The Doc Project

She's on a mission to save the train to Churchill

Cree nations in northern Manitoba have been lobbying to take over the ailing Hudson Bay Line themselves, and Chief Betsy Kennedy thinks they can make it more successful than any southern company has been able to.

"We need this rail line taken care of by someone who cares," says Chief Betsy Kennedy

Chief Betsy Kennedy of War Lake First Nation in Ilford is part of a coalition of Manitoba chiefs and municipal leaders hoping to take over the Hudson Bay Railway from OmniTrax. (Selena Ross)

by Selena Ross

When people arrive from the south to work on the railroad to Churchill, they quickly see why it's infamous.

"The land is really spongy," says Rob Fleury, who spent years helping maintain the line in northern Manitoba. "If you were to jump up and down, you'd see the ground around you floating and bouncing like you were standing on rubber.

"There was one sinkhole out of Thompson which was about a mile long... probably eight feet deep in the centre."

The Hudson Bay Railway runs between The Pas and Churchill, Manitoba. The stretch of track between The Pas and Pukatawagan is the Keewatin Railway. Another rail line connects The Pas and Winnipeg. (Craig Desson)

For hundreds of kilometres, the Hudson Bay Railway winds over swampy muskeg, and then over frozen tundra. That's partly why these tracks have been wracked by troubles in the nine decades since they were built.

But there are some people who are less daunted by the tough conditions. Cree nations in northern Manitoba have been lobbying to take over the line themselves, and they say they can make it more successful than any southern company has been able to.

It seems like a bold claim. And their campaign is high-stakes—the railroad has never been as close to failure as it is now, along with the port at its terminus in Churchill.

The Port of Churchill, as seen from the water of Hudson Bay. The port closed in 2016. (Selena Ross)

Together, the properties make up Canada's only shipping route through the Arctic. The port has now been closed for two shipping seasons, and one section of the railroad has been unused for almost a year, falling into increasing disrepair. Its current owner, U.S.-based OmniTrax, is battling the federal government in court over who is responsible for fixing it.

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To understand why Cree leaders are so sure they could bring the route back to life, you'd have to understand their childhoods living along the line, says Chief Betsy Kennedy of War Lake First Nation, a tiny community near Gillam.

Kennedy's father and most other local Cree men maintained the railway starting in the 1930s. "Some of them were barely out of their teens," she says.

They earned about 30 cents an hour, working with pickaxes and shovels, but the salary wasn't what drove them, says Kennedy. They quickly saw that the rail line kept their community connected with the south, especially in times of emergency, says Kennedy.

Some women even gave birth on the train.- War Lake First Nation Chief Betsy Kennedy

Over time, the Cree nations along the line began to see stark differences with similar First Nations communities in northern Manitoba and northern Ontario that have no land transport.

The savings were huge. From War Lake, it costs maybe a couple of hundred dollars to get to Winnipeg by train and car. Flying costs $5,200 return.

But there's also the costs of goods, especially groceries and building materials—all much lower when they come in by rail instead of by air. As the Hudson Bay train passes tiny Cree nations, people line up along the tracks and hand off goods at lightning speed—bikes, bottled water, groceries, boxes and crates. Everything arrives by train.

Families in Thicket Portage, Man., gather to unload supplies from a train on the Hudson Bay Railway last September. In the summer, the train is the only land transport in or out of the community. (Selena Ross)

And that has made it much easier for people in those communities to live on their land.

It's our way of life. It's our lifeline."- Chief Betsy Kennedy

Hiring Cree men to do maintenance was a natural choice for another reason, says Kennedy. Because they knew the territory, they were good at tracking spring runoff and other conditions that affected the tracks.

"The thought of many people who lived along the railway was that we would one day own it," she says.

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The last time the rail line came up for sale, in 1997, some Cree leaders inquired about buying it, citing their long history of working on it. But they were told that any potential buyer needed at least 10 years of experience of railroad ownership to be considered.

This time, things are different. Thanks to a plan percolating for decades, three Cree Nations in northern Manitoba now have that experience.

In 2003, a section of railroad track that ran northwest out of The Pas, away from the Churchill line and towards another Cree community, was in danger of being ripped up. Together, three Cree nations formed Keewatin Railroad Company and took over that line.

A child looks out the window of a Keewatin Railway train in northern Manitoba during the nine-hour trip to his home community. The rail company is co-owned by three Cree nations. (Selena Ross)

In doing so, they preserved the land link to one Cree community. But it was really about much more than that.

"The main purpose… at the time was to go after the Churchill line once, and if, it became available," says Tony Mayham, Keewatin's CEO.

When it became clear that the Churchill line would also be sold, Cree leaders along the line called each other immediately, says Kennedy. Several municipalities and other northern groups joined with them, forming a coalition called One North.

Mayor Mike Spence of Churchill, who is himself Cree, is one of the leaders of the group. He says that losing land transport even for the last year has been devastating.

We have never faced a challenge like this. Getting to a doctor for an appointment, or going shopping... it's essential services.- Churchill Mayor Mike Spence

Talks over the sale have dragged on for more than two years. But in the fall, a Toronto investment firm, Fairfax Financial Holdings Inc., expressed interest in the shipping route. According to a federal government release, Fairfax was looking at "partnering" with local Indigenous groups, including One North, "to acquire the Hudson Bay Rail line, the Port of Churchill and other associated assets."

Two boys look out the window from a Keewatin Railway Co. train in northern Manitoba in 2016. The Cree-owned train was completing a nine-hour trip to the boys' home community of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation. (Selena Ross)

It's unclear exactly what management model they envision, and Fairfax says it is unable to provide an update, given the "sensitive nature of the ongoing negotiations." However, Chief Kennedy and other northerners are the closest they've ever been to realizing their longtime plan.

Still, if the sale does go ahead, One North and Fairfax will face a bigger challenge than simply maintaining the tracks. The traffic that used to sustain the rail line financially was grain traffic, with shipments heading to Churchill to be exported through the Arctic to Europe. The few thousand people who live along the line don't provide nearly enough traffic on their own to pay for the line.

The grain traffic disappeared a few years after the Wheat Board—Canada's grain marketing board— was privatized in 2012. Whoever takes over the line and attempts to reopen the port will need to rebuild commercial traffic, finding imports and exports that can go through the Port of Churchill, or shipping from mines and other industrial sites in northern Manitoba.

Chief Kennedy thinks that if the tracks can be maintained in top condition, commercial cargo will follow.

But the northerners' main advantage, she says, is their mindset. While southerners often question whether it's worth maintaining the line, people in Churchill and War Lake can't imagine living without it, and will do everything possible to ensure they never face this sort of crisis again.

"I get phone calls saying, 'When are you going to take over this line?'" says Chief Kennedy. "We really love our community and there's no way that we would move."

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Selena Ross
About the producer

Selena Ross is a Montreal-based reporter covering a range of Arctic-related stories for Canadian and American newspapers, magazines and podcasts. She has previously written for The Globe and Mail, This American Life, The Guardian US, the Financial Post and other outlets. She holds two CAJ awards for investigative reporting. You can follow her on Twitter @seleross​

This documentary was co-produced and edited by Julia Pagel.