Manitoba·CBC IN CHURCHILL

Stubborn northerners want to keep Port of Churchill going

As more than 80 residents of Churchill gathered at the gates of the massive port terminal Thursday night, sandhill cranes flew overhead and soft-spoken northerners slowly worked their way into an angry boil.

Community hosts rally blasting U.S. company with placards calling for nationalization of port

​Nikki Clace sports the latitude and longitude of Churchill in tattoo ink on her forearm. She was hoping to get a callback to the port for another season and now those hopes are dashed. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

As more than 80 residents of Churchill gathered at the gates of the massive port terminal Thursday night, sandhill cranes flew overhead and soft-spoken northerners slowly worked their way into an angry boil.

Some carried signs blasting Denver-based rail company OmniTrax with slogans that read, "Hillbilly railway" and "Support the port."

The American firm purchased both the port facility and the rail line to Churchill in 1997 from the government of Canada and CN Rail.

"Nationalize the port and rail line," read a sign brandished by Alan Spence.

Spence was one of 35 workers this week to get his notice. After 16 years on the job, he faces an uncertain future and believes the only choice left for the workers and the town is a government take-over.

Wayne LeBlanc started working at the port in 1983 as an electrician apprentice. Back then, the port was run by the federal government. He is three years from retirement. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

"When it was still in the government's hands, it was run a lot better," Spence told CBC News in Churchill. "They put a lot more investment and care into it and it was part of the Canadian government and the people."

'A Canadian concern'

Spence has nothing on Robert Demeulles for time in on the port docks: The spry octogenarian worked a remarkable 60 years at the port facility, through government ownership and then into private hands.

​He's come up with his own scheme to save the port — with port employees, the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments, and a private interest each getting a 33 per cent stake.

"But it has to be a Canadian concern."
Kim Kushniryk has worked at the port for OmniTrax for nine years. As a closure of the Arctic seaport looms, she worries her livelihood is now in jeopardy. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

A government intervention might be something the federal Liberals would entertain — and that's a big 'might' — but the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives don't appear anxious to throw provincial cash at the problem.

"Levering on the fears and hopes and the security of Manitobans is never something that I would support," Premier Brian Pallister told reporters Thursday.

After reviewing the previous government's handouts to OmniTrax and the company's conduct this summer, Pallister described them as negotiation by threat to obtain richer subsidies.

The big port building on Hudson Bay and the rail line that feeds it may have even bigger challenges than people are willing to publicly admit.
Robert Demeulles worked a remarkable 60 years at the port facility, through government ownership and then into private hands. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

A senior member of Canada's grain industry painted a bleak picture of the port facility, calling it outdated, rundown and inefficient, needing many millions in upgrades.

The source, who requested anonymity, said the rail line is an even bigger problem — not even in the condition to carry any serious volumes of grain north and it would take even greater investments to improve it.

In either case, the infrastructure had deteriorated badly over past decades.

What's next?

But such gloom will not dampen northern spirit. The people here choose to be here and love the land.

One resident, ​Nikki Clace, sports a tattoo of Churchill's latitude and longitude on her forearm. She had hoped to get a callback to the port for another season. 

Port of Churchill 'has to be a Canadian concern,' workers insist

CBC News: Winnipeg at 6:00

5 years ago
1:43
As more than 80 residents of Churchill gathered at the gates of the massive port terminal Thursday night, sandhill cranes flew overhead and soft-spoken northerners slowly worked their way into an angry boil. 1:43

Her mother also worked at the facility and the job helped raise Clace's family.

​Clace is determined to stay in the place she loves, but a note of concern enters her voice when she talks about the future.

"It's an awful feeling to wake up in the middle of the night and just not really [be] sure what you will be doing for the next couple of days," said Clace.

But Clace is from the north and people here seem as determined as the windchill coming so very soon to the shore of the Hudson Bay.

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