First Nations Group Ends Churchill Port Bid

Via rail train engine at the port of Churchill.

Train engine being hoisted onto the cargo ship at the Churchill Port. Katie de Meulles photo.

The Port of Churchill is minus one prospective suitor for possible acquisition. The group, iChurchill and a First Nations consortium led by Glenn Hudson, Peguis First Nations Chief has withdrawn from bidding on the Port and the Hudson Bay Line.

“We are disappointed to have put so much time, effort and money into what would have been a timely solution for the people of Churchill and the economy of Western Canada, but we have apparently run up against politics,” said Louis Dufresne , CEO of iChurchill,

“We finally met last week with the government of Canada’s negotiator on the file, Mr. Wayne Wouters, and he made it clear that the government is willing to deal only with one specific company, a Toronto-based financial firm. We can’t understand why this is, given that our partnership meets all of the government’s stated criteria to support the restoration of rail service to Churchill.”

Churchill’s mayor Mike Spence and town council said iChurchill had previously announced that they were still negotiating with Omnitrax and the Canadian government to try and reach an agreement on the sale.

Now, iChurchill states that the federal government is catering to one exclusive buyer and will only offer financial assistance for track repairs to the Hudson Bay Railway for that group exclusively. Trains have not run to Churchill since last May and it appears that the hopes of starting the repairs this summer are fading again.

“Our team believes that these assets can be operated profitably,” said Dufresne. “My head cares about the commercial interests. But my heart is with the people of Churchill and the First Nations of Northern Manitoba. It’s been a year since a flood washed out their only land link to the rest of the country. I hope they can get their railway back online this year, but without a change in position on the part of the federal government, I’m not optimistic.”

We will have to wait and see what other potential buyers and investors arise in the near future.

Gypsy’s Bakery Destroyed in Fire

Gypsy's bakery burned Sunday

Churchill’s Gypsy Bakery burned to the ground in the early morning Sunday. Leroy Whitmore photo.

The iconic Churchill deli and restaurant that was the most popular gathering place in Churchill was destroyed in an early morning fire early this morning..

The building, described as a total loss by Churchill mayor Mike Spence, caught fire just after midnight. Fire crews were still putting out smoldering areas at 8 am this morning, according to Churchill Fire Chief Leroy Whitmore.

“There was heavy smoke and visible flames, coming through the rear of the roof,” said Whitmore.

Crews worked tirelessly from within the building to get a handle on the blaze but were driven back each attempt. Eventually Chief Whitmore made the decision to knock the structure down in order to protect adjacent staff housing and surrounding neighborhood homes.

 No information concerning the cause of the fire has been offered. With the total loss and destruction of the building there’s a good chance we will never know.

“Due to the extent of the damage and the fire suppression efforts, the cause of the blaze is pretty much impossible to determine, now,” said Whitmore.

Luckily the blaze happened at a time when no patrons or employees were inside. Eleven volunteers fought the fire through the night, said Whitmore. No injuries from the fire crew were sustained either.

“There was heavy smoke and visible flames, coming through the rear of the roof,” said Whitmore.

Crews tried about half a dozen times to put out the flames inside, but eventually were forced into a defensive position and the decision was made to knock the building down in order to protect staff housing nearby, he said.

“A dozen volunteers battled the relentless fire the during the night”, said Whitmore.

Gypsy’s Bakery has been the social center of Churchill for 25 years and the DaSilva family has been like family to all who knew them. it will be hard to replace the atmosphere they spent years creating. Social media has been filled with outpouring of grief and sadness from residents of the town all morning.

China Firm Enters Ring to Buy Port

Churchill Port, Churchill , Manitoba

Port of Churchill grain shipping operation on the Churchill River. Port of Churchill photo.

Just when you thought the Port of Churchill and accompanying Hudson Bay Line were in a negotiated sale…again…another potential suitor has arisen to acquire the assets and begin shipping from the port.

Executives from Herun Group Co. Ltd., a Chinese company with massive agricultural interests as well as a wealth of port-operating experience, visited Churchill a month ago to gather more information and inspect the port facility. The company is one of the largest firms in China and seemingly has the financial clout and long-term experience in the shipping industry to offer a long-term solution to keeping the port and train line open.

Concerns that the Port of Churchill would fall into foreign hands and their primary interests would be alleviated by an agreement with the Manitoba Metis Federation and thus have that group own 51 percent of the company. Herun has also agreed to pay the $20 million price to Omnitrax without relying on any additional support from the Canadian government according to Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand.

“Herun made it very clear they’re prepared to come up with a substantial amount of cash,” he said.

Herun owns and operates 11 international ports and recently closed a deal to acquire a port in Brazil, the country China trades the most with. Since Herun also processes various grains and oilseeds, interest in Churchill’s port facility is paramount.

