Churchill rail line appears to be neither 'critical' nor 'strategic' to governments

Officials have called the line "critical," and Manitoba's only deep-water port "strategic," but 30 days later, with no movement on reopening the line, it's not clear what weight "critical" and "strategic" really carry.

Feds' deadline passes with no movement on line

The rail line to Churchill has been out of commission for 6 months. (Mike Spence Submitted)

Officials have called the rail line to Churchill "critical," and Manitoba's only deep-water port "strategic." 

But 30 days after Ottawa gave Omnitrax a deadline — reopen the line or prepare for a lawsuit —  and the line still closed, it's not clear what weight "critical" and "strategic" really carry. 

When is a road, bridge, building or system — or a railroad — a piece of "critical infrastructure" to a country?

If you try to Google it, the first hit is an official Government of Canada website. "Critical infrastructure refers to processes, systems, facilities, technologies, networks, assets and services essential to the health, safety, security or economic well-being of Canadians and the effective functioning of government."

These words appear at the top of Public Safety Canada's website after you scroll through National Security.

OK. Well, the rail line to Churchill and the deep water port at the end of it might meet some of those guidelines, but perhaps being stuck in the northernmost corner of a have-not province may wash out the word "critical."

What about "strategic infrastructure"? 

Infrastructure Canada comes up numero uno on Google again, with a page on Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund Projects.

It is a list of what Ottawa not only has believed is strategic infrastructure, but what it deems worthy of investment.

All the money is spoken for and the program closes in 2019-20, but it is a snapshot of historical infrastructure priorities under the general heading of "strategic."

Lots of highways and roads on that list.

Highway 63 in Alberta got $150 million. Highway 175 in Quebec was widened for $262 million. Several routes in New Brunswick pick up $114 million and the province got another $210 million to twin the Trans-Canada. 

There are mega dollars for the Toronto Transit Commission ($350 million) and the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre Expansion ($222 million).

Manitoba did make the list. The Red River Floodway expansion cashed a $332-million cheque from the feds.

'Strategic' is in the eye of the beholder

There are also plenty of projects on the Strategic Infrastructure Fund Projects list you can't drive on or through or over or around, nor will they keep you dry from flooding or land you safely.
Toronto International Film Festival Centre was deemed 'strategic infrastructure' by Ottawa and got $25 million. (CBC News)

The Toronto International Film Festival Group's Festival Centre got $25 million. Surely watching films with Hollywood heavyweights is in the strategic interests of the nation?

The Toronto Soccer Stadium got $25 million. Hey, the game is played everywhere. Has to be strategic. 

Breaking glass by hitting high notes is strategic right? The Canadian Opera Company got $25 million as well.

Even rail lines did make the list, as Quebec convinced Ottawa a $30-million investment in Shortline Rail Projects was good strategy.

There are many more on the list and in fairness it was started by a previous government; plus, there are many ways each proponent would argue the strategic and critical value of each project.

Perhaps that is why a stretch of rail line in the northern portion of Manitoba's north is neither "critical" nor "strategic" enough to qualify. 

6 months with nothing to show for repairs

That a transportation link could be shut down for a length of time is understandable. Roads wash out, power lines are blown down and trains derail.

But it is rare, perhaps almost never, when nothing is done. Not a shovel lifted, not a pebble moved, for half a year.

Perhaps the word "strategic" and "Churchill" just don't belong in the same sentence in Ottawa? 

Lots of words have been said. By Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, by his Transportation Minister Marc Garneau. By Manitoba's sole cabinet rep, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr. 
Is the rail line to Churchill 'critical' or 'strategic' to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Brian Pallister? (CBC News )

But words in press releases and said in interviews or spoken at funding announcements for other projects don't add up to much when a rail line sits in the exact same condition it was in when a flood blew some tracks out six months ago.

It seems clear in words and deeds that "critical" and "strategic" don't make Premier Brian Pallister's vocabulary on the Churchill rail line file.

Rails and ports are Ottawa's responsibility, he says.

Even if Pallister were to take ownership of the only ground transport to polar bears and beluga whales and 800 of his citizens, he's busy sending other messages to the federal government. On climate change, health care, marijuana. 

Too fast, not fast enough, not enough. 

At least optically, his relentless criticism of the Trudeau Liberals lends no help to solving the Churchill debacle.

With no assistant or deputy ministers assigned to help him with the file, it's fallen to Churchill Mayor Mike Spence to attempt to navigate between Ottawa and Omnitrax. The last time Spence spoke to Pallister was early summer, he says. 
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence has had little support on the rail line issue. (Sean Kavanagh CBC)

A declaration of a provincial state of emergency following the flood might have triggered action, but no pen was put to paper. 

Omnitrax blamed

It is Omnitrax that all levels of government have heaped scorn upon. A perfect Darth Vader of the railroads.

It is fair to say the company has no corporate goodwill to spend. In Manitoba's north the name is a cuss-word for many.

Its response to repairing the line took months and appears incredibly expensive. Sources have told CBC News the changes they have seen from Omnitrax are increased fees, fewer services, and equipment moved out of Manitoba. 

But companies are in the business of making money. Period. It is what they do. Especially foreign companies with little or no roots, nationally or locally.

Governments are in the business of defining things that make cities and provinces and nations stand together. Even in the most remote and sparsely populated places.

On this particular issue, at a national and provincial level, there are either details about the rail line politicians don't want to explain, or a simple, brutal truth they won't say: this part of Canada and Manitoba isn't worth the effort any more.

For the folks that live along the rail line or in the Hudson Bay town, telling the truth about one or the other would at least let them know what their future will look like.

So, is it "critical" or "strategic?" Or neither?


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.