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This article was published 1/12/2017 (203 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — Federal Energy Minister Jim Carr visited Churchill on Friday to announce $4.2 million in federal funding aimed at spurring jobs in the troubled towns of northern Manitoba.
"We think it’s important for the people of northern Manitoba to hear from the federal government, that we are with them (and) we’re looking at ways to help them get through this tough moment, and in ways that are tangible," Carr said in a phone interview.
He announced $1.57 million for the University of Manitoba’s Churchill Marine Observatory, which, over five years, should spawn 13 full-time jobs and 20 paid, short-term trainees. The project will probe how oil spills under Arctic ice spread and how they can best be cleaned up.
Carr also announced $2.7 million will be added to the Churchill and Region Economic Development (CRED) fund, which Ottawa started with $4.6 million in September 2016, after layoffs at the Port of Churchill.
The fund supports the town itself as well as communities along the local rail line, such as Thompson.
The funding aims to backstop the area’s businesses, which have been reeling since a May 23 washout knocked out the Hudson Bay Railway near Gillam, but also to plan a long-term future for the region.
"It’s a mixture of both," Carr said. "The purpose is economic development, and also to recognize that some help now, during this tough period, is important. Much of this investment, we hope, we will stimulate long-term opportunities."
So far, $575,600 of CRED funding has been earmarked for five Churchill projects the feds believe will spark 19 jobs.
Half of that funding will go to a hydroponic-food system, which involves growing vegetables with water, lamps and nutrients.
But other ones are used to sustain businesses grappling with higher costs, with $25,000 for both the local bakery and Home Hardware store.
Carr said the funding is "assistance," not bailouts.
Some $100,000 will help a company an ice trail, which involves packing down snow and flooding creeks to create a path for caterpillar-track vehicles, known as "cat tracks." The project is expected to employ 16 people through to March.
Unlike an ice road, freight trucks won’t be crossing frozen lakes, but specialized trailers will be able to bring building supplies. The path should be fully carved by January, if the unusually warm temperatures near Gillam cool down soon.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence was chipper about Friday’s news. "We’re confident with our plans for the future," he said in a phone interview. "It’ll help get some of our people back to work."
He added the ice trail will be "somewhat of a relief valve" for economic stress in the town.
"We’re definitely excited by the federal government’s commitment to not only the short term, but the longer term," he said. "All those things are really coming together."
He said the feds are hitting a balance between temporary help and crafting a long-term vision for Canada’s only deep-sea Arctic port.
Carr hinted the government aims to make Churchill a key part of its Arctic policy framework, specifically for transportation.
Carr also said talks are progressing on transferring the rail line and port from Denver-based owner Omnitrax into local hands, despite the company trading legal threats with Ottawa last month.
The minister did not directly explain why he was visiting Churchill six weeks after the time he had pledged to do so.
"Things don’t always work as quickly in government as one would want them to work," he said with a chuckle. "Patience is sometimes important. This is, not a time when many people in this community would choose patience. But, remarkably so, they have been."
Spence said it’s "not a concern," because "certain things needed to happen" like finding a financial partner for the takeover, bid before repairing the rail line. "The next step would be icing on the cake"
He said he found a "moving" mix of anxiety and optimism among town residents, which stands out more than seeing high costs and unemployment data.
"It’s another thing to have conversations with people personally, to get to know them a little bit."
Carr said Spence pointed out a "gorgeous red fox" when he picked up the minister at the Churchill airport, and apparently a polar bear in the distance. "His eyesight’s better than mine," said the minister, who’s visited the town before.
Meanwhile, Ottawa extended Churchill’s Nutrition North subsidy Nov. 1, estimating it will spend $260,000 up to March 31 to supplement flown-in food.
The subsidy kicked in this July, and is expected to run until the shipping season starts, usually July 15. An official said the temporary ice trail won’t remove Churchill from the subsidy.