November 13, 2019

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Opinion

Feds' response to Churchill is obstruction

If the pleas for help from the people of Churchill are not enough, perhaps protecting our northern territories from opportunistic foreign powers will spur Ottawa to make Churchill a priority. (Alex De Vries-Magnifico Photo)</p>

If the pleas for help from the people of Churchill are not enough, perhaps protecting our northern territories from opportunistic foreign powers will spur Ottawa to make Churchill a priority. (Alex De Vries-Magnifico Photo)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/11/2017 (726 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/11/2017 (726 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In May, the only land link connecting Churchill with the rest of Canada was washed out by a once-in-200-year flood. The damage to the Hudson Bay Railway was, by any measure, catastrophic. The loss of the rail line has left northern Manitoba communities stranded, without access to affordable food, fuel and other critical supplies.

By all accounts, Churchill and its people have been ignored by those who have the power and the duty to protect it; cast adrift to fend for itself. It is a disaster that has been conveniently ignored by the Liberal government. It has become patently clear that the prime minister is turning his back and thumbing his nose at this vulnerable and isolated population.

Natural Resources Minister (and the ostensible minister for Manitoba) Jim Carr has been just as ruthless in his indifference and has failed to stand up for the people of Manitoba at the cabinet table. For what Minister Carr and taxpayers gave to Assiniboine Park, the people of Churchill and northern communities could have restored rail access. The prime minister himself, in handing over a $35 million cheque for a "diversity garden" in Winnipeg’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, misled northerners that his government was working on a solution for the troubled rail line.

Since OmniTRAX Canada, the owner of the HBR, made it clear that since the railway is no longer commercially viable, it would not fund any further costs associated with the line, the federal government has done everything it can to shirk its responsibility to help resolve this issue:

  • They appointed a negotiator with no apparent mandate to negotiate;
  • They have threatened a lawsuit that will tie the matter up in the courts for years, while nothing gets done to reopen access to Churchill;
  • They have alienated the very First Nations leadership so integral to a renewed, locally owned HBR;
  • They have declined repeated invitations to visit the line and inspect the damage first-hand; and,
  • No one from Ottawa – no one – has visited Churchill to speak to the people directly affected by this disaster.

The June 2017 Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce report ("National Corridor: Enhancing and Facilitating Commerce and Internal Trade") made clear the strategic importance of Churchill, noting that the closure of the Port was "unfortunate because it is the shortest route to Europe for a number of Canada’s exported commodities."

Lest we not heed this warning, it is also clear that others, notably China, appear more than willing to fill the void left by our indifference to the North. In 2016, China published a shipping guidebook to the Northwest Passage and, to date, refuses to acknowledge Canada’s sovereignty over the increasingly viable global trade. Macleans reported in June 2016 ("How Ottawa abandoned our only Arctic port") that Chinese diplomats have visited Churchill seeking to recruit locals interested in Mandarin language training.

If the pleas for help from the people of Churchill are not enough, perhaps protecting our northern territories from opportunistic foreign powers will spur Ottawa to make Churchill a priority.

It is not too late to change how this story ends for Churchill and for Canada’s North. There is a plan in place that could re-open the rail line in 30 days, albeit on a very limited basis. But it would help ensure critical supplies can flow north over the winter. There is also an agreement in place that could see the HBR sold to and operated by a consortium of First Nations communities along the line. Federal government leadership is the only thing standing in the way.

The federal government now believes that the answer is to threaten OmniTRAX with a lawsuit. This adds to the confusion surrounding the government’s process for determining which legal matters are worth pursuing. Consider that the government recently spent more than $110,000 fighting a First Nations girl in court to block payment for an orthodontic treatment that cost $6,000. The same government readily handed over $10 million to Omar Khadr, a convicted war criminal, citing the avoidance of excessive legal fees for settling out of court. And now, we have OmniTRAX, the company that has had a deal ready to sell the line to Grand Chief Dumas since June, and a subsequent agreement with Grand Chief Dumas and a new coalition of First Nations buyers since August.

The only entity getting in the way of the sale is the federal government, and they are threatening to sue OmniTRAX if they do not fix or sell the line. This is more than inaction. This is obstruction.

It is time for the federal government to do its job. It is time for the prime minister and the Manitoba Liberal MPs to end their deafening silence and take leadership on an issue of national ─ not just local ─ importance. It is time for Ottawa to show the rest of Canada how it really feels about the north.

Don Plett is a senator from Manitoba and founding president of the National Council of the Conservative Party of Canada.

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