Ottawa should buy Port of Churchill, model it after airports, says mayor

Mayor Mike Spence says the Port of Churchill can be saved if the federal government purchases back the land and models its operation after airports in Canada.

'That's the fix that has to happen,' says Churchill Mayor Mike Spence

The federal government sold the Port of Churchill to OmniTrax in 1997. Now the mayor and others are calling on Ottawa to buy it back. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Mayor Mike Spence says the Port of Churchill can be saved if the federal government purchases back the land and models its operation after airports in Canada.

Earlier this week U.S.-based OmniTrax announced it would be closing the Port of Churchill after a dismal year of low revenues in 2015 and a similarly slow summer this year.

Spence believes it's time for the federal government to buy back northern Canada's only deep sea port and create a non-share capital corporation to run it.

Airports are run by organizations like the Winnipeg Airports Authority, which manage facilities but have no shareholders and are not publicly traded. Many are run by boards comprised of government and local representatives. 

The federal government owns airports and surrounding land and leases it to the corporation. Any revenue earned by the non-share capital corporation, like fees from airline ticket sales, must be reinvested back into the airport.
Situated on the Hudson Bay, Churchill is home to the only deep sea port in northern Canada. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Spence argues a model like that would help sustain the Port of Churchill and keep it viable for northern shipping and trade in the future.

"That's the fix that has to happen," he said.

"Something that's successful, something that continues to reinvest in the facilities that it operates," he said.

On Thursday, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said OmniTrax's decision to close the port and subsequently reduce freight rail service to once per week is a "leverage tactic."

Pallister said OmniTrax is putting pressure on government to bail the company out. OmniTrax has received millions in public subsidies since the federal government sold the port to the company in 1997.

David Daley, president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce praised the premier on his hard stance with the U.S. company.

"OmniTrax has got a lot of money out of the feds and the province and I think that it's about time someone stood up to them," Daley said.

Daley said the business community in Churchill is yearning for a long-term solution that will keep stable jobs in the north.

More than just the 750 residents in Churchill will suffer the consequences of the port's closure, added Daley.

All the communities that line the Hudson Bay rely on the port for goods, he said.

"I think it's a real emergency situation, not only for Churchill and the bay line communities and Nunavut, I think it is for the country of Canada," Daley said.

"This is a very strategic place in our country, even for the sovereignty of our arctic."
Mayor Mike Spence believes if the federal government buys back the Port of Churchill and models its operations after an airport, the port will stay viable in the long term. (Lyzaville Salle/CBC)

However, local activist Maria Mattice Saunders said it's important that residents continue to resist the proposal to ship crude oil through Churchill, a proposal which might encourage OmniTrax to re-open the port.

"We're a tourist community. We have our beluga whales, our polar bears, we hunt off the land, we subsist off the land. Oil up here would kill that," said Mattice Saunders.

In 2014 OmniTrax Canada president Merv Tweed said grain shipments would be enough to sustain port operations but the company might look at shipping oil through the port in future years.

with files from Sean Kavanagh