Boon, a Virden grain farmer, expressed disbelief. If ever there was a year to put more grain through Churchill, it’s this year, he said.

“There’s a tremendous crop out there. It’s just bordering on the ridiculous,” said Boon, past president of the Hudson Bay Route Association that promotes usage of the port and rail line.

Barry Prentice, transportation economist at the University of Manitoba Asper School of Business, agreed. “If I was in business, I’d like to take advantage of that big crop,” he said.

Suspending shipping also means lost revenue for the rail line, Prentice said.

OmniTrax has said for the past year it wants to sell the port and its 1,300-kilometre rail line. A consortium of 10 northern Manitoba First Nations led by Arlen Dumas, chief of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in Pukatawagan, have been negotiating to buy it, but nothing has been agreed upon so far.

Shutting down can’t improve chances of a sale, said Prentice. “It’s like a professional hockey player. You put on a good effort so someone wants you,” said Prentice.

Suspending shipments doesn’t bode well for the port and rail line’s future. “I would put this under the label of ‘major crossroads.’ Once you stop something, it’s always harder to start it up again,” Prentice said.

Some employees in Churchill believe OmniTrax is suspending shipments because it fears the rail line can’t withstand the weight of grain cars. The rail line had to be shut down for over a month in 2014 due to instability caused by changes in permafrost.

Grain shipments in 2015 through the port were the poorest in years, reaching only 184,600 tonnes.

However, Churchill averages shipments of about 500,000 tonnes per year. Shipments have been usually in the 450,000 to 700,000 tonne range since the mid 1990s, said Boon.

“We’re an exporting country. We don’t need to be shutting down ports. We need to be open for business,” Boon said.

The Port of Churchill was owned by a Crown corporation called Ports Canada until its sale to Denver-based OmniTrax in 1997. Canadian National railway also sold the line to OmniTrax at the same time.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Monday, July 25, 2016 8:45 PM CDT: Update with new details

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