Manitoba

The Pas braces for job losses as Port of Churchill closure looms, mayor says

People in the town of Churchill, Man., are on edge after dozens of workers at the Port of Churchill were laid off Monday, but a work stoppage could also have serious implications for people living further inland.

Representatives from Thompson, Churchill, The Pas, northern First Nations to discuss next steps

An aerial view of the port of Churchill, Man. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

People in the town of Churchill, Man., are on edge after dozens of workers at the Port of Churchill were laid off Monday, but a work stoppage could also have serious implications for people living further inland.

The Pas Mayor Jim Scott said he and the 75 to 80 Hudson Bay Railway workers in his community were completely caught off guard by the layoffs.

"There's just been no notice, no consultation, there's been no discussion of any kind," he said, adding that a train carrying grain to Churchill has already been sent back to The Pas. "It's really quite amazing."

The union that represents workers at the port said 35 employees were laid off Monday, and the mayor of Churchill said dozens of seasonal workers were also notified they will no longer be needed.

Scott said while the layoffs hit hardest in Churchill, he is "hugely" frustrated by the lack of forewarning.

"If you have some notice, you can get things organized and see what you can do about remedying the [situation], or at least find a way to suck it up and do something about it," he said.

Denver-based OmniTrax has owned and operated the Port of Churchill and Hudson Bay rail line for almost 20 years and put both up for sale in December 2015. The company, which is the largest employer in Churchill, had not commented on the layoffs as of Tuesday evening.

Scott said the big rail yard in The Pas has seen fewer train cars coming through the last number of years, but he didn't expect this to happen.

Scott said OmniTrax has announced the port will close ahead of schedule on Aug. 6. If that happens, every community along the rail line "from The Pas to Churchill is going to be upset" and many would be without work, he said.

Ministers representing the north and Manitoba's agriculture industry have said closing the ports could have devastating effects on northern economies, while organizations representing Manitoba grain producers are asking for governments to intervene.

"The layoff notices to grain workers and others at the port of Churchill, Man., are a tragedy for both the workers and farmers in western Canada," Kyle Korneychuk, spokesperson for the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance, said in a statement. "What is worse is they were entirely preventable."

The Hudson Bay Railway line ships grain about 700 kilomtres from The Pas to the Port of Churchill. (CBC)

The Pas is located about 700 kilometres southwest of Churchill and is considered "mile zero" of the rail line to Churchill, Scott said.

On top of the 75 to 80 rail workers affected by the layoffs, Scott said between 30 and 40 seasonal rail shipping jobs in The Pas could also get cut.

"That's going to have a major impact on the local hotel business the local restaurant business, just economic activity in general," he said.

Federal Innovation and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains said he was disappointed by OmniTrax's decision to close the port and layoff workers.

"My heart goes out to all the families that are affected," Bains said in a statement. "I am in ongoing discussions with my cabinet colleagues and will continue to monitor the situation closely."

Scott said community leaders from Thompson, Churchill, The Pas and several First Nations are meeting in Winnipeg on Wednesday to discuss how to manage the layoffs and the potential closure of the rail line and port.

"We're all just as surprised and stunned and angry as the next one, so we're going to try and get together tomorrow to plan some sort of way forward," Scott said.

A group of First Nations in northern Manitoba made an offer to purchase the port and rail line in January, but it's unclear where that offer currently stands.

The province said it expects OmniTrax will respect grain shipping deals for the remainder of this season.

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