Living on the edge in Churchill

Churchill is a unique place, not only in Manitoba but in Canada and around the world. But the northern town's port may be closed and rail service has been cut, and tourism is not enough to maintain the community in its current form.

There is a wild, frontier feel to the town like it's on the edge of something, and not just Hudson Bay

A polar bear near Churchill, Man. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

The sound rising up through the din in the pub at the Tundra Inn in Churchill, Man., comes from an exotic creature, and it's not a polar bear growl or the whoosh of air from a beluga whale as it surfaces.

It's the Australian accent of the young woman who had heard of Churchill, the unique things to see there and a local tourist trade to sustain a job for a few months.

In the evening, the bar is a couple of layers deep with young people working for hotels, restaurants and tour companies. The Aussie accent mingles with others from other countries and provinces, and it is a testimony to how rare a place this is in this province.

The pub at the Tundra Inn in Churchill, Man., hears voices from countries around the world. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)
Twenty-somethings from far away don't flock to Winnipeg to work the tourist season.

Churchill has something special and it is more than the three months of work that young travellers can get before heading to Banff or Whistler for the next seasonal gig.

Churchill is a potent and special mix of northern lights, a tree line that melts into the tundra and pods of beluga whales, sometimes in the hundreds. It also has those breathtaking massive polar bears — as big as an Austin Mini — loping along the shores with a casual air that comes from being on top of the food chain.

There is a wild, frontier feel to the town; on the edge of something, and not just Hudson Bay.

But the town needs more than a steady flow of bear watchers.

Beluga whales consistently spend each summer on the western Hudson Bay coast and in the Nelson, Churchill and Seal river estuaries. (Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oceans North Canada)

Tourism won't pay all the bills

Churchill has been for many decades a working town: a base, a port, a rocket range, a northern hub.

It's those things and their slow erosion — and, in some cases, their demise — that are more likely to be conversations at Churchill locations such as the Royal Canadian Legion or around some tables at Gypsy's Bakery and Restaurant.

Locals know that the tourist trade will not pay all the bills to live on the edge of Hudson Bay. They mutter about losing their hub status for the regional airline and talk about how little upkeep has been done by Denver-based OmniTrax on either the rail line into town or the port terminal.

It's hard not to see some evidence of that last opinion. Dozens of windows in the port terminal building are smashed, paint is peeling and sections of the dock way are eroding into the water. It appears that OmniTrax, recipient of whale-sized subsidies in past decades, wasn't spending taxpayer cash on cosmetics, anyway.

An executive in Canada's grain business told CBC News under the condition of anonymity that the port facilities were badly run down and in poor condition, and the rail line was in even worse shape. The business case for running grain through the north isn't currently strong enough, according to the source.

Churchill's port facility shows wear and tear. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Company's silence deafening

OmniTrax still isn't saying much of anything other than it's out, despite multiple requests for comment and even a visit by CBC News to the company's Winnipeg office, looking for someone to say anything about their recent moves.

The American outfit's silence might engender some appetite to look back and ask, "Just where did all that Canadian cash go?"

But that's not part of the rhetoric among some of the players in this tundra dance right now. Northern First Nations, once touted to be purchasers of the rail line and the port, are permafrosted in silence now.

Churchill residents know tourism isn't enough to sustain the town on 'the bay.' (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

The federal government has offered little more than platitudes, from emailed statements by Navdeep Bains, the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development, to Manitoba cabinet minister Jim Carr recently promising to "gather intelligence" on the Churchill file.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister came closest in the candour department, labelling OmniTrax as an issuer of threats and saying he wouldn't respond to that kind of tactic.

That doesn't mean the premier's team has proposed a solution, but it's further than the feds have gone since OmniTrax signaled its lack of interest in the future of the rail line or the port.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has said he won't be threatened by OmniTrax on the Churchill file. (CBC)
Last week, bad weather grounded a provincial crew of ministers and staff headed to Churchill for meetings with stakeholders. The get-together was hastily reconvened at the Manitoba Legislature. The Pallister government is promising a northern strategy to come, but there are no details.

In keeping with the sharp tone coming from Pallister's Progressive Conservative government, a press release following those meetings fired another shot at OmniTrax, asking the company to say something — anything — to the people impacted by its decision.

"It is our hope representatives of OmniTrax will follow our lead and will reach out to the communities that are being impacted by their recent decision," the provincial release said.


  • An earlier version of this story suggested former Liberal cabinet minister and former president of the University of Winnipeg Lloyd Axworthy had been silent on the closing of the port of Churchill. In fact Mr. Axworthy wrote an analysis of the issue in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 28th.
    Aug 10, 2016 5:38 PM CT