OTTAWA — Manitoba senators are pushing the Liberal government to find a solution to Omnitrax’s refusal to repair the rail line to Churchill while it lobbies for federal cash.
"Churchill is really Manitoba’s northern gateway," said independent Sen. Patricia Bovey, who visited in late July. "My question is: is it a gateway now or is it a barrier to the North?"
The town lost its rail lifeline 11 weeks ago after heavy flooding washed out rail bridges north of Gillam.
Last month, Denver-based Omnitrax said it would cost $20 million to $60 million to repair the tracks. It said that’s "not economically viable."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the company is obligated to maintain service along the track, an assessment shared by experts in transportation law.
Yet Bovey said several ministers’ offices won’t give her clear answers on what they’re doing about it.
She said the rail line’s importance goes beyond the town of 900 — supplies go through the port north to Nunavut — while some argue the town is strategically located for military troops and research on climate change.
Bovey has heard from parents worried about feeding their children amid $21.29 blocks of cheese, and stranded seasonal workers who took their cars up north by train, as well as researchers whose colleagues can’t transport equipment.
"I can’t underline its importance to the nation enough," she said.
Manitoba Conservative Sen. Don Plett said he’s regularly phoning the town’s business owners. He plans to push Trudeau if the problem isn’t solved when the Senate returns from a break Sept. 18.
"Trudeau has an obligation to the people Churchill, and the tourism industry for the province of Manitoba," Plett said.
He said Ottawa should move beyond vague legal threats and help First Nations groups who want to take over the line.
"It’s an absolute crisis up there, that should not be happening in any part of the country," he said.
Independent Sen. Raymond Gagné said it’s "nonsense" to allow Churchill to become inaccessible.
"Everyone’s pointing fingers, and I think more than anything the different parties need to sit down together and find a solution," Gagné said.
On Friday, a week after Omnitrax said it received the full engineering report on the line, the company still had no timeline for when it would release an updated cost estimate.
The company has enlisted Maryscott Greenwood, a longtime lobbyist on Canada-U.S. issues, who communicated in June with an official in the Prime Minister’s Office, according to disclosures filed with the lobbying commissioner.
Greenwood, who could not be reached Friday, met with Winnipeg MP Dan Vandal and advisers to Winnipeg MP Jim Carr, the natural resources minister who handles Manitoba issues.
Her filings say she’s lobbied "for emergency relief in light of flooding in northern Manitoba" and for "the potential transfer of Hudson Bay Railway to a First Nations consortium or other entity if appropriate."
Meanwhile, the Town of Churchill has hired two lobbyists, but the town has not yet asked them to start meeting, because Trudeau phoned Mayor Mike Spence on July 30, and said he’s working on a solution.
"They’re just sitting tight now," Spence said. "I’m really pleased with the PMO being involved in this."