Deaths and deceit: Churchill rail line has long track record of controversy

The ongoing turmoil surrounding the Hudson Bay rail line to Churchill somehow doesn't seem surprising, considering the troubled track's history is rooted in controversy.

Construction of the northern Manitoba rail line a story of 'incredible endurance, hardship and exploitation'

Workers endured bitter cold and intense heat depending on the season, as well as mosquitoes and black flies, as they laid track across raw terrain and muskeg for the rail line to Churchill. (Archives of Manitoba Jim Langlois Collection)

The ongoing turmoil surrounding the Hudson Bay rail line to Churchill somehow doesn't seem surprising, considering the troubled track's history is rooted in controversy.

"It was built through really tough terrain and in a tough time in our history, a time when workers' rights really didn't exist," said Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.

"A number of workers died and many had serious injuries as health and safety was not a priority. In fact, one mile of that track had 50 grave sites along the edge of it, of workers who had died while building that line."

Author Doug Smith, who has written extensively about labour history, described the story of Hudson Bay Railway construction as "one of incredible endurance, hardship and exploitation."

Winnipeg's economy was booming and its population was exploding with immigrants looking for work at the time of the rail line's construction, so companies held all the power. (Archives of Manitoba)

The construction of the rail line overlapped with the Winnipeg General Strike, which saw those labour frustrations boil over in 1919. Some 30,000 workers walked away from their jobs for six weeks, nearly paralyzing the city as they demanded fair wages, better working hours and union recognition.

It was a time in history when Winnipeg's economy was booming and its population was exploding with immigrants looking for work, so companies held all the power.

In his book, Let us Rise! An Illustrated History of the Manitoba Labour Movement, Smith says the contractors in charge of the construction consistently ignored the few safety regulations requested by the government.

"Hundreds of miles north of any government inspectors, [the contractors] felt free to force their largely immigrant workforce to labour in the most unsafe conditions."

Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck said labour rights and working conditions have come a long way from those workers faced laying the rail line, but there are always those trying to claw back some of those protections. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

There were men who had their arms or legs crushed while another, who was less injured than that, was told by a medic in the work camp to rest for a day or two. But when the foreman heard that, he roared that it was no hospital and ordered the worker to go back to Winnipeg, according to Smith.

"It certainly was indicative of where society was at and how workers were frustrated, whether it was them working on the rail line or in Winnipeg," said Rebeck.

"There wasn't a lot of respect or fairness in wages, in treatment, in having a voice. If you didn't like the way something was happening, 'too bad' was the attitude of employers back then."

Idea planted by farmers

The idea for a rail line to Churchill was sparked in the late 1890s by Prairie farmers who believed the Canadian Pacific Railway, running east-west across Canada, was using its monopoly to impose high shipping fees to get their grains to market.

They pushed for an alternative and viewed Hudson Bay as a possible sea port. After dogged lobbying, the federal government agreed to build the Hudson Bay Railway, stretching 800 kilometres from The Pas to Churchill.

The Hudson Bay Railway under construction, circa 1920. (Archives of Manitoba)

Work started in 1906 but was interrupted during the war years, 1914-18, and then by the economic downturn that followed the First World War.

It wasn't until 1927 that the Canadian government resumed the project and put somewhat of a rush on it. 

Workers were lured to the camp under false claims that they would be well taken care of with food and lodging. But rooms that were made to hold 17 people were packed with 40 or more, Rebeck said.

The men were offered work at 20-30 cents an hour but not told ahead of time that they had to pay $1 per day for room and board — and for the transportation to the camp.

A construction camp along the Hudson Bay Railway. (Archives of Manitoba/Peter Lacey Collection)

"It was not uncommon for men to work 16-hour days, seven days a week for six months at back-breaking pick-and-shovel work … only to be told in the end that they owed the contractor $100," Smith wrote.

The ads to attract workers to the camps also trumpeted an unrestricted supply of fresh meat, fresh vegetables, butter, eggs, milk, bread and fruit.

There was no fresh meat or vegetables "or any of the food they were promised," Rebeck said. 

For the most part, meals were salt pork, beans and biscuits.

'Roughest in Manitoba'

In order to keep the workers from banding together or even unionizing, the contractors played them off against each other to divide them, encouraging racism and discrimination, Rebeck said.

"It was a key part of making sure to keep labour costs low," he said.

The HBR runs from The Pas to Churchill, as well as from The Pas to Flin Flon. (Omnitrax)

Without much energy restored from the poor food, the workers endured either bitter cold or intense heat depending on the season, as well as mosquitoes and blackflies.

"Some of the men would be bitten so badly that their eyes became infected [and] eventually they had to be hospitalized," states an account by Leonard Earl, a Winnipeg Tribune reporter at the time, whose writings are held by the Archives of Manitoba.

They dug and picked and hauled wheelbarrows of rock to build the rail bed, lay the track and construct bridges.

And they toiled across "terrain [that] was the roughest in Manitoba," Smith wrote.

According to the Manitoba Historical Society, "there were hundreds of miles of muskeg capable of swallowing large sections of roadbed and track, as well as areas of shifting permafrost, to be crossed."

(Archives of Manitoba)

Then there were the outcrops of Canadian Shield that needed to be blasted away.

"The speed of getting this done was what was being driven and pushed. Health and safety was not a priority," Rebeck said.

"The contractor was looking to get a job done and didn't care what price was paid in workers' lives."

The last spike was driven on April 3, 1929, at Churchill. It was another two years until the port facilities were completed and the rail line was officially declared open.

By that time, 150 workers had died from explosions and hundreds more from other causes, according to reports from the time, though no concrete number of fatalities is known.

'Fight is always ongoing'

While it was originally built to transport grain, the Hudson Bay Railway track evolved into a lifeline that brought supplies and goods to northern Manitobans and tourists to see polar bears, beluga whales and the northern lights.

It became an important linkage in the province but one that not many people know the history behind, Rebeck said.

A cartoon by Arch Dale, published in 1915 in the Grain Grower's Guide, illustrated the feelings among some western farmers that tariffs and rail rates favoured eastern bankers and capitalists. (Glenbow Archives)

"We've come a long way [in terms of labour rights] but the fight is always ongoing," he said.

"We now have decent health and safety regulations but they are always at risk. There are those trying to say those regulations are red tape that make a job more expensive and that they can do it faster and cheaper if they toss that aside."

And we still have companies that don't live up to their agreements, leaving people in sometimes desperate situations, Rebeck said, citing the current owners of the Hudson Bay line, Denver-based Omnitrax.

"They signed a deal saying they would repair and maintain the track but have let it deteriorate and are now trying to get out of it."

Omnitrax bought the branch line in 1997 and revived the Hudson Bay Railway name. (Hudson Bay Railway)

Omnitrax, for its part, has argued it cannot afford the repairs, estimated to cost between $40 million and $60 million, after the 2017 flood that washed out the rail line. Omnitrax has argued that flood was a "force majeure" event — an exceptional circumstance that curtails the firm's contractual obligations.

The Denver-based company bought the Hudson Bay line in 1997. It had become a branch line of the federally owned Canadian National Railway system some years earlier but was sold off when the government privatized CN in 1995.

When Omnitrax bought it, along with the port of Churchill, the company revived the Hudson Bay Railway name. 

But the line has been unusable since May 2017, when it was heavily damaged in severe flooding. Since then, there have been squabbles over who is responsible for repairs with owner Denver-based owner Omnitrax rejecting demands from the federal government to fix it.

Instead, Omnitrax has attempted to sell the line, with a number of suitors surfacing and then some walking away, all the while residents in Churchill have suffered economically.

Prices of goods have soared to cover the expense of flying them in, while tourism and the related income has plummeted in the town of 900, located 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Flooding severely damaged the rail line in May 2017. (Omnitrax)
It has been estimated that the repairs to the rail line to Churchill will cost between $40 million and $60 million. (Submitted by Omnitrax)

Last week, the Canadian Transportation Agency ruled Omnitrax should have taken reasonable steps to repair the line by November 2017 —  the timeline first proposed by the engineering company, AECOM, that Omnitrax hired to assess the flood damage.

The federal regulator has ordered Omnitrax to begin repairs by July 3 and file monthly progress reports beginning in August until the work is complete.

Omnitrax has signaled its intention to appeal the federal order. That appeal will be heard by a federal court, which could order the company to fix the line and pay financial damages to Churchill.

However, all of it could be a moot point.

A tentative deal is in the works to sell the line and the port to two groups representing northern communities and First Nations — One North and Missinippi Rail LP, operating together as Missinippi Rail Partners — along with Fairfax Financial Holdings and AGT Food and Ingredients.

There are still a number of legal issues that must be resolved before the sale — which would leave the new owners with the responsibility for repairs — is finalized.

After that, a timeline on when work crews can get on the rail tracks and do repairs will be set.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Sean Kavanagh