Manitoba boosts funding for northern tourism as Churchill workers feel ignored

The Manitoba government plans to boost funding for the northern economy at a time that has laid-off workers on edge and demanding answers following the closure of the Port of Churchill.

Province 'looking for long-term solutions' to worker crisis in wake of port closure, minister says

Minister Cliff Cullen goes to Churchill amid crisis in the north

6 years ago
Duration 2:20
Progressive Conservative ministers are visiting Churchill after northern Manitoba communities suffered a series of economic blows.

The Manitoba government plans to boost funding for the northern economy at a time that has laid-off workers on edge and demanding answers following the closure of the Port of Churchill.

Officials with the province and Manitoba business community were in Churchill Friday for the funding announcement.

Growth and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen said the Pallister government will raise funding for tourism and development by 50 per cent to $297,000 in the next year. Grants of $25,000 will be available to northern First Nations, community organizations and other groups with plans to improve or develop tourism initiatives in the north.

The province also has plans to increase funding to Travel Manitoba, totalling $3.1 million, to allow the organization to expand marketing campaigns in Canada, the United States and overseas travellers.
On Friday in Churchill, Manitoba's growth and trade minister announced new funding for northern tourism and development. (Lazy Bear Lodge )

Representatives with Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) and Bell also made the trip north to announce the company plans to bring new broadband and direct fibre optic links to homes and businesses in Churchill. It would mean northerners would have access to high speed internet as southern communities enjoy. 

Colin Ferguson, CEO of Travel Manitoba, said the Bell–MTS announcement is great for the travel business in Churchill. The new support from the province will help the organization market the town, the whales and the polar bears, he added.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said the local tourism industry has had a great year, but the closure of the Arctic port is still weighing heavily on everyone.

Growth and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen (right) speaks with people at the Churchill Chamber of Commerce in Churchill, Man. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

OmniTrax laid off dozens of employees last month. Workers said they were caught off guard by the announcement that the Denver-based company decided to close operations at the port and associated Hudson Bay rail line that runs from The Pas to Churchill.

Mike Reimer, owner of eco-lodge Churchill Wild, said the port and rail line ownership should remain in Canadian hands.

"We've trusted our community's life, life blood, to an American corporation. Let's get real. They're not going to care too much about what happens here," he said.

OmniTrax has said it has struggled with financial challenges tied to operating in a northern market.

'No one is talking to the people' 

Dawne Palmer said she and the other workers at the port feel they have been forgotten. 

After being laid off in July by OmniTrax, Palmer said she hasn't been able to find another job and her benefits run out in December. 

She said the stress is hard to cope with and no one from OmniTrax or any level of government has contacted the employees.

The government may be talking to the business leaders of Churchill, "but no-one is talking to the people," according to Palmer.
Mike Reimer (pictured) and Jeanne Reimer are the co-founders and owners of Churchill Wild. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Palmer says the impact of the reduced rail service is showing up in local stores. 

"Have you seen the grocery store? The shelves are getting bare and the produce is old when it arrives," Palmer said.

Growth and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen said he understands it is a stressful time for laid-off workers.

"Clearly we wish the news was a little better," he said. "[We] don't pretend we have all the answers ... we firmly believe there is potential here.

"We don't believe in bailouts … we are looking for long-term solutions."

With files from Sean Kavanagh and The Canadian Press