WEATHER ALERT

It was the largest employer in Churchill — now Omnitrax is bringing the town to its knees

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Omnitrax is now officially the most hated company in Churchill.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/07/2016 (2382 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Omnitrax is now officially the most hated company in Churchill.

On Wednesday, the company made it known that it would be cutting its rail freight service in half to once per week which threatens to drive up the cost of food and other goods in Churchill and the North.

It’s more devastating news to the northern community that days earlier was hit with the layoff of the entire unionized workforce at the Port of Churchill, effectively shutting down the country’s only deep sea Arctic port.

Officials from Omnitrax Canada as well as its head office in Denver continue to refuse to make any public statements about the developments that are bringing the Hudson Bay town of about 900 people to its knees.

Erwin Borau, manager of Tamarack Foods in Churchill which sells fresh produce and frozen meat said the reduced freight service is going to make it very tough for the whole town.

“Besides all the layoffs which is bad for the community…. this is going to be very difficult. We try to keep produce fresh but now everything will be five days old as soon as you unwrap it,” he said. “It makes no sense. The company does not give a s–t anyway.”

In addition to the challenges faced with only one shipment per week, the trains used to arrive in the morning allowing for daytime deliveries of supplies to stores. Now it will arrive at 4:00 p.m. meaning fresh produce and everything else will have to sit one more day before delivery.

‘This is a disaster’

Flin Flon NDP MLA Tom Lindsey criticized the provincial Progressive Conservative government Wednesday for failing to show more leadership about Omnitrax’s abrupt decision to lay off port staff in Churchill.

“This is a disaster for Northern Manitoba,” said Lindsey. “The loss of 10 per cent of Churchill’s jobs is devastating to the community, and the future of the port is now in doubt. The loss of freight shipments adds insult to injury and will almost certainly drive up food prices and limit access to necessary supplies.”

It’s the second time in two months that Omnitrax has tried to reduce freight service. Borau said he believed they had to return the service because one train per week was too full and freight was being laid up in Thompson.

“Now they have gone completely backwards after they themselves figured out it didn’t work,” he said. “This is the height of shipping season for stuff going up past Churchill to Nunavut. They are playing games obviously.”

It’s not clear exactly what the end game is. The company, which was the largest employer in town before Monday’s layoffs, is losing whatever semblance of goodwill it might have had.

And considering the much touted strategic importance of the port and the Hudson Bay Railway, there are no solutions being presented by elected officials on Broadway or Ottawa.

A vessel loads up in the Port of Churchill.

‘A lack of leadership’

Lindsey was sharply critical of Premier Brian Pallister and his cabinet for remaining silent on the matter since news broke late Monday that port employees had received layoff notices. The Progressive Conservative government has only issued statements.

The premier’s silence “shows a complete lack of leadership” and “an uncaring attitude towards the North,” Lindsey told reporters at the Manitoba legislature Wednesday.

Late in the day, Indigenous and Municipal Relations Minister Eileen Clarke issued a statement saying she had met with mayors of northern communities and First Nation leaders about the recent developments in Churchill.

She said, “On behalf of our government, I communicated our commitment to the economic and social development of northern Manitoba…. We continue to engage with the federal government on items within their jurisdiction. Our government will continue to work with our partners to ensure the continued availability of fresh food to northern communities.”

The northern leaders told her they wanted a sustainable solution that included a re-nationalized or local ownership model for the Port of Churchill.

She said her government will soon launch a program for northern Manitoba that will facilitate partnerships to attract new companies, the development of entrepreneurial opportunities and the expansion of existing businesses.

She said the focus will be on the sustainable development of natural resources and the expansion of tourism-related opportunities.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The OmniTRAX Canadian corporate offices located in the building at 191 Lombard Ave.
Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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