'Tough and resilient' Churchill residents make isolated community home

The population has steadily declined since Churchill became a fly-in community more than a year ago when rail service was cut off. Jobs are more scarce and everything from food to fuel costs more because it has to be flown or shipped in, but some refuse to leave.

Loss of the only land link to the south has forced some to leave the northern town, but others choose to stay

Florence Hamilton is a descendent of the Sayisi Dene that settled in the Churchill area. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Florence Hamilton's ancestors once followed the caribou across the Arctic tundra.

That was before the federal government forcibly relocated the Sayisi Dene to barren land outside Churchill, Man., in 1956.

By 1973, 117 of the more than 250 people who were moved had died, and most of those still alive moved west to Tadoule Lake, where they still live today.

Hamilton's family decided to stay in Churchill, on the shore of Hudson Bay.

When the community's top employer, the port, closed in 2016, Hamilton, 49, decided to stay.

When the only rail line was washed out the following year and isolated the community, many people moved south. Hamilton decided to stay.

"I am going to be the last person standing. I am not going anywhere. It doesn't matter how bad it gets here, I am not going anywhere. It's my home," she says.

"It's where I grew up and my family is here. All my stories are here."

Churchill's history long predates Confederation and many locals are directly connected to the beginning days of the fur trade. Over the decades the population has fluctuated. There were more than 6,000 people when a Cold-War-era airbase was in operation. Now the town is home to about 800, depending on the season.

The population has steadily declined since Churchill became a fly-in community more than a year ago when rail service was cut off. Jobs are more scarce and everything from food to fuel costs more because it has to be flown or shipped in.

Excited barking echoes off a property just outside town where Dave Daley, owner of dog-sled company Wapusk Adventures and president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce, feeds his pack.

David Daley, dog musher and president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce, takes care of his dogs. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Dog food was about $600 a pallet when it came by rail. Now he's paying more than $2,400.

"If everyone moves south because it's too expensive to live up here, then what's going to happen to our north?" Daley asks.

"We are the caretakers of our north. We are northerners. We are born and raised here. I'm third generation Churchill. My kids are fourth generation and my grandchildren are fifth generation."

Despite the current challenges, Daley believes Churchill will thrive again.

"We are a hopeful bunch up here. We are tough and resilient."

Philip da Silva, owner of Gypsy's Bakery and Restaurant, a hub of the community that burned to the ground in May, mixes drinks in the Tundra Inn in Churchill, Man. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Philip DaSilva had just finished a months-long dog-sled journey when his phone lit up with messages in May. His family's business, Gypsy's Bakery, a mainstay in Churchill, had been destroyed by fire.

"A lot of people said it was like the information hub of Churchill. If you needed to know what was going on, an event or this or that, call Gypsy's," DaSilva says from behind the bar at the Tundra Inn and Pub where he works most nights of the week.

Fire crews put out hot spots in the burned-out shell that was Gypsy's Bakery. (Submitted by Leroy Whitmore)

Originally from Portugal, DaSilva's family first settled in Montreal. When he was 11, they decided to relocate to the remote Manitoba community.

It gave him more freedom and a unique childhood.

"If I wanted to cross the street in Montreal, my mom would keep an eye on me and I couldn't go further than a block that way or a block that way. And then I get here and, 'Here's a four-wheeler. Here's a shotgun. Dinner's at 7 p.m. See you later,"' DaSilva says with a laugh.

"It was like moving to a bigger place than Montreal. I could go anywhere I wanted and didn't have to have anyone looking after you. Everyone looks after each other."

The family hasn't decided whether to sell the bakery property or rebuild. It depends on the rail line's repair.

There's another sector of the population of the small community: recent immigrants, researchers and backpackers searching for adventure. Many workers are transient, only coming during the busy season, but some find a home.

Claudia Grill, project co-ordinator for the Training to Employment Project, is photographed with Sea Walls Churchill mural art. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Claudia Grill moved from Austria to Churchill to work on a PhD project studying the interaction between humans and the Arctic environment.

She was only supposed to be there a year, but Grill decided to stay.

"When I first got here, it felt like I was on a completely different planet compared to the rolling hills of Austria," she says, pointing to Hudson Bay filled with beluga whales.

"I care about the place. I'm not just here to stay for two more years or three more years.

"I want to be here for a long time."


Kelly Geraldine Malone

The Canadian Press

Kelly Geraldine Malone is a reporter for The Canadian Press.