“To me, in order to make this situation work for the railroad and Port of Churchill, you really need to have a company that is in the business,” said Joe Ng, chairman of JNE Group of professional engineers based out of Hamilton, which arranged the tour.

Port of Churchill. Claude Daudet photo.

“Otherwise, new people come in and after two years they can’t utilize the rail and port and they bail out.”

Herun’s interest stems from the fact that it imports raw materials such as soybeans and canola for its China crushing facilities.

Missinippi Rail and One North, a consortium of First Nations and Toronto-based Fairfax Financial Holdings Inc. are also in partnership to purchase the facilities. Omnitrax and Ottawa have been in negotiations with each other since late last year.

However, Omnitrax Canada President, Merv Tweed, reported that the latter group has only signed a letter of intent and Omnitrax has received inquiries from several other Canadian companies. “We are continuing discussions with a number of interested parties,” Tweed said.

A most recent inquiry and potential buyer, another First Nations group named iChurchill, appeared this past week with a comprehensive proposal that includes utilizing Churchill’s port and rail line to ship wood and possibly oil in addition to grain.

Ng conceded Herun is not first in line with their new proposal. “We’ve come in late so we have to wait until other people finish talking. It’s no different than a lineup at a counter,” said Ng, the 2016 winner of Entrepreneur of the Year awarded by the Association of Chinese Canadian Entrepreneurs.

Any new deal with the prospective buyers would include the damaged rail lines, as well as some buildings and land and in other northern towns like Gillam. The estimated $46 million in track repairs would be covered by the company that ends up purchasing the facilities. The governments annual $5 million in maintenance payments currently paid to Omnitrax would continue with the new owner.

Even though Churchill has a pretty short shipping season, Herun is looking ahead to the future according to Ng. “As far as they’re concerned, the world’s turning warmer every year, and there might be longer and longer shipping seasons as years go by,” he said.

Great White Bear Mini Monster Build

Great white bear tours, all terrain vehicle , churchill

Great White Bear Tour’s latest monster build. Krys Walczak photo.

 

Great White Bear Tous All terrain vehicle Churchill

Rear view of the new Great White Bear Tours all-terrain vehicle. Krys Walczak photo.

Great White Bear and Anything Custom has done it again. They created this mini monster ATV, “Sherpa”, with a top speed of  28mph on land and 3.8mph in the water. The Walkoski crew is testing it out as they drive to Churchill. They left Gillam late last night and we will update you on the journey as soon as we hear. The machine will be used throughout the year but mainly during the polar bear season in October and November in Churchill.

Churchill Loving Hydroponic Garden

 

The Growcer shipping container repurposed as a hydroponic garden in Churchill. Carley Basler photo.

 

Churchill’s Boreal Gardens was a pioneer in attempting to grow local vegetables in the hard to access village on the Hudson Bay. While this was a novel attempt, the operation never quite made it to a scale that could make a dent in the economic distribution costs of providing vegetables to Churchillians in need of help.

Carley Basler is changing this dynamic with deliveries of fresh veggies to homes in town. Basler’s venture, Rocket Greens, is managed through the Churchill Northern Studies and is the first full-scale vegetable distribution system in Churchill and people are excited about the future of this new process. Rocket Greens derives its name from being located next to the Churchill Northern Studies Center on the grounds of the former rocket testing range to the east.

“It’s fresh food, fresher than probably anything that Churchill has ever experienced,” Basler said.

 

Carley Basler, system manager of the Growcer system at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, works the hydroponic garden.= at the CSNC. Warren Kay/CBC photo.

Fresh produce in Churchill has always been in short supply and at high prices due to the secluded nature of the town. Now after nearly a year of no freight train service from the south resulting from track damage from washouts, people are suffering nutritionally and economically.

This new approach is the brainchild of Growcer, an independent hydroponic systems company from the south. They currently produce these storage container sized units set up for the immediate growth and harvesting of vegetables via the streamlined hydroponic method they have developed.

With winter winding down, and the windchill of –50 C outside subsiding, Basler tends her hydroponic garden in a computer-controlled climate. Large plants of kale, spinach, arugula, and lettuce bloom from the tubular channels of water.

“What we are doing is growing about 400 to 450 units of produce that we can harvest weekly and make available in our community,” said Basler, currently the system manager for the operation under the CNSC.

In addition to her weekly vegetable subscriber program, Basler is supplying two grocery stores with product that is lowering prices to nearly half the cost of shipped in produce. This has been a breath of fresh air for the townspeople who have been relying on government food subsidies just to get by.

