Minister Cliff Cullen goes to Churchill amid crisis in the north

The town of Churchill, Man., will have visitors today, but whales and bears won't be the focus. Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen will lead a delegation of business and tourism officials to the Hudson Bay town in a climate of mounting gloom in northern Manitoba.
Progressive Conservative ministers are visiting Churchill after northern Manitoba communities suffered a series of economic blows. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC News)

The town of Churchill will have visitors Monday, but whales and bears won't entirely be the focus.

Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen will lead a delegation of business and tourism officials to the Hudson Bay town in a climate of mounting gloom for northern Manitoba.

United States-based rail company OmniTrax is closing the Port of Churchill and cut the number of railway freight deliveries to the town in half.

Not one cargo ship has picked up grain at the port this summer. 

Residents in The Pas are reeling after last week's announcement that the Tolko paper mill will shut down in December, putting more than 300 employees out of work and affecting hundreds more who supply the facility with products and services.

The Pas received a double blow last week when the board controlling the Aseneskak Casino signalled its intention to move operations out of the community. OmniTrax also reduced its railway workforce in the town this summer.

Churchill residents are looking for answers after Omnitrax announced it's closing the Hudson Bay port. (Sean Kavanagh CBC News )

Manitoba's northern communities taking a beating

The New Democrat MLA for Flin Flon said he hopes the PC government's visit to Churchill has some teeth in it.

"Never has there been this much bad news in the north all at once," said Tom Lindsey.

"If they're just going up there to make themselves feel good, then they may as well stay home. If they are going to offer something to the people of Churchill — that they've actually taken some action, talked to some people, done something — well then good."

The anxiety in Churchill has grown since the bad news dropped in July.

"When did Churchill become so unimportant?" asked David Daley.

The Churchill business owner said the decline has been going on for decades, from the disappearance of a Canadian military presence in the town to the federal government selling the port to OmniTrax.

Daley said something has to be done to ease shipping costs. He brings in food for his sled dog teams and the price skyrockets on the last leg of the journey.

"From New Brunswick on the east coast to Winnipeg for $638. From Winnipeg to Churchill it's $1,900," Daley said. 

"So tell me how that makes any sense. How can anyone, if they are calling for economic development in the north, how can we have development at those costs?"

Monday's visit by a provincial politician is the first public gesture made by the PCs since Premier Brian Pallister said he wouldn't respond to threats from OmniTrax.

'They have to start some serious negotiations'

Lloyd Axworthy, a former federal minister and former University of Winnipeg president, said Churchill is a valuable heirloom for the country that needs investment or Canada will find out one day it's been lost.

Lloyd Axworthy says everyone has to get back to the bargaining table. (CBC News )
Axworthy was the chair of the Churchill Gateway Development Corp. for several years but quit in frustration more than a year ago.

Axworthy said the previous provincial NDP government didn't put nearly enough effort into the Churchill file and the new PC government has to step up to the table.

"They have to start some serious negotiations with [OmniTrax], the First Nations and the Government of Canada," Axworthy said.

The PCs have to understand that if the rail line to the port is not maintained, all the communities along the line will still have to be supplied and that will be expensive, Axworthy said. He also said he believes there is a solid business case for expanding shipments into the north — to communities such as Iqaluit — that are currently supplied through Montreal.

The federal government said it's studying the Churchill issue and has sent a senior bureaucrat from Western Economic Diversification to look at the problem first-hand.