OTTAWA — People who lost their jobs when the Port of Churchill was closed last summer say the American owner is holding the facility and the town hostage.

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This article was published 13/12/2016 (1748 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — People who lost their jobs when the Port of Churchill was closed last summer say the American owner is holding the facility and the town hostage.

Nikki Clace, Dawne Palmer and Joe Stover were in a small delegation of Union of Canadian Transportation Employees who travelled to Ottawa for meetings on Parliament Hill Tuesday. They are asking the government to take back ownership of the port, which was sold to Denver-based OmniTrax for $1 almost 20 years ago.

"We are at zero-hour here," said Stover, adding it will mean the end of the port if nothing is done to get grain moving in 2017.

Palmer said OmniTrax controls the railway and has cut service to Churchill down to a single train each week, impacting deliveries of everything from fresh produce to gas and heating oil. Prices have increased, and if residents don't get groceries on Friday they may be out of luck until the next shipment a week later.

"The government needs to federalize the port so this company can no longer hold our community hostage," she said.

NDP MP Niki Ashton, who hosted the delegation, said the port closure is devastating and the federal Liberals, who privatized the port when Jean Chretien was prime minister, need to step up to help now.

"We need the American billionaire holding the port ransom to step away," she said. "We are here because time is running out. We need to make sure there is a 2017 shipping season and that can't happen if the federal government doesn't step up and take back control."

The workers and the union are frustrated by their inability to get a meeting with a cabinet minister. They were scheduled to meet with Manitoba MP and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr Tuesday, but he had a conflict and had to cancel. The group will meet with his staff instead. When Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains travelled to Churchill at the end of September, he met with the union via a conference call, but did not make himself available in Ottawa this week. An aide to Bains is meeting with the delegation.

In a scrum following the weekly cabinet meeting Tuesday, Carr said he's met with Churchill's mayor and would "always be pleased" to meet with a northern delegation.

"The government knows that Churchill will be a very important part of northern policy for Canada and that we will be working diligently with the people of Churchill and with the northern delegation to determine where the best opportunities are and that’s something that’s important to Manitoba and also very important to the future of the North," he said.

The government announced a $4.6 million fund through Western Diversification to pay for projects that develop new economic opportunities in Churchill. The funds will be used projects developed inside the community with a focus on tourism and Arctic research.

Little of that money has been allocated so far. A spokesman for Bains said there have not been many proposals.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca