Hotline to Denver: Politicans want clarity, communication from Omnitrax leaders

Somewhere along the line Pat Broe went from the man who "rescued" Manitoba's northern rail service to a villain from a foreign company that has turned its back on hundreds, if not thousands of northerners.

Ottawa, province, local governments frustrated by lack of communication with owner of Churchill rail line

An aerial photograph shows the scale of damage OmniTrax has to deal with to restore train travel to Churchill. (Omnitrax)

Somewhere along the line Pat Broe went from the man who "rescued" Manitoba's northern rail service to a villain from a foreign company that has turned its back on hundreds, if not thousands of northerners.

In 2008, the Denver billionaire and owner of the Broe group of companies, including Omnitrax, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Winnipeg, partly because of his "significant personal contributions to Churchill" and the university.

Broe is in good company.

Former premier and ambassador Gary Doer has one. So do at least three members of the Richardson family, former NHL goalie Ken Dryden, artists such as Miriam Toews and Leo Mol and activists Leslie Spillet and David Suzuki.

They and dozens of other distinguished souls have the honorific in front of their names.

But it is probably safe to say there are few on that list whose name has become akin to a curse in some circles. Broe's name is likely not said with high praise among many northerners these days.

Broe's contributions, according to the U of W, helped "establish Churchill as the leading northern sustainable community."

He has gone from being praised as a man whose "unique vision and role in the development of Manitoba's north has been truly remarkable" — as the school writes on its website — to someone powerful people in this province and country can't get on the phone.

In a conversation for background purposes recently, a senior member of the Trudeau government expressed deep frustration about the inability of anyone at the highest level to be able to communicate with Omnitrax.

Premier Brian Pallister says Omnitrax, which owns and operates the rail line to Churchill, has 'obligations to restore service expeditiously.' (CBC News)

Hotline to Denver doesn't appear to be open these days

Confusion about how to deal with Omnitrax is not exclusive to Ottawa mandarins. Manitoba politicos have used the media to express their own white-knuckle frustrations.

Premier Brian Pallister, whose government is parked on the siding right next to the political fallout of the Churchill crisis, said once about Omnitrax that he doesn't respond to threats.

This past week he danced a slightly more diplomatic step, but clearly Manitoba's premier is not getting real-time intel from the company on what's wrong with the tracks.

"I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to evaluate honestly what's necessary to fix this situation and you can't do that from a helicopter or an airplane so we need to get some understanding from Omnitrax how they are going to pursue the assessment; they own the line," Pallister said Thursday.

It's doubtful Pallister has forgotten Omnitrax is suing Manitoba for unpaid subsidies for its losses.

Some view the public purse as a player in this tragedy. For years, Omnitrax was the recipient of hopper-car sized loads of government cash.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said there is no question the Hudson Bay Railway line must be fixed and is calling on action to reconsider buying back the line along with the Port of Churchill. (CBC)

Churchill mayor Mike Spence, perhaps going as far as anyone, told reporters at a press conference this week that years of government largess for Omnitrax has tainted the relationship, stymieing​ current efforts to make a deal and "get the damn rail line fixed."

"It's always been a free ride, guys. But I will tell you,  this is why governments are reluctant to engage with Omnitrax. They've doing this for 20 God damned years," Spence said.

It wasn't always this way

Omnitrax has been operating in Manitoba since 1997 and from many accounts was focused on improving efficiency, moving more product and making money.

Anecdotal evidence suggests track speed times were rising and derailments were dropping. Folks with knowledge of the railroad say Omnitrax had experienced people and focused on improvements.

Canada, Manitoba and Omnitrax were partners in the Churchill Gateway Development Corporation, an entity dedicated to researching and developing new markets. 

But by 2012 or so the odd bedfellows were starting to fall out of the bed.

The feds pulled out of Gateway and the province soon followed suit. By 2013, the two governments had moved along with a new strategy for the port, and by 2015, Lloyd Axworthy, the long-serving chair of the company, was gone too.

The Winnipeg Free Press reported that no one in government even bothered to tell Omnitrax the joint venture was over. 

For Sale: Slightly damaged rail line and port

Much of the focus recently has been centred on fixing the damage to the line following the flood in late May. But the "for sale" sign has been up since last year, and if relations between Omnitrax and the two governments were strained before, they appear to have derailed completely.

But if government and railman couldn't meet, it doesn't mean Omnitrax has gone underground.

A $20 million deal would see Missinippi Rail take over the Port of Churchill and rail line from The Pas to Hudson Bay. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC News)

I'll meet you in Swan River

There is an oft-forgotten player in the Churchill rail/port saga that still had an in with the American company.

Omnitrax president is pleased about the MOU signed with a consortium of northern groups but says right now company is focused on flooding issues. (CBC News )
The Hudson Bay Route Association has, in one form or another, been lobbying like mad for a well-resourced and properly maintained transportation corridor through Churchill — since the 1920s.

The coalition of agriculture producers and communities in Northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan have pleaded and cajoled and arm-twisted through literally dozens of governments.

And as late as this past April, while ministers or their designates compained they couldn't get five minutes on the phone with Omnitrax, its Canadian president was at a meeting of the HBRA in Swan River.

Merv Tweed had emailed HBRA president Eldon Boon to say he was coming and would be accompanied by Mathias Colomb Chief Arlen Dumas and they had an announcement to make.

Dumas would later surface as the holder of a memorandum of understanding with Omnitrax pledging to sell the rail line and port for $20 million.

And Dumas and Tweed did show up, but Boon says something happened on the way to Swan River.

"They didn't make the announcement they thought they were going to make, which frustrated the audience; some hard questions came at [Merv Tweed] and they left in a bit of a fluff," Boon said.

Northern group signs deal to buy Port of Churchill and rail line

6 years ago
Duration 2:16
CBC News has learned a deal has been struck to sell the Port of Churchill in Manitoba and the rail line connecting it to the south, but one of its principals is slamming the federal government for its lack of support.
That was the last communication Boon says the company had with the organization, and with it went the last apparent line of dialogue across the Canada-U.S. border.

It's left Boon summing up what many have said over the last year.

"That's the thing with trying to deal with this company, there is just no communication," Boon said.

Boon says the Omnitrax door "was slammed shut" when Tweed sent an email saying not to contact him anymore.

But like so many people dedicated to keeping Churchill's port going and its rail line humming, Boon isn't giving up. He'll meet next month with some provincial ministers to keep up the pressure.

And Churchill mayor Mike Spence isn't giving up either. He's firing bullets at whatever target he can find, and this week joined with the Keewatin Tribal council to offer assistance to Omnitrax to fix the rail line faster — in two months, not 10, as the company suggests.

If you want to see even more dedication to the cause, check the social media postings of the folks that actually live in Churchill.

None of them may ever get a chance, but if the phone line to Broe was open, they'd probably tell him, "We aren't going anywhere."


Sean Kavanagh

Former CBC reporter

Sean Kavanagh was a reporter for CBC Manitoba from 2003-21. He covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections.