'A real disgrace': NDP, businesses call for federal help in Churchill
In May flood waters washed out sections of OmniTrax rail line preventing transport of goods, passengers
Federal New Democrats and northern businesses in Manitoba are calling for Ottawa's help in Churchill to address rising food prices after floods destroyed sections of the only rail line to the northern town.
The railway between Gillam and Churchill was shutdown indefinitely in May after spring floods washed out large sections of the track.
- Suspension of Churchill's only rail line forcing business owners to lay off workers
- Churchill residents face rising cost of food after rail line suspended
"This is a real disgrace," said New Democrat MP Niki Ashton, (Churchill—Keewatinook Aski). "We have to be frank. It's a U.S. billionaire that is in some ways holding us hostage."
The American owners of the rail line and Port of Churchill, OmniTrax, said 19 locations along the railway are impassable because of flood damage. The last trains arrived in the town in late May.
The Denver-based OmniTrax said it will take until at least next spring before it is able to finish repairs and restore train travel. The company has yet to tally up the cost of damage to the line but said engineers will be assessing the situation in the coming days.
OmniTrax added it has contacted both the federal and Manitoba government for financial aid to restore the line.
Up until now, trains have been the only way by land to get passengers and goods like fresh groceries to Churchill. It was also the most affordable way to transport heavy items like cars or construction materials.
Now the only way in or out is by air.
The NDP is calling on the federal government to buy back the once publicly-owned port and railway line to ensure greater reliability.
"So we don't have to deal with one crisis after another," Ashton said referring to the latest track damage along with the OmniTrax's announcement in July 2016 to shutdown the Port of Churchill, the town's largest employer.
Calls for a federal food subsidy
The North West Company along with Winnipeg-based distributor Arctic Buying Company are calling on the federal government to consider Churchill an isolated community and eligible for the Nutrition North food subsidy.
"Our governments need to step in and help support them," said Tara Tootoo Fotheringham CEO of Arctic Buying Company.
"They need to be considered a fly-in community….and they should be receiving a subsidy."
A spokesperson for the federal department responsible for northern affairs said late Tuesday the department is watching the situation closely and is "exploring" the idea of supporting Churchill's under the Nutrition North program.
"The health and safety of all Northerners is a priority for the Government of Canada, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC) is aware of the situation in Churchill, Manitoba," a written statement said.
Arctic Buying Company typically ships larger items like cars or mining equipment up to Churchill and then on to Nunavut through Manitoba. Now that the rail line is down, Tootoo Fotheringham said the company is shipping goods out of Sainte-Catherine, Quebec to the territory.
While she's working to adapt her business, Tootoo Fotheringham worries about the economic future of her hometown of Churchill.
"These people cannot afford to pay the ridiculous freight rate to get [goods] into the community," she said.
North West Company spokesperson Derek Reimer echoed Tootoo Fotheringham's assessment and said the retailer has contacted the federal government to ask for the food subsidy.
The $60-million Nutrition North program can reduce prices for healthy foods like cereals and fruit by more than 50 per cent.
Churchill currently falls under Manitoba's food subsidy program called Affirm (which stands for Affordable Food in Remote Manitoba) that provides a subsidy to some food in communities not eligible for Nutrition North.
For now, the North West Company, which operates a Northern Store in Churchill, has increased plane shipments of food to the small northern town from once to twice a week.
Reimer said it costs about three times more to ship food by air than by train.
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with files from Jillian Taylor