September 21, 2020

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Churchill should celebrate, but not forget

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/9/2018 (742 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


The town of Churchill finally received a delivery of something it hadn’t received in a long, long time:

Good news.

OmniTrax / The Canadian Press Files</p><p>The Hudson Bay Railway was washed out in May 2017.</p>

OmniTrax / The Canadian Press Files

The Hudson Bay Railway was washed out in May 2017.

The announcement on Aug. 31 that ownership of the long-disabled Hudson Bay Railway, along with the Port of Churchill and the town’s marine tank farm, had finally been transferred to private interests has injected a glimmer of hope into a situation whose only discernable attributes for the past 14 months have been frustration, anger and despair.

The assets’ new owner is Arctic Gateway, a consortium involving two northern Manitoba groups, Toronto-based financier Fairfax and Saskatchewan-based foodgrains company AGT Foods. In announcing the acquisition, the federal government indicated that repairs on the rail line, which was washed out by spring flooding in May 2017, will begin immediately.

Barring any unexpected extreme weather, the Hudson Bay Railway could be functional for passenger and light freight service by the time the snow flies. Further repairs will be required next year to allow transport of heavier freight, such as shipments of grain or propane.

No doubt, there were smiles and handshakes all over Churchill when the change of ownership was confirmed. And surely, those moments of celebration will pale in comparison with what happens when the first train traverses the reconstituted track and arrives in the northern town.

It’s the beginning of a happy ending for a locale whose status as a centrepiece of this province’s tourism efforts had been cast into doubt by the cessation of regular rail service. But in addition to being a good-news story Manitobans have been longing to hear, the transfer-of-ownership announcement also stands as a damning indictment of the inexcusable corporate inaction of the assets’ former owner, Denver-based Omnitrax.

After the railway’s washout in May 2017, Omnitrax engaged in foot-dragging, misinformation, obstruction and demand-issuing that illustrated, in no uncertain terms, that its only concern was for not spending another dime on an enterprise it had deemed no longer financially viable. The human cost of its inaction was clearly of no interest to the company’s U.S.-based ownership and, more appallingly, to its Canadian president, former Manitoba MP Merv Tweed.

Mr. Tweed, who represented the riding of Brandon-Souris from 2004 to 2013, was once a champion of Manitoban causes on the national stage. After he left politics and started drawing a paycheque from Omnitrax, however, the erstwhile parliamentarian’s concern for his home province seemed to evaporate.

His apparent inability to offer so much as a hint of compassion for the residents of Churchill — mostly demonstrated by vanishing from sight whenever the Omnitrax/railway controversy heated up — has been one of this issue’s great mysteries. While there aren’t many who would describe Mr. Tweed’s turn as an MP as heroic, it certainly stands in stark contrast to more recent dealings in which he was very much the villain.

The federal and provincial governments’ squabbling over which should take the lead on the Churchill issue certainly didn’t help matters, but their dithering amounts to a minor inconvience in the greater problem created by corporate inaction.

When the wheels begin to turn on the no-longer-rusty rails on a regular basis, Omnitrax and Mr. Tweed will fade from Churchill residents’ thoughts. But they should not be forgotten. As the new owners’ immediate repair efforts have demonstrated, reconnecting Churchill’s rail link to the south could have been done quickly and at reasonable cost, had those whose duty it was to fix it shown the slightest commitment to, or compassion for, the people left stranded by the washout.


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