PC ministers get an earful

Churchill residents sound off about crisis as province announces tourism grants

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Churchill residents and businesses had a chance Monday to express frustrations about the vulnerability of the transportation links to their northern community when Manitoba cabinet ministers made their first visit there since port and rail service was disrupted at the end of July.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/08/2016 (2352 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Churchill residents and businesses had a chance Monday to express frustrations about the vulnerability of the transportation links to their northern community when Manitoba cabinet ministers made their first visit there since port and rail service was disrupted at the end of July.

Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen and Families Minister Scott Fielding, along with about 20 business and tourism officials, flew into Churchill Monday to meet with residents and business owners.

The town of about 800 was shocked earlier this summer when about 100 Port of Churchill employees were laid off and the port closed.

CLIFF CULLEN / TWITTER Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen (left) and Families Minister Scott Fielding were in Churchill Monday.

Two days later, Omnitrax Canada, the owner of the port and the Hudson Bay Railway, announced it was cutting rail freight service to one train per week from two.

On Monday, the province announced it would enhance tourism grants and Bell MTS announced plans to upgrade the broadband infrastructure.

In return, they got an earful from frustrated northerners.

Roundtable discussions were held with members of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce and the tourism sector, an important part of the Churchill economy. The town is known for its polar bear tours and beluga whale-watching excursions.

“In terms of an economic development strategy going forward, we as a government do not pretend to have the answers,” Cullen said in a phone interview from Churchill.

“That is why it is important for us to engage with northern Manitobans. They will have a view to the long term regarding what can be done and what the issues are.”

He said there were frank discussions, and he reiterated the Pallister government’s commitment to develop a long-term strategy for the north.

“They are certainly frustrated,” Cullen said about Churchill residents. “No doubt about that.”

John Gunter, president and CEO of Frontiers North, the largest tourism operator in Churchill, said he is convinced there are opportunities to grow the tourism business there based around northern lights viewing and polar bear and beluga whale-watching excursions.

He pointed out that would be compromised if the rail link continues to operate only once per week.

“The rail link is essential for our tourism industry,” Gunter said. “The risk with Omnitrax playing a game of chicken with the government is that the residents and other industries in Churchill are collateral damage. If there is no rail line, we are in rough shape.”

There have been no developments on a solution to the disruption in rail and port service. Denver-based Omnitrax shut down the port operations for 2016 and laid off the entire staff because it did not book any grain shipments for the short shipping year.

Cullen said the province has reached out to Omnitrax “with very little response” and was also talking with the federal government about a solution.

He said Churchillians were not disappointed the province chose not to subsidize Omnitrax, but a long-term solution is proving elusive.

Among other things, discussions included taking another look at the importance of Churchill recapturing the re-supply business to Nunavut. Currently, communities on the east coast of Nunavut receive their shipments from Montreal.

Chuck Davidson, the president and CEO of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, said it was important for Manitoba cabinet ministers to hear first-hand from residents of Churchill.

“There is a lot of uncertainty in the community,” he said. “They are concerned about what is happening with Omnitrax.”

Gunter said while many of Frontiers North guests fly into Churchill, once-a-week train service means hotels and restaurants will have a serious challenge trying to serve fresh food to tourists and to residents.

The curtailed rail service comes just before the busy polar bear tourism season picks up in October and November.

On Monday, Cullen announced a 50 per cent increase to the Tourism Development Fund — to $297,000 for 2016-17. Grants of up to $25,000 will be available to support tourism planning.

Cullen reiterated a previously announced $3.1 million in additional funding for Tourism Manitoba.

Travel Manitoba vice-president Linda Whitfield called that significant.

“It allows us to make considerably greater effort to get some of our American visitors back as well as some of our international markets,” she said.

Churchill is a bigger draw for international travellers than for U.S. tourists who are more inclined to patronize Manitoba’s fishing resorts or visit arts and cultural events in Winnipeg.

The NDP has been critical of the Pallister government’s dearth of economic development ideas for the north other than tourism.

In addition to the problems in Churchill, Tolko Industries Ltd., the largest employer in The Pas, is planning to shut down its pulp and paper mill in December and the casino at neighbouring Opaskwayak Cree Nation is looking to relocate because of a drop in business.

“Tourism cannot be the only answer. But that is the only thing the Tories have offered so far. Unless they are going to offer tours of ghost towns of the north, there has to be a better answer,” said Flin Flon NDP MLA Tom Lindsey.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

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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