March 28, 2020

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Who's responsible for Churchill?

A ship in the Port of Churchill in 2007.</p>

A ship in the Port of Churchill in 2007.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/7/2016 (1338 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s been all manner of debate this past week of the economic viability of the Port of Churchill, in the wake of layoffs by the port’s owner Omnitrax and the cancellation of twice-weekly rail service between Gillam and Churchill. Since the dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board, the volume of grain exports through Churchill has declined substantively and last year 200,000 tonnes of grain were shipped — the second-lowest volume of business on record at the port.

So, is it time to shut it all down, walk away and let the rail line and port fall away to dust? It’s not making money. Negotiations between Omnitrax and a First Nations consortium to sell the business holding seem to be on hold. The thinking seems to fall along the lines of: let’s stop throwing good money after bad and wash our hands of it.

Except, there are 900 people living in Churchill right now who suddenly have been told they are in essence second-class Canadian citizens. The delivery of their food and other consumable goods has now been cut in half, with the rail traffic cut back to once a week and delivery time now slated for late afternoon. Fresh produce? Forget it. Fresh meat? Not a chance. Food prices? Expect them to skyrocket. Nice, when 10 per cent of the town’s population has suddenly become unemployed and budgets are suddenly tightened further.

And it’s not just the town of Churchill that’s affected by this business failure. Nunuvut also relies on the rail line for goods to be shipped to its northern communities in conjunction with ice roads and air service. Suddenly these communities, too, are supposed to just deal with it because the invisible hand of the market is working.

Well, that’s the problem with the mantra of privatization and new public-management solutions that extol the virtues of smaller government. They work really well when there’s money to be made, but not very good in outlier situations, when communities are small, isolated and dispersed. Like Canada, which has the majority of its population situated along the American border and those crazy enough to live further away are somehow ancillary to the bounty of our country. That’s when it’s even more important for government to be involved and yes, the taxpayer will have to pay.

While Premier Brian Pallister made it clear his government will not subsidize Ominitrax, suggesting that the former NDP government was involved in a bailout of the company with public funds utilized in a bid to keep the port open, what is he going to say to the people of Churchill about their food costs? Sure, don’t bail out a private company, but for God’s sake, take some responsibility for those citizens who live in the northern part of this province.

The federal and provincial governments have poured more than $130 million into the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill since Omnitrax took over in 1997. But right now, rail industry experts say it will cost a minimum of $200 million to get it up to industry standards. Grain, however, is heavier to ship than other commodities, so if there’s a decision to stop using HBR for grain and use it solely to move consumer goods, it’s not clear what those costs will be. That’s why there needs to be some sort of plan.

Meanwhile, as Erwin Borau, the manager of Tamarack Foods in Churchill has pointed out, "the company does not give a s—t, anyway," about these kinds of problems. Well the federal and provincial governments should and must come up with more than just another cobbled together response to a decades-old file.


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