Manitoba·Analysis

Island Lake communities were 'all hands on deck,' but where were Pallister's priorities?

Premier Brian Pallister devoted much of a hastily called press conference Friday to a vague commitment to Churchill while thousands of Manitobans spend their days hundreds of kilometres from home in rec complexes and convention centres.

Premier drops paper-thin promise for Churchill while thousands flee forest fires

Pallister held a hastily called press conference Friday to discuss the Island Lake fire, but ended up making an announcement about Churchill. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

It's not clear if Premier Brian Pallister knew the magnitude of what the people of Wasagamack and their neighbours at Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point accomplished last Tuesday.

By some miracle the three Island Lake communities managed to transport more than a thousand people away from the fires, by small boats, through thick smoke, with embers and ash floating through the air and on choppy, turbulent waters. No one got lost and no one was hurt.

"Scary."

That's a word many people used to describe the exodus. 

Anyone with experience piloting small boats would have to agree. Little aluminum craft weighted down with moms and dads and little kids and elders, clutching just a couple of hastily grabbed possessions, trying to navigate in the dark and smoke, with other boats nearby, some without lights.

To borrow a phrase, it was "all hands on deck" for the people of Island Lake.

Scary is an understatement. And the word "heroic" might be as well.

Had this flotilla happened in the south, words such as "heroic" and "courageous" and "miracle" might have been thrown around by many — including the leader of the people of Manitoba.

But as the fire situation in the province worsened and thousands of evacuees contemplated the cots they now call a bed, the premier sandwiched his remarks about the emergency in with an announcement on the future of Churchill.

Pallister did acknowledge people had been displaced.

"All Manitobans are thinking of the folks that are out of their communities, out of their homes and leaving your home is not a fun thing when you're forced out it obviously," Pallister said Friday in a hastily called meeting with the media.

No. Not fun. Obviously.

Pallister, clad casually in a short-sleeved shirt and jacket, moved swiftly then to "a major commitment" to the future of the town of Churchill. $500 million over 10 years for an unspecified series of investments in health, economic development, social services and other infrastructure work.

Old money? New money? Not specified either.

But what was clear is the plan wasn't shared with the federal government. Or the mayor of Churchill.

Mike Spence, the guy on the front line of the Churchill crisis, was instantly barraged by his townfolk with questions about the half billion dollar pledge; where's it going? When is it coming?

Might have been a good strategy to let Spence know, say even an hour in advance. Or even as a courtesy.

But Spence hasn't talked directly to Pallister since July and somehow a fellow who leads 800 or so citizens appears to be the lead negotiator for Manitoba with the federal government on fixing the rail line.

The Pallister government may have not bothered to give the feds a heads-up either, but it did engender a response from Ottawa.

Going as far as anyone has to commmitting to the line and the port, a late-Friday afternoon missive from natural resource minister Jim Carr promised the Government of Canada's "top priority" includes "restoring the Hudson Bay rail line to Churchill."

A "formal demand" to line owner Omnitrax to fix the rails has been sent, whatever that means.

Meanwhile winter is coming and Churchillians are paying more for food and other essentials and those that own homes in the Hudson's Bay town are calculating the financial possibility of paying a mortgage for property that could be worthless.

Not a single crib-tie has been replaced or a rail straightened yet. The line is the exact same mess it was in after being flooded in May.

The urgency the two levels of government have shown to this disaster — in one of Canada's most unique and strategically important locations — is hard to find. Either they haven't done a good job of explaining what they've been doing the last three months or it just isn't a priority.

It would be if Churchill was in Quebec or Ontario. Bet on it.

And if a flotilla of small boats saved the residents of a town such as Gimli from fire, it would have prompted its own news conference. You could probably bet on that one as well.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

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