Omnitrax Canada was planning a trial shipment of crude oil next month. The company hopes to eventually transport millions of litres of light sweet crude oil a year up so it can be loaded onto tankers.
While Omnitrax says the plan is safe and will help create much-needed jobs in the north, environmentalists and First Nations leaders worry it will jeopardize the livelihoods of aboriginal communities and pose a huge risk to wildlife. Churchill is a tourism destination that has polar bears, beluga whales and birds.
"What are the risks if there is a derailment? What are the risks if there is a spill?" Ashton asked.
"This is a highly sensitive area that goes from boreal forest through to the tundra. It's important, both for traditional use but for economic use as well. Churchill is a major tourist destination."
The province has chipped in some money to help upgrade the rail line over the years and supports diversifying the shipments that go through Churchill, Ashton said, but Manitoba can't support any plan to ship oil through Churchill without further upgrades and complete transparency regarding the cargo.
Figures from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada show there have been 63 accidents on the Hudson Bay rail line between 2003 and 2012. All but 10 were derailments.
"Our advice to Omnitrax would be, go back to the drawing board," Ashton said.
The track is under federal jurisdiction, so Ashton said the province can do little to stop the shipment of oil. Transport Canada declined an interview request, but sent an emailed statement saying Omnitrax would be expected to comply with all federal regulations.
One of the first groups to speak out against the Omnitrax plan — the Wilderness Committee — praised the Manitoba government's new stand.
"The provincial government is echoing the sentiments of Manitobans and saying 'No' to this crazy plan, but we cannot relax our opposition efforts," said Eric Reder. "We need to be demanding an end to this oil-shipment plan until we hear from the federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt that oil by rail to Churchill is dead and done."
Omnitrax president Merv Tweed, the former Tory MP for the Brandon-Souris riding, said the idea of hauling oil by rail is new and it will take time for people to get used to the concept.
The shipment of crude oil by rail is safe and the tracks don't require any additional upgrade, Tweed said.
"When you aren't aware of all the facts, it's easy to misunderstand what's being attempted or what we're trying to do," Tweed said.
"We have to make sure that they understand that we know what we're doing."
The company has been holding consultations to try to ease concerns about the plan. A trial shipment of oil slated for next month is on hold for now, Tweed said.
First Nations, who still rely on the wilderness for their living, are concerned moving crude oil through their traditional territory will threaten their way of life.
Grand Chief Irvin Sinclair, with the Keewatin Tribal Council, said people still hunt and trap on the land. "There goes a way of life for everybody if something drastic happens."