 

Hydroponic commercial viability in the north has been attempted before with little or no success. Growcer is designed to become profitable by allowing growers to start off small and gradually add units as they “grow”. Pun intended. Containers cost $210,000 per unit and are ready to go upon delivery requiring only electrical and water connections.

Each unit potentially will turn a profit of between $30,000 and $40,000 a year in most situations. These units have the ability to relieve reliance on good being shipped from the south at exorbitant costs via rail or air.

This self-contained local operation has the ability to relieve the reliance on these methods. Developing a system that can grow rooted vegetables like potatoes is on the table to be developed by Growcer.

“It’s available weekly regardless of rail service or air service or weather,” Basler said.

“It’s a lush green garden in the dead of winter, so that’s pretty unique.”

 

Churchill Dene Treasure – Caroline Bjorklund

Caroline Bjorklund

Caroline speaks about the Dene culture in the region. Kim Clune photo.

Caroline Bjorklund was a Dene Elder and inspirational cultural speaker living in Churchill. She survived the Dene government relocation of the 1950’s and lived a life trying to keep the Dene culture and history alive through cultural presentations to tour groups and local institutions. Natural Habitat Adventures client/traveler and photographer Kim Clune captured this wonderful perspective of Caroline last fall in Churchill. Caroline passed away last week and will be remembered in all of our hearts for eternity.

One night, after scouting polar bears on the tundra, our group huddled around a table filled with items from native cultural history. Caroline Bjorklund opened her talk with a profound statement slid in-between some caribou facts.

“I finally started learning who I am. It’s hard. Especially when you’ve lost your language, your culture and your elders.”

Caroline’s story was like listening to two intertwined narratives, one a hunting documentary and the other a memoir of personal trauma. Both were woven into a found poetry that took some reflection to decipher.

Caroline and her two young brothers were ripped from their parents at a tender age. Terrified and screaming, she was forced into a helicopter and then a school where she was separated from her brothers and punished for speaking her own language. She never saw her family and was never taught the Dene (said Den-neh) culture, Dene being the tribe from which she came.

I had read about such things before, but here was a survivor, clearly marred by such horrific events, telling me her personal account.

Caroline’s parents, like many Dene, were likely moved to uninhabitable land after being told to abandon their means for survival, including canoes, tools, dogs and sleds. Many native tribes were told that these items would be later returned. They never were.

“Then alcohol was introduced and the people forgot who they were,” she said.

After burying so much of her own painful disconnect in alcohol for years, Caroline embraced sobriety and finally began to heal her heart and recapture her identity by learning tribal ways.

She told us about the Caribou once used by her family for food, clothing, sinewy fishing nets, and how no portion of the animal was wasted. She even learned to make a child’s game from boiling a caribou foot and stringing together the knuckles.These acts are not second nature and the ingredients not readily available, as they were for her parents. It took investigative work to unearth a way of Dene life that has been intentionally stripped from her and decimated.

Caroline’s mother and sister persuaded her to learn traditional beading, which she resisted taking up until recently. You’d never know it. To see her first work on a pair of mitts shows the attention she pays to detail and the care with which she makes each stitch. It’s as if she’s making up for lost time with precise intent.

 

Beadwork and leatherwork of Caroline’s coveted mitts. Kim Clune photo.

She has also learned about tribal medicine, spruce tree gum for disinfection and dwarf Labrador tea for flu-like symptoms. Her brother tricked her into drinking it once. It tasted terrible. The expression on her face as she told the story led to a genuine chuckle at this prank. Sibling shenanigans must be cherished after so much disconnect. But who am I to guess? I can’t even comprehend how lonely her life must have been.

One on one, after her talk, I asked Caroline when she was reunited with her brother, the one who convinced her to drink the tea.

She and her young brother were never reunited. Nor was she with her biological mother. She speaks of other tribe members as sister and brother. Elders are mother and granny. She calls them all teachers and family and cherishes each one, but none are the people she was born to.

 

Caroline Bjorklund

Nat Hab guide Kurt Johnson and Caroline presiding over another amazing Dene cultural talk.Kim Clune photo.

What Caroline made so evident to me, somebody who knows only the textbook history is that this history is still very much alive and the story continues. Caroline is my sister, my mother, my granny, showing me that we can and must do better as human beings.

Sharing her most precious vulnerability, Caroline’s story is riddled with tangents. Speaking of these torments, again and again, causes her pain. Some talks are quite emotional, others more detached due to the fatigue of reliving her history. Regardless of the personal cost, she continues to educate on the very personal impact of inhumane policy and practice so that such atrocities never happen again.

Caroline is a true hero, spinning her suffering into harsh but necessary education. THIS is what I celebrated last Thanksgiving, as our own Native Americans continue to fight for their land and rights.

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