Grain stranded at Churchill's shuttered port to be shipped out this season

Grain is about to be shipped out of the Port of Churchill for the first time in two years, but not because of any movement in the impasse over the resuscitation of the northern Manitoba facility.

First grain shipments since 2015 planned as Alberta firm prepares to emancipate 27,000 tonnes of wheat, durum

Providence Grain of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. intends to hire one or two ships this season to remove its remaining grain from the Port of Churchill. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC News)

Grain is about to be shipped out of the Port of Churchill for the first time in two years, but not because of any movement in the impasse over the resuscitation of the northern Manitoba facility.

Alberta's Providence Grain Group plans to hire one or two ships this season to transport more than 27,000 tonnes of grain that has been stored at the elevator at the Port of Churchill since 2015.

The wheat and durum semolina was transported by rail to the northern Manitoba seaport in anticipation of the 2016 shipping season. It was stranded at Churchill in July 2016, when Denver-based port owner Omnitrax laid off its workers and suspended grain shipments.

"Our grain has been blocked for sale for more than a year now," said Milton Miller, president and CEO of Providence Grain Group, speaking in a telephone interview from his office in the Edmonton suburb of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.

"We're at the end of the [grain's life] cycle now. It's fine, but mostly because Churchill is a deep freeze for eight months of the year."

Omnitrax confirmed through its Toronto-based publicist that it will open the terminal for Providence.

"Hudson Bay Port Corporation (HBPC) has been working with Providence for a number of weeks to clean their grain and to ready the terminal for this export shipment," the company said in a statement.

  "We are pleased to supply this service to Providence and to all shippers who are interested in using our gateway."​

The impending grain shipment is a rare piece of welcome news for the town of Churchill, which has been reeling since the layoffs at the port and the subsequent closure of the Hudson Bay Railway this spring. More than 90 full-time jobs have been lost in the town of 899 over the past 15 months.

Omnitrax laid off staff at the Port of Churchill (Lyza Sale/CBC News)
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said the shipments illustrate the northern Manitoba port remains a viable shipping option.

"The port is open and ships are arriving. More freight would be going to the Kivalliq region if the rail line was open," Spence said in a statement.

"Our priority is to see the line repaired and reopened as soon as possible to not miss further economic opportunities for Canada's north from [Arctic] Canada's only deep water sea port."

Since the closure of the port, there has been little movement in talks between Omnitrax and the federal government over the future of the facility. Talks over the reopening of the railway have been even more strained, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggesting Omnitrax must conduct repairs the private owner says it is no longer obliged to make.

While Churchill sees the railway as a lifeline, grain farmers in northern Saskatchewan are eager to see the reopening of a shipping route that shortens the overland distance for their product by more than 1,000 kilometres.

Providence Grain's president said it would use the Hudson Bay shipping route if it could be counted upon. The Hudson Bay Railway remains closed due to flood damage. (Mike Spence/Submitted)
Providence Grain's Miller said his firm would have some use for the Hudson Bay shipping route if it becomes reliable once more, as well as cost-effective. 

"If it's going to be used, it has to be set up in such a way that it can be counted on," said Miller, explaining that grain shipments are planned months in advance.

"It is the only public terminal, so to speak, in Canada. All of the rest of the terminal capacity is owned or leased by by grain companies, so if you're not one of those companies, your access to those terminals is limited or nonexistent," he said.

"We don't own a bulk terminal. We have other capacity [at] other bulk terminals. But from a farmer perspective, if the Port of Churchill was a viable alternative — and I'm not judging whether it is or not — it would create opportunities for those who have capital and logistics ability, for at least three or four months of the year, to ship grain."


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.