Manitoba

Port of Churchill needs Trudeau government takeover, MP says

Churchill's member of Parliament says it's time for the federal government to take back the Port of Churchill, after dozens of workers were laid off without any notice and as the privately owned Arctic seaport prepares to close.

Niki Ashton says layoffs, looming port closure signal privatization 'experiment' has failed

The Port of Churchill has been privately owned since 1997, but Churchill-Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton says the federal government needs to take back ownership of the Arctic seaport. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Churchill's member of Parliament says it's time for the federal government to take back the Port of Churchill, after dozens of workers were laid off without any notice and as the privately owned Arctic seaport prepares to close.

Churchill-Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton said the shipping port is a key part of the northern Manitoba economy and her constituents deserve better treatment than they've received from OmniTrax.

"Right now unfortunately we're not seeing a lot of federal leadership or any federal leadership, and that has to change," Ashton said. "We need to take control of the situation, and we need to recognize that OmniTrax's conduct is reprehensible."

The layoffs surprised workers when they were announced on Monday afternoon. OmniTrax has not commented publicly on the situation.

The Denver-based company is Churchill's largest employer and bought the port and Hudson Bay rail line from the Chrétien government in 1997. Despite millions in government grants and subsidies over the years, OmniTrax put the port and rail line up for sale in January, citing operation losses and a need for more federal assistance.

"If we're seen as a social service to the north, which I think we are to some degree, then I think governments need to be prepared to support that," OmniTrax president Merv Tweed told CBC News in January. "I hope that they see the value of the port and the value of the services provided to the other communities that we service. We service a lot of First Nations communities, and we are their only source of transportation to a centre."

A collective of northern Manitoba First Nations offered to purchase the rail line and port shortly after the company listed its private holdings for sale, but where that offer stands is unclear.

What is clear, Ashton said, is the federal government needs to acknowledge that privatization of the port has failed.
Niki Ashton is the member of Parliament for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski in northern Manitoba. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It's time for the federal government to realize that the experiment no longer works, and it's time for us to take Churchill back and recognize that it is such an important part of our economy," Ashton said.

The closure of the port could have economic impacts outside Manitoba's borders, said Ashton, who is encouraging Canadians to sign a petition in support of government intervention. 

The petition will be online Thursday, Ashton said.

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