Australia cellist holds concert to raise money for Churchill's food bank

An Australian-born cellist and composer, who made Churchill home after falling in love with the town while working there as a musician, held a concert in Winnipeg Saturday night to raise money for the community's food bank.

One in three Churchill residents using food bank after rail line closure forces food costs up

Austrialan-born cellist and composer Rob Knaggs moved to Churchill a year ago after falling in love with the community while working there. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

As the closure of the only rail line into Churchill forces food prices to rise in the community, an increasing number of residents are turning to the community's food bank to put food on the table.

A volunteer from the Hungry Bears Food Bank in Churchill has said nearly one in three people in the community is now using the food bank. The situation moved resident Rob Knaggs to action.

The Australian-born cellist and composer made Churchill home after falling in love with the town while working there as a musician a year ago. He held a concert in Winnipeg Saturday night to raise money for the food bank.

"I've seen what damage has been created by the train leaving — the rising costs of food — and trying to survive in a town so isolated from the rest of Manitoba," said Knaggs.
Rob Knaggs says he held Saturday's concert to help the people of Churchill who have embraced him and his music since he moved to the community. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

The owner of the rail line into Churchill, Denver-based Omnitrax, suspended its route into the community after severe flooding damaged the line in May.

There was hope the damage would be repaired in time for winter, but after a summer of discussion between Omnitrax and the federal and provincial governments over who would pay for the work, the rail line remains shuttered.

The town of 900 people, about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, relies on the Hudson Bay Railway for delivery of essentials including food, vehicles and fuel.

Last month, Omnitrax informed officials the price of gas would rise by 30 per cent in Churchill. A banana in the town costs $7 and a carton of milk costs $10.

Music for the whales

The fundraising concert was held in the taproom at Little Brown Jug, filled with the haunting sounds of Knagg's cello, inspired by the sounds made by the beluga whales that swim near Churchill.

They're sounds Knaggs knows well.

"What I was totally taken by was not only the polar bears and the northern lights, but the beluga whales that inhabited the Churchill River," said Knaggs. "As a musician just hearing the sounds these belugas would make, it was absolutely nuts."

And those sounds gave him an idea — he wanted to play for the whales.

So he saved up some money, bought a new cello, and pitched his idea to a local company that takes tourists out on the water to see the whales. The company thought it was a cool idea too, and he spent the summer playing music for the whales.

"The reaction was absolutely insane — these whales would come up to the boat and hang on for a good hour or so," he said. "We had a hydrophone in the water where we could listen to these belugas chittering and chattering the whole time."
Rob Knaggs plays his cello in a boat in the middle of the Churchill River for the whales. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

Knaggs said he gets a regular audience when he heads out on the river these days.

"I'd be going into the water and people would want to see this interaction between music and nature," he said. "I love doing it and people love seeing it."

It's that connection to his new community that drove Knaggs to hold the fundraiser.

"Giving back to a community that's given me so much is the essence of why I wanted to put tonight on," he said.

To make a donation to the Hungry Bears Food bank go to

With files from Cliff Simpson