Lack of vision behind Churchill closure


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The recent announcement of the closure of the railway line to Churchill is a testament to the failure of leadership at several levels in Manitoba.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/07/2016 (2426 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The recent announcement of the closure of the railway line to Churchill is a testament to the failure of leadership at several levels in Manitoba.

Earlier this week, it was announced Omnitrax was laying off its workforce and shutting down its operation. This is a failure that thwarts the possibility of a transfer of a significant northern infrastructure to a First Nations consortium that has presented a creative business plan for taking over vital transportation facilities serving its community. In the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this ownership could give meaning to a new spirit of co-operation and partnership with First Nations, especially in social enterprise and economic development.

It’s a failure that ignores the unique potential of Churchill as Canada’s only northern deep water port at a time when, because of the ice melt, new transportation routes and facilities are being developed in the North which have major security and economic implications for the country. In the eastern Arctic, the Russians are investing hundreds of millions of rubles in infrastructure for navigation, safety, coast guard and port facilities to create an east/west transit route. These moves by the Russians and the increasing activity of the Scandinavians threaten to cut us off from being a major entrance for goods and commodities moving from Asia and Europe.

This at a time when there is now available a substantial supply of infrastructure dollars in Canada but none designated to the North. Once again we are suffering from the myopia that our vision of Canada’s real, northern boundary lies somewhere 300 kilometres above the U.S. border.

The record of failure has a long history. In the 1990s, when the federal Transport department was deregulating the Canadian port system, there was no interest from anyone in the Manitoban business community or the provincial government in taking it over. The only buyer was Denver-based Omnitrax, which over the years has spent substantial capital and has tried to diversify the market. A major stumbling block has been the refusal of the Department of Transport to provide appropriate navigation and tugboat services to enable a stretch in the Hudson Bay shipping season. The most significant blow was the Harper government’s unilateral decision to shut down the Canadian Wheat Board, a major supplier of grain through Churchill,

A task force set up by the two governments to look at the effect of the closure was made up of one bureaucrat from each government with no input from the owners of the port and railway or from aboriginal leaders. More than 30 aboriginal communities depend on the rail line for their supplies and basic connections. The result of the task force was a short-term subsidy, which in no way equals the favourable advantage in present shipping rates to West Coast ports, and a vague proposal for a new port management, again without any consultation with those who would be directly affected in a new governance system.

This in turn brought to a standstill the work of the Churchill Gateway Development Corp. (I was chairman at the time) that was overseeing track and port improvements and marketing. The interest of the provincial government seemed to be on advancing their political interests in the north. The grain industry, knowing the shipping subsidy was coming to an end, decided it should move grain only through its own facilities on the West Coast and Thunder Bay, Ont.

There’s no way the announcement of closure should come as a surprise. For months there have been attempts to engage governments on the reality that with limited supplies moving through Churchill, combined with the prospect of major losses, the operation was at risk.

Perhaps more serious was the muted and low-key response to the proposal put forward by Chief Arlen Dumas of Mathias Colomb, the Manitoba grand chief and 15 other First Nation communities who have a track record of running a short-line railway. They presented a business plan that wasn’t reliant on grain, but provided alternative items for shipping and set up a transportation system to Iqualuit.

Rather than imagining the possibilities for revitalization of the port and the railway, providing training and jobs for northern people and opening up access to new export and import opportunities, along with enhanced tourism and security for northern communities, there has been dithering and indecision.

Unless the closure of the rail line acts as a wake-up call to our leadership, Manitoba will have lost one of its most important assets and distinctive elements in shaping its future according to the values set out in the Truth and Reconciliation report.

Lloyd Axworthy is a former federal Liberal cabinet minister and the former chairman of the Churchill Gateway Development Corp. He is the chancellor of St. Paul’s University College at the University of Waterloo.

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