CBC Digital Archives

The polar bears of Churchill

It prowls the globe's frozen north, a massive white bruin that fears no predator. The polar bear is both a totemic symbol of Canada and an important part of the Arctic ecosystem. But as four decades of intensive study has shown, climate change is threatening polar bear populations. CBC Digital Archives presents a dozen clips about how these bears of the great white north have gone from trophy hunter's quarry to nuisance to protected species.

As autumn sets in, polar bears gather along the shore of Hudson Bay waiting for the ice that takes them to their feeding grounds. Smack-dab on their migration route sits Churchill, Man., a town of 1,200 people where the bears sometimes come too close for comfort. But residents are starting to view the bears less as a menace and more as the key to Churchill's economic survival. In this 1981 report from CBC-TV's The Fifth Estate, viewers take a ride aboard the tundra bus, a custom-built behemoth that gives tourists a close-up look at the polar bears.
• The town of Churchill, Man., traces its origins to a fur trading post built on the Churchill River by the Hudson's Bay Company in the 18th century. The railway was extended there in 1929, and during the Second World War the town served as a northern supply centre. After the war the United States and Canada jointly established a research centre and, in 1957, built the Churchill Rocket Research Range to study the atmosphere and aurora borealis using rockets.
• By 1983 Churchill had a well-developed tourist trade, with 87 rooms in five hotels to accommodate visitors. Via Rail ran the Hudson Bay Special, a 36-hour train ride nicknamed the Muskeg Express, to take tourists there from Winnipeg. About 14,000 tourists went to Churchill in 1982, according to the town's mayor.

• The highlight for many visitors to Churchill is a ride on the "tundra bus," a custom-built vehicle on huge tractor tires that can roll out to spots where polar bears are known to congregate. To preserve the delicate nature of the tundra before freeze-up, the bus stays to roads built by the U.S. military in the 1950s.

• Beluga whales and numerous bird species are another tourist attraction in Churchill. Birds migrating through the area are at their peak in late May and June, while belugas congregate in the Churchill River in July and August. 

Medium: Television
Program: The Fifth Estate
Broadcast Date: Nov. 3, 1981
Guest(s): Ken John, Keith Rawlings, Ian Stirling
Reporter: Robert McKeown
Duration: 14:01

Last updated: March 3, 2014

Page consulted on March 3, 2014

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