Manitoba

Churchill struggles to maintain jobs, population

Churchill’s deputy mayor, Shane Hutchins, describes the local economy in one word: “struggling.” Polar bears, beluga whales and northern lights continue to attract tourists, but their tourism dollars are not benefiting local Churchillians.

Despite being a tourism destination, challenges face local economy

The Northern Lights dance over Churchill Man. (Rosemary and Joe Pellssier)

Churchill’s deputy mayor Shane Hutchins describes the local economy in one word: “struggling.”

Polar bears, beluga whales and northern lights continue to attract tourists but the tourism dollars are not benefiting local Churchillians.

“I know there is some money being spent in Churchill but it seems to me over the last five or ten years that the model that is in place for tourism (is) being run by the larger outside agencies," he says. "They close up shop in November and a lot of that money goes down south and helps the economy of Winnipeg, but not necessarily the economy of Churchill.”

According to Hutchins, while tour operators hire locally for seasonal and part-time staff, management-level jobs are disappearing in the community.

“The clerk jobs, the waiter jobs (are) fine but we need those big paying salary jobs so we can attract people to Churchill,” says the deputy mayor.

Attracting more full-time residents to Churchill is vital for the town's survival. The population took a hammering in the last census. In 2011, Statistics Canada counted 813 residents in Churchill, down 11.9 percent from 2006.

Long-time resident Dave Daley told CBC that locals believe the population is now less than 800.

Catering to ‘elite’ travellers, missing the masses

John Hrominchuk Jr., who owns two local hotels in Churchill — the Bear Country Inn and the Churchill Hotel and Restaurant — largely agrees with Hutchins' assessment and says the big tour operators attract a very narrow clientele.

“Churchill has to be available to everybody, it can’t just be available to the elite, which is what it’s basically turning into," he said.

“I’ve got people here on aurora tours that paid $5,000 for four days. And you’re looking at at least the same or more for (polar) bear season."

He says the sheer cost now of travelling to Churchill is a major barrier to independent and regional travellers cutting out opportunities for local businesses. For instance, Hrominchuk says it is nearly impossible convince the average Winnipegger to fly north in February when, "airfare to Churchill is the same as going on a one-week vacation to Mexico."

Hutchins hopes city council will be able to speak with the companies who do business in Churchill about longer term planning.

“The challenge for us as councillors is to get these guys to the table and convince them there needs to be a greater accountability in how they do business and how we can have a voice and a say in how our own economy is grown."

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