Feds' $4.5-billion pipeline investment 'a slap in the face' for northerners on severed Churchill rail line
'What about some infrastructure in the middle of Canada here?'
Northern leaders and business owners feel snubbed over the federal government's multi-billion-dollar investment in the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
The Liberal government announced Tuesday it will buy the Trans Mountain Pipeline and related infrastructure for $4.5 billion, and may spend billions more on the pipeline's expansion.
"What about some infrastructure in the middle of Canada here?" said Dave Daley, president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce.
The Hudson Bay port and rail line, the economic lifeline for several northern Manitoba communities, has been down since May 23, 2017, when flooding and melts washed out large sections of the line.
"We have a rail line and a port here that are sitting here, the port not operating for two years, and a year just passed that the rail line's not operating. We don't see much commitment from the federal government to move stuff along faster to get our stuff repaired," said Daley.
A months-long debate raged between the federal government and Omnitrax — which owns the port and rail line — over who should pay to repair the line, with the federal government ultimately filing a lawsuit against the Hudson Bay Railway after Omnitrax was determined to be not liable for the damage.
Federally appointed negotiators are facilitating the sale between Omnitrax and interested buyers.
"Trudeau has done nothing other than appoint a mediator to get this deal done," said Daley.
"They've stated they don't want to own the rail line and the port here, they want somebody else to own it, but they'll go and spend $4.5 billion on a pipeline? I don't understand it."
At a press conference Tuesday, finance Minister Bill Morneau called the funding toward the Trans Mountain Expansion Project an 'investment in Canada's future,' and said the project is in the 'national interest.' The short-term purchase agreement will make Canada the owner of the pipeline and all of Kinder Morgan Canada's assets through a Crown Corporation until the ownership is transferred.
"It's kind of a slap in the face, how quickly they pulled together a deal on the Trans Mountain Pipeline and they can't resolve a rail line issue that's been going on for over a year now," said Dennis Fenske, mayor of Thompson, Man.
He said the rail line provided health services, food and fuel to several communities along the route, which have now become fly-in only.
"The Port of Churchill is very important to the nation of Canada," said Penny Rawlings, who owns Arctic Trading Company in Churchill.
"We're the only northern seaport that is functional, and compared to other countries like Russia, we are way behind in the development of the north and seaport. To me it's a national issue and also a sovereignty issue. If we want to claim the northwest passage, we have to have people inhabiting the north."
Rawlings agrees that a pipeline will be good for Canada. But since the rail line has been down, the population in Churchill has dropped drastically, she said, as has business and tourism.
"I just feel that we've been ignored to some degree, I feel there hasn't been enough pressure, I feel things haven't gone fast enough, or it hasn't been valued as much as it should be," she said. "I wish they would make us the priority. I wish they would give us the respect that we deserve."
"It would be nice to know that our priority is near the top and soon this will come to an end, because it's basically killing the businesses that are open in Churchill."
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said the federal move was clearly one of "desperation."
"You're talking about billions of dollars of taxpayers money put at risk," he said. "But we have an unfortunate set of circumstances that demonstrate the dysfunctional nature of some of our failures as a country to set up better systems for dealing with each other in the Canadian family."
Pallister said the ongoing difficulties the pipeline encountered signaled the process isn't working to investors.
"The message is that our system here is broken and that it's going to repel private sector investment if we don't do something to fix it," he said. "So we need to fix it."
NDP Leader Wab Kinew called Ottawa's choice a "mistake," and said the government could have used the $4.5 billion to support people whose jobs could be impacted by the pipeline.
"It's throwing good taxpayer dollars after this project with a ton of risk on it and if the pipeline doesn't get built it's the people of Canada who are going to be left holding the bag," he said.
Daley said the economy of Manitoba has lost millions of dollars since Omnitrax acquired the port and rail line in 1997, due to unreliability and poor upkeep. Furthering the economic blow, he said, is the fact that the Kivalliq region of Nunavut now relies solely on goods and services being flown in from Quebec.
Omnitrax president Merv Tweed has previously said negotiations remain underway for a potential buyer. Daley hopes a deal is reached this week.
'The whole north from The Pas to Churchill is suffering up here and losing business every day," said Daley.
"If [the deal] doesn't work I think Trudeau really needs to nationalize this rail line and port and take it back and then work it all out later," he added. "And get the shovels in the ground to get us this whole north, northern Manitoba up and running again."
- We initially reported that the federal government filed a lawsuit against Hudson Bay Company. In fact, the lawsuit is against the Hudson Bay Railway.May 30, 2018 7:41 AM CT