Churchill port makes 1st domestic grain shipment

A ship leaving Churchill on Wednesday marks the first time grain has ever moved from the northern Manitoba port to a Canadian customer, with Halifax the destination.

A ship leaving Churchill on Wednesday marks the first time grain hasmoved from the northern Manitoba port to a Canadian customer.

The Kathryn Spirit sailed to Churchill from Montrealwith goods for communities on the Hudson's Bay coast. Instead of returning with an empty hold, it will carry 12,500 tonnes of prairie wheatdestined fora mill in Halifax.

The Port of Churchill has been trying to expand its business for decades, and Wednesday's shipment represents hope for many in the community.

"We're very hopeful that they'll see how efficient this is and the cost savings that will be seen, and that they'll utilize this far more often," said Rose Pretau, president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce.

The Halifax-bound grain shipment is for the Canadian Wheat Board, which is already the port's biggest customer, shipping more than 360,000 tonnes of grain to Latin America, Africa and Europe.

Barry Prentice, a transportation analyst at the University of Manitoba, wonders why the wheatboard hasn't shipped more grain to domestic markets through Churchill.

"The rail costs to Churchill would be less than going to the Lakehead [at Thunder Bay], and then the shipping through the Great Lakes, you have to pay a lot of fees for going through the locks on the St. Lawrence [Seaway]," he said.

"Those would be avoided going through Churchill."

Increase in Arctic supply shipping

Wheat board spokeswoman Maureen Fitzhenry said the board was waiting for more Canadian ships to arrive at the port.Now that that's happening, the board plans to ship more grain through it, she said.

"We do want to see the use of Churchill maximized to ensure that it is there for the long term and keeping those cost savings in place for farmers, and keeping an alternative to the Seaway," she said.

More Canadian ships are coming through the port as the Arctic supply business expands, and those ships could carry grain or other cargo out, said Bill Drew, executive director of the Churchill Gateway Development Corporation.

"There are mines coming on-stream in Nunavut — particularly the Kivalliq region, which is directly north of Churchill — and Churchill does a large percentage of that resupply business," he said.

"The more two-way traffic that we can build out of the port, obviously, it has the potential to lower our transportation costs for all of the movements, both the northbound movements and the southbound movements, and that's really our goal here."

The Churchill port — owned by Denver-based OmniTRAX, which alsoruns the Hudson Bay Railway leading toit —has been attracting more attention in recent years as scientists predict climate change could open the Northwest Passage in as few as 25 years.

Currently, however, the port's business is limited by the cold climate: it is only open four months a year, when its waters are ice free.