Churchill braces for life without CWB

The federal government's plans to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board and take away its monopoly to sell wheat and barley from Western Canada will have implications for more than just farmers.
Grain flows into the hold of a ship at the Port of Churchill. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

The Canadian Wheat Board and its supporters have been sounding the alarm for months about the federal government’s plans to dismantle the single-desk marketer and take away its monopoly to sell wheat and barley from Western Canada.

That legislation is expected to be introduced in the House of Commons the week of Oct. 17.

But it will have implications for more than just farmers, reports CBC’s Karen Pauls, who travelled to Churchill, Manitoba and filed the following report.

Port of concern

It's a crisp, sunny fall day, a relatively busy day at the Port of Churchill. A stiff wind is blowing off Hudson Bay.

"We're onboard the vessel Maple Creek, loading grain in the Port of Churchill, heading for Columbia. We have another one on anchor waiting and we have another arriving to the anchor point today, " says Marc Cool, vice-president of terminal operations for Omnitrax Canada.

Marc Cool, vice-president of terminal operations for Omnitrax Canada, says the company is working hard to find new customers to replace the CWB business that will be lost. ((Karen Pauls/CBC))

The Denver-based company bought this port from the Manitoba government for $10 in 1997. As part of the deal, it also bought the railway servicing Churchill for $11 million and agreed to operate and maintain both, for at least a decade.

"This is an average-sized ship we receive here in Churchill. It'll depart Churchill with 33,000 metric tonnes of wheat and that's pretty much a standard load," Cool says.

"A ship this size doesn't have the ability to transit the St. Lawrence Seaway."

The crew here sees about 22 ships during an average four-month shipping season. But there will be many fewer ships next year if Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government passes legislation that will eliminate the Canadian Wheat Board's (CWB) monopoly on wheat and barley.

"Eighty-five per cent of [our] cargo volume comes from one customer. Nobody knows how this whole grain operation and the Canadian Wheat Board's single desk dismantling is going to happen and what the end result will play," Cool says.

Omnitrax has a lot at stake. The company has invested more than $90-million to upgrade the port infrastructure and the rail line running into the town.

Ninety people work for Omnitrax directly because of CWB business. Cool says the company is working hard to find new customers to replace that lost CWB business by next August.

"We're definitely looking at all the options out there of export products —potash, alternative grain sources, different seed products, oilseeds, canola, other products we don't handle through the wheat board," he says.

The future of the Port of Churchill is not just a concern for Omnitrax. Ben Oman, 32, has been working there for more than a decade — his family's fourth generation to do so.

Oman's tanned, wrinkled face is evidence of his labor. He's a stevedore, responsible for loading grain onto the ships.

"I wouldn’t know what to do if the port closes down," he says.

Ben Oman, 32, has been working at the Port of Churchill for more than a decade and needs the job to support his wife and six children. ((Karen Pauls/CBC))

"All I've known is the wheat board to be here at the port. The whole community got worried about it because about 50 per cent of the community is employed by the port here and just worried a lot of jobs might be lost here."

Oman needs his job. His seasonal paycheque supports his wife and their six children.

"I'm worried now, too. There's not too much else work you can do in Churchill if the port closes down," he says.

The port lies at the end of Churchill's main drag. That's the part of town most tourists visit when they come to see the polar bears or beluga whales.

Bleak mood

This community is known around the world for its tourism but folks here say the port is a crucial part of the town's economic health and future.

Dwight Allen says the global economic meltdown means business is already down at his main business the Polar Inn and Suites. He's feeling the money crunch as well, with his beluga whale touring company.

"It bothers us people around here — the uncertainties that are gonna unfold with the dismantling of the CWB; devastation with jobs being lost," he says.

"It hurts when we have to sit without a plan. That's sorta unfair to drop this bomb on us this way."

Jobs in Churchill are already tight. The town, Allen says, doesn't deserve another hit.

"A lot of people working at the port are people I grew up with. That saddens me to see people potentially jobless. It leaves a bad taste in people's mouths."

Allen believes the Harper understands the strategic importance of the port. Harper has been to Churchill several times, making announcements as part of his northern sovereignty strategy.

On one trip in 2007, Harper pledged $60-million to repair the rail link linking grain farmers in western Canada to the port and the global markets.

At that announcement, Harper was asked about the future of the CWB and its impact on Churchill.

"Your government has said you're determined to create an open market in wheat. After making this big investment in the port, how do you reconcile those two positions?"

Harper’s reply?

"Obviously, we have some difference of view on that. Let me just say the government of Canada will ensure this port is used and there will be shipments," he said.

"That said, ultimately, whether farmers sell their own wheat or sell it through the wheat board or sell it through a dual market as farmers prefer, is ultimately a decision for farmers. But the government will ensure this infrastructure is used."

Changing political winds

Allen understands the political wind has changed. The Harper government is now poised to introduce legislation that will eliminate the CWB's monopoly on selling wheat and barley. That's despite a plebiscite this fall, showing most farmers want to keep the single-marketing system.

Still , Allen hopes Ottawa will throw Churchill a bone to make up for the loss of the wheat board's business.

"I'd ask the government to show the community ... set up a naval base here, part of sovereignty issues to help compensate us until we can figure out how to work with the falling of the CWB."

Back onboard the Maple Creek, Marc Cool watches grain flowing into three of the ship's five holds.

For Cool, this is not just a matter of business, of dollars and cents. His wife is from Churchill, his father-in-law is the mayor, his mother-in-law runs a clothing store and he knows almost all of the permanent residents in town.

"It's obviously  a big motivator," he says.

"Things that may seem like pie in the sky are turning into something you look at twice, and if there is even a glimmer of opportunity there we need to follow those through and make sure we get the work back into community and remain in the community."

But, he concedes, the mood here is bleak. Everyone is waiting and worrying, wondering about what the future will bring.