Churchill residents face rising cost of food after rail line suspended

Some families are worried about how they’ll afford to put food on the table in the coming months after the suspension of the only rail line into the Town of Churchill.

Town wants province, feds to create subsidy for food, supplies

Nunavut resident Joy Suluk (right), worries how she'll feed her family with the rail line to Churchill being suspended until at least winter. She and other Nunavut residents rely on shipments by train to Churchill to get food and supplies that are more affordable than what's offered in her community. (Luke Suluk)

Some families are worried about how they'll afford to put food on the table in the coming months after the suspension of the only rail line into the Town of Churchill.

Ashley Watts, a mother of three, wonders how she'll get by with a grocery bill already sitting at $1,000 a month — a bill that could be higher if her family didn't bring in some food through hunting. 

"We don't know what we will do. We hope the land continues to provide but only time will tell," she said, adding her family made it through last winter "just barely scraping by."

Her husband, a Port of Churchill employee, hasn't been called into work since the 2015–2016 working season.

Ashley Watts is scared of food costs that will rise when Churchill stores use airlines to bring in stock. (Facebook)

The owner of the rail line into Churchill, Denver-based OmniTrax, said last Friday it had to suspend its route into the community until winter or even next spring due to damage from severe flooding.

The news has been devastating for Watts and several other residents.

"We're trapped here in a dying town," she said.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said the town is asking the province and the federal government for a freight subsidy to lower the cost of food that will have to be flown in until the rail line is reopened.

A head of broccoli in Churchill already costs $8.75.

The province subsidizes the cost of healthy food in Northern Manitoba through the Affordable Food in Remote Manitoba program but Spence said costs are still high and Watts noted restaurants have already started to raise their prices.

Spence said the town has been in discussions with the federal government but has not yet received a call back from Premier Brian Pallister about the situation.

The mayor and other representatives from the town are holding a community meeting Monday night to update residents about the current situation.

Ripple effect in Nunavut

It isn't just Churchill that the rail line suspension is hurting.

Joy Suluk lives in Arviat, Nunavut, and together with other residents gets non-perishable food shipped from Winnipeg to Churchill by train and then by barge to her community.

She relies on a large yearly shipment of food and supplies that provide items her family simply can't afford to buy in Arviat like flour and laundry soap.

"They may be little things but they are big things to us because we pay big money for basic stuff," said Suluk, who often cooks for her grandchildren.

She said her family is now going to have to change their diet to compensate for the loss of food.

"We're not happy," she said. "We really really need the service."

Spence said his town isn't giving up hope and some businesses are gearing up for tourists who are still planning to fly into the community.

"Tourism is still happening in Churchill."

About the Author

Austin Grabish

Reporter

​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg​ where he files for TV, web and radio. ​​Born and raised in Manitoba, Austin has had an itch for news since he was young. He landed his first byline when he was just 18. Before joining CBC, he reported for several outlets with work running across the country. He studied human rights in university and holds both a degree and diploma in communications.​ Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca