Train derailment creates desperation for remote First Nation

It's been four days since the only rail line to Churchill was shut down due to a derailment and the situation is getting desperate for one First Nation.

It's been four days since the only rail line to Churchill was shut down due to a derailment and the situation is getting desperate for one First Nation.

People from the remote War Lake First Nation, located along the Omnitrax Canada rail line about 690 kilometres north of Winnipeg, rely on a four-hour train ride to Thompson for groceries.

Chief Betsy Kennedy said the community of 244 people has had to charter a plane because they're running out of food.

"Well, we don't have no formula, I mean baby formula, and you know fresh milk, we don't have any and the necessities — bread, eggs," she said, adding a number of her community members are stranded in Thompson.

Thirteen grain cars of a 50-car load derailed Monday en route to the grain storage facility at the Port of Churchill.

Kennedy said derailments are a regular problem because much of the track is built across northern bog.

She's been told the rail line could be closed for another week before the derailment is cleaned up. VIA tells CBC it is still unclear as to when the line will re-open.

“This is more than an inconvenience. I have band members stuck in Thompson who need to get home to take care of loved ones and to earn their living," Kennedy added in a press release issued Friday by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Keewatin Tribal Council Inc.

"It’s expensive any way you look at it; whether they wait it out, or pay for a charter flight home as there is also no regular scheduled air service to the community."

The derailments are also worrying to First Nations because Omnitrax Canada hopes to eventually use the same rail line to transport millions of litres of light sweet crude oil a year up to Churchill where it can be loaded onto tankers.

“This is a serious safety and environmental risk above all. Community residents are very concerned and have come out to community meetings to demand upgrades to the line and increased standards and monitoring," said Chief Walter Spence of Fox Lake Cree Nation, chair of Keewatin Tribal Council.

Churchill, known as the "polar bear capital of the world," is an ecotourism destination for polar bear, beluga whale and bird watching.

Figures from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada show there have been 63 accidents on the rail line between 2003 and 2012 (not including Monday’s crash). All but 10 were derailments.

"As northerners, we cannot afford to just accept that this rail line may potentially be the catalyst in causing irreversible damage to our environment, health and safety, and potentially every aspect of our lives.”

Statement from Assembly of First Nations and Keewatin Tribal Council Inc.