Brighter skies ahead for Manitoba's north?

Most of the news around northern Manitoba has been dreary at best, given the impending closure of the Tolko paper mill in The Pas, a looming problem with the rail line up to Churchill and the local port. But there's promising news for those communities that arose from a meeting this week.

Communities in the province's north pull together, but the odds are steep

The economic future of The Pas, Man., has been in question since Tolko Industries announced it's closing its paper mill in the community at the end of this year. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The fall colours are just starting to show along the highway to The Pas and the region could use a little brightening up.

Most of the news around this part of Manitoba has been dreary at best: the impending closure of the Tolko paper mill, a looming problem with the rail line up to Churchill, and workers at the port being laid off. Even the casino in The Pas is looking at moving south.

When gambling doesn't make money, things are tight.

But perhaps the spirits in the trees blew some of their warm colours at northern Manitoba with two distinct bits of news on Monday.

A meeting between most of the stakeholders involved with the paper mill was a genuinely positive affair.

Mathias Colomb Chief Arlen Dumas called it a "historic meeting."

Arlen Dumas, chief of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, says a deal to purchase the rail line from The Pas to Churchill — and the port in the town — is still alive. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)
"I think it was something we need to take pride in. You know, it's probably one of the first times in recent history where we had everyone who has an interest in the operation of this mill sitting down at the table together in a collaborative manner," Dumas said.

Manitoba Growth and Enterprise Minister Cliff Cullen tipped his hat to the locals, remarking on their spirit and how they have pulled together.

"We are optimistic something may happen," Cullen said following the meeting.

Even Jim Scott, the mayor of The Pas, who's been under a lot of pressure recently, called it a "great meeting."

Not many specifics

But the smiles gave way to far-off looks when reporters started hunting for details.

There was talk of "tire-kicker" companies interested in buying the mill and not a lot of specifics as to who they are and what they'd want in return for a facility that Tolko Industries clearly wants to see off its books.

Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen praised the spirit of people in northern Manitoba and how they've pulled together. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)
Cullen alluded to "previous discussions" with Tolko aimed at convincing the B.C. company to stay in The Pas. But the closest he got to saying words such as "tax breaks" or "subsidies" came out in very, very careful language.

"We are not interested in short-term solutions for short-term political gain. Anytime we would entertain any kind of assistance is if it's going to be a long-term, concrete business plan," Cullen said.

However, he did say the word "assistance," and it is the closest to any tangible offer the Tories have made during this summer of trouble in the north.

So the home team has scrummed on the paper mill challenge, the players are all at least facing the same end of the field, and now some "tire-kickers" have to show themselves.

Churchill deal dead? 'Absolutely not,' says chief

The other movement that may cheer some northerners is news from Dumas that a deal to purchase the rail line from The Pas to Churchill — and the port in the town — is still alive.

Several First Nation communities depend on the rail line for supplies and at one point it looked like they had an agreement to buy out the current owner.

"It will happen," said Dumas.

The First Nation leader gave just a slight grin when reporters told him that if Denver-based OmniTrax Rail is talking to him, he was one of few in Canada. (Politicians from both the federal and provincial governments have decried the company's lack of communication.)

The Pas Mayor Jim Scott called Monday's session a 'great meeting.' (Tyson Koschik/CBC)
Dumas says OmniTrax is "absolutely" taking his calls.

"We are in an arrangement and we are moving forward and we are doing our due diligence and it's going to happen," Dumas said. "Just gotta be patient."

Dumas is taking a big political step here. Not everyone in his community is on board the train to Churchill and he faces an election in October.

Patience is in short supply these days in northern Manitoba. The clock is ticking down to a December close for the Tolko mill and the uncertainty in Churchill is blowing through that town like a stiff wind off the Hudson Bay.

What locals will be patient for is some economic certainty to come out of this; something not on offer by out-of-province companies. 

How the Progressive Conservative government moves on these files will likely be as revealing as anything they've done in their short time in office so far.

About the Author

Sean Kavanagh

Civic affairs - city hall reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than 15 years of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including as the CBC's provincial affairs reporter.