Churchill resident sends message to politicians: 'look north dude'

With winter in Manitoba's north knocking on Churchill's door, frustration over repairs to the rail line to the town are starting to focus on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Brian Pallister.

Anger and blame rise as rail line remains closed and winter is coming

The Port of Churchill laid off its workers a year ago in July 2016. Since then, the rail line to the northern Manitoba community was damaged by flooding. (Peter Blahut/Getty Images)

"Look north dude."

That plain-speaking advice was fired at Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from a weary businessman in Churchill, Man.  

Dave Daley, owner of Wapusk Adventures and head of Churchill's chamber of commerce, said with winter knocking on Churchill's door, frustration over repairs to the rail line to the town are starting to focus on the leadership — on Broadway Avenue in Winnipeg and in Ottawa. 

Daley said people in the town expected action from the prime minister when, in late July, Trudeau said Denver-based rail company Omnitrax "has legal obligations to clean up and repair the tracks." 

"He is the prime minister of Canada. We are a nation and he is [the] ultimate leader. When he says his department is dealing with Omnitrax, we expected stuff to move along rather quickly after [he] made that statement," Daley said.

More than two months later, negotiations to fix the line and transfer ownership from Omnitrax to a Manitoba group of northern communities and First Nations have not resulted in a single metre of repairs to the tracks.

The dogsled outfitter said people in his town have made decisions based on the prime minister's statements.

Employment insurance benefits are running out, some businesses are hurting, costs in the community have soared and some people can't wait much longer to know if someone — anyone — is going to fix the rail line.

"Are we going to make it?" Daley asked.

Residents in Churchill demonstrate in May, calling on faster repairs to the Hudson Bay Railway. (Jacaudrey Charbonneau/Radio-Canada)

When those criticisms were put to the Trudeau government recently, the response was much the same as in July. 

"Omnitrax has the legal obligation to operate the line, as per their agreement with the federal government signed in 1997," said Alexandre Deslongchamps, press secretary to Natural Resource Minister Jim Carr, in an email to CBC News.

"As the prime minister has said, our government is committed to supporting the people of Churchill and restore the rail line, but not at any cost."

Carr himself went as far as anyone connected with the file in entertaining the idea of the government taking control of the line and port. He spoke about the possibility of nationalization on CBC Radio's Up To Speed last week.

"That's an option that some people have been suggesting, and the mandate of the negotiator right now is to do whatever is reasonable, feasible and possible to make sure there is a transportation link to Churchill in as timely a way as we are able to manage under the circumstances," Carr said.

Winter is coming and residents see no rail

Residents of Churchill are starting to lose hope as they see signs sending the message the line will not be repaired before winter. 

This week, a ship will arrive at the port to move a Via Rail locomotive and rail cars out of the community. At one point Daley vowed he and other residents would never let that happen. Now, he plans more of a symbolic protest.

"At that time we had all the hope in the world that our line was going to be repaired and the train was going to leave by the tracks… Now, I think we all realize that this train cannot stay here this winter," Daley said.
After months stranded in Churchill due to a rail line damaged by spring flooding, several rail cars will be loaded on a barge heading to Quebec. (Steve Green)

A potential gasoline shortage was stopped on Friday when local company Calm Air agreed to take over an Omnitrax shipment of fuel and store it in their own tanks. Omnitrax and the Manitoba government were at odds over the safety of the company's storage tanks and the crisis was averted when the airline stepped up to help.

Another sign the community will be cut off by rail transportation over the winter will arrive next Friday. A ship from Valleyfield, Que., is headed to the northern community with a load of more than $6 million in propane earmarked to heat homes — normally propane is moved north by rail.

The shipment was arranged by the Manitoba government and is a prudent backstop to what could have been a heating crisis for the town.

But provincial involvement in negotiations to solve the larger issue of the rail line has been minimal at best.

It's an Ottawa issue: Pallister 

"The people of Churchill are my first concern," Pallister told reporters last week.

However, like several times in the past, Pallister pointed a finger at Ottawa.

"We are ready to help in any way we can but the federal government runs ports, and I want to know where they are on their port plan" Pallister said.

When asked if Manitoba has a representative in the negotiations, Pallister didn't answer. 

"I'm not sure how prudent it would be for me to speak about specific negotiations. I'll just say there is a frustration about a lack of progress on this file on a number of fronts for a long time now," Pallister said.
Manitoba Premier, Brian Pallister, says Manitoba is ready to spend $500 million over 10 years to support Churchill

Pallister did say the province has been in touch with the federal government "numerous times," and made a commitment last month to spend $500 million in Churchill over the next decade. But Pallister refused to say what the money would be spent on and if it was made up of funding that already flows to the northern town. 

At least one person in the town is skeptical of the premier's commitment. 

Daley called Pallister's promise "bulls--t" and said most of that money is already spoken for to cover normal expenses the province incurs in supporting the town.

The chamber of commerce chair suggested any other province with a deepwater northern port and rail line would fight like mad to protect that asset. The Port of Churchill is Canada's only deepwater mainland Arctic port.

Inside the room: gloom and gloom

Hopes for a solution rose in September when the federal government appointed former Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters to negotiate among the various parties for a deal to take over the rail line, the port and get repairs started.

But, according to Omnitrax executives, it's more talking than negotiating.

"From what I understand, it's been more of a communication process than a negotiation," said Omnitrax Canada president Merv Tweed.

The lack of progress means the possibility of repairing the rail line before winter "is getting dangerously close to being too late," said Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer for Omnitrax.

"It is very concerning and frustrating for everyone involved that this isn't moving forward," Touesnard told CBC News Friday. 

Omnitrax has been working with several groups who want to take over ownership of the rail line, but the situation is complicated to say the least. 

In Spring 2016, Omnitrax signed a $20 million memorandum of understanding to sell the line and port to Missinippi Rail, a group led by former Mathias Colomb Chief Arlen Dumas, now the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
This section of the Hudson Bay Railway is just one of 24 areas between Gillam and Churchill Manitoba that Omnitrax says are impassable after flooding. (Omnitrax)

Another consortium, One North, led by Opaskwayak Cree Nation Chief Christian Sinclair, has the blessing of several northern communities, including the Town of Churchill, and an inside track with the province of Manitoba.

But as far as Omnitrax is concerned, it's Dumas that has the ball.

"Chief Dumas is the lead negotiator and we continue to follow that path," Tweed said.

When asked if Omnitrax would allow any group onto the rail line to affect repairs, as long as legal agreements were in place and liability was covered, Tweed again pointed to Dumas.

We need [the governments'] help and we need it to come right away.- Arlen  Dumas, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs

"All they have to do is make a deal with the chief and they can assume it all," Tweed said.

Dumas admitted there were some issues to be hammered out with One North, though he said they "are moving toward the same goal."

"There are some things we need to work out among ourselves," Dumas told CBC News.

But he also said Ottawa and Manitoba need to step up and commit to an investment. 

"We need their help and we need it to come right away," he said.

While politicians, business owners and community leaders continue to talk, winter is rushing towards the town of Churchill. The only thing that is certain is the people of the polar bear capital of the world will have to wait a little while longer to find out what their future holds.

Some of them, like Daley, are getting tired of waiting.

"We think the feds should have taken back the line weeks ago," he said. 

About the Author

Sean Kavanagh

Civic affairs - city hall reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than 15 years of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including as the CBC's provincial affairs reporter.