Manitoba

'You could feel the frustration': Churchill, Man., residents gather to learn what's next

Fear, confusion and hope were in the air at a community meeting in Churchill, Man., on Monday night as residents gathered to learn what's next for their subarctic town, now a fly-in community with the closure of the only rail line.

Community meets after only rail line into the northern town suspended till at least winter

Churchill residents filled the Town Centre Complex Monday night to talk about the future of the subarctic community. The only rail line into the community is closed until at least winter following what rail line owner OmniTrax says is catastrophic damage caused by spring flooding. (Edina-lil Preteau/Submitted)

Fear, confusion and hope were in the air at a community meeting in Churchill, Man., on Monday night as residents gathered to learn what's next for their subarctic town, now a fly-in community with the closure of the only rail line. 

Nikki Clace said there's still a lot of concern and fear following the suspension of the only rail line into Churchill. (Nikki Clace/Submitted)
"You could feel the frustration. You can feel anger towards certain parties involved. Just a lot of confusion," said Nikki Clace, a laid-off Port of Churchill employee who attended the meeting called by town officials Monday evening. 

Clace estimates as many as 400 residents turned up to the meeting, which covered the myriad issues now facing the town as the only rail line into the community remains closed. There's no road to the town of 900, which is 1,000 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. 

Among the many concerns were the cost of groceries, rising shipping costs and the feeling of isolation, which Clace said has become the hardest part for her.

She had planned to leave Churchill this summer to visit family, but now she's stuck in town because she can't afford the cost of a plane ticket out.

"The isolation is probably the strongest factor because all of the sudden you feel trapped, like you have no opportunity to really leave," Clace said.

Ashley Watts is scared of food costs that will rise when Churchill stores use airlines to bring in stock. (Facebook)
Ashley Watts is a mother of three living in the community and said the meeting gave her some much-needed reassurance.

"Things were a bit scary over the weekend … but after talking to mayor and council a lot of my questions have been answered," Watts said.

"They've given us some options as individuals to be proactive about the situation."

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said his community is resilient and will find a way to get through this latest hurdle.

Community sticking together

Churchill, Man., is located about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. (Google Maps)
"A community that comes together sticks together," Spence said.

The mayor said he still hasn't heard directly from Premier Brian Pallister but has been in contact with provincial officials.

The province said Monday it isn't ready to send help into Churchill to restore the rail line. 

Spence is still calling on both the federal and provincial governments to create a subsidy for food and supplies that are flown into the community while the rail line is closed.

Need 'our lives back'

"The task for us is to get the line up and running so we can have our lives back."

Spence said the top priority for him is to get the rail line, owned by Denver-based OmniTrax, reopened.

"We need the rail line back in service."

OmniTrax said the rail line suffered unprecedented damage from spring flooding and will remain closed until at least winter.

Omnitrax said it has been in contact with Transport Canada and the province, as well as the Missinippi Rail Consortium, which recently signed a memorandum of understanding about the potential acquisition of the rail line and the Port of Churchill.

Spence said he will be in Winnipeg on Wednesday to give an update on the situation in Churchill.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

​Austin Grabish joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. In 2019, he was on the ground in northern Manitoba covering the manhunt for B.C. fugitives Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, which attracted international attention. Have a story idea? Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

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