Churchill Sunday Photo – Port of Uncertainty

Port of Churchill

The Port of Churchill has been a symbol of uncertainty in Churchill. Katie de Meulles photo.

The uncertainty surrounding the Port of Churchill sale by owner Omnitrax from Colorado to a native alliance coupled with the natural destruction of the Hudson Bay Line has left Churchillians wondering the future of their town. This photo of the port captures the plight and the promise of the the time all in one image!

Omnitrax Quiet on Churchill Port Closure

Port of Churchill in Churchill, Manitoba

Tank farm and Port of Churchill in Churchill, Manitoba.

With all the talk surrounding the news of Omnitrax closing the Port of Churchill prior to the heart of the 2016 grain season, thus displacing nearly 200 jobs from Churchill to The Pas, nothing has come from the mouths of the company’s spokespeople.

Two weeks have passed since Omnitrax shut the port down and issued dozens of workers in Churchill alone their pink slips. However the premier of Manitoba, Brian Pallister, has not been contacted by the company or heard anything regarding the negotiations to sell the port to a first nations group. He has portrayed the lack of communication as a “mystery” and a “challenge” in the relationship between the government and Omnitrax.

Omnitrax has not made any statements or held any press conferences regarding the move and this has many officials in Canada baffled since the closure has drastically affected lives that rely on the employment as well as those in communities that live along the Bayline, also under the companies ownership. The rail line is key in supplying northern communities with goods and food products. Many settlements are not accessible by roads and rely heavily on the train as their main supplier. Omnitrax has plans to reduce the amount of freight to be shipped along its Bayline route. Although the train line remains operable, many are anxious as to its future viability in this situation

Oil transportation and shipping through the port has been a recent, hot issue initiated by Omnitrax. However, the initiative fell apart last year as overwhelming public resistance and outcry over the idea forced the company to back down. Some, including this writer, believe Omnitrax had its profit seeking sights set on this plan since day one. Now that the oil issue seems “dead in the water”, pardon the pun, the company has hit the road and headed back to Denver, Colorado.

Omnitrax had received a three dollar per tonne subsidy last year from Manitoba’s former NDP government but with the new Progressive Conservative party lead by Pallister, now in office no such bailouts were sanctioned for this year..

“The approaches that have been taken too often in the past have been alarmist and crisis in orientation, and that is not the nature of how we are going to build a stronger northern economy and stronger communities.” stated Pallister.

The situation is intriguing and continues to develop as this story is published. Stay tuned for updates from Churchill.

A “Typical” Churchill Summer Day

kayakers, belugas and sea north tours

Kayakers surrounded by beluga whales in the Hudson Bay. Sea North Tours photo.

Summer in Churchill usually involves wearing a fleece jacket, long pants, hat and sometimes gloves. It also can be the “hotspot” of Manitoba with temperatures pushing 90F. These fluctuations make Churchill …well..Churchill. As a guide, I always enjoyed the cooler temperatures in the summer far away from the hot sun of Colorado. The fresh salt air from the Hudson Bay invigorates the soul. Out on the water interacting with beluga whales and seabirds hovering above and feeding off the capelin at the surface, refreshes anyone searching for nature’s freedom.The theme here is that everything is unpredictable and new adventures are around every corner in Churchill!

Arctic tern with capelin

Arctic tern with a capelin in mouth. David Hemmings photo.

Yes, the thousands of beluga whales are the marquee attraction in summertime in Churchill. However, the tundra’s micro ecosystems of plants and lichen as well as the various birds that migrate to the area for the short season are all part of the magical experience. And, we surely know there’s always a chance to see a polar bear or two in the “off- season”!

polar bear churchill, Manitoba

A polar bear rolling in fireweed. A summer treasure in Churchill. Dennis Fast photo.

The best part of an  Churchill Arctic summer adventure is that it changes from day to day in the northern frontier town on the Hudson Bay. Guiding ten years in Churchill allowed me to see almost everything, yet I feel as if I only scratched the surface of the tundra when it comes to deciphering the mystery of the region. The land is constantly changing, literally, with isostatic rebound of the Precambrian shield. Walking across this ancient land stirs so many emotions deep within the soul. The quietness leads one to thoughts of how we used to live and how we still can live in some remote places like Churchill. Solitude is rare these days.

Precambrian shield in Churchill.

The colors of the tundra as summer wanes. Ed Bouvier photo.

cumulus cloud Churchill Hudson Bay

Incredible cumulus cloud over the Hudson Bay in Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.

Beluga whales in Churchill river

Beluga whales in the Churchill river. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.

Port of Churchill Sale Expected Soon

Port of Churchill Churchill, Manitoba

The Port of Churchill sale expected to go through soon.

Anticipation of Manitoba’s port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay rail-line sale going through is building. The deal involving current owner Omnitrax from Denver, Colorado and a group of Manitoba First Nations are expected to finalize the sale in the short term. Omnitrax is opting out of the grain shipping business as a result of decreased numbers. After the Canadian Wheat Board dissolved and government incentives dried up, the shipping quota dwindled to 186,000 tons this past fall season- about a third of the average total for past seasons. It just seems as if Omnitrax’s heart wasn’t in the business as shipping totals have fallen consistently over the last few years. Hopes are high that a localized group with more alliances will spur growth and provide consistent employment for more local people in Churchill. Stay tuned for updates!

Port of Churchill Sold to First Nations Group

Churchill Port, Churchill , Manitoba

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

A First Nations group based in Northern Manitoba is in the process of buying the Port of Churchill and Hudson Bay rail line from OmniTrax, a Denver ,Colorado based company. The town known as the polar bear capital of the world has been struggling to keep the ancillary business viable in these changing times.

The First Nations group provided a letter of intent for the purchase of the port and the Hudson Bay line – the stretch of track from The Pas to Churchill – as soon as both sides complete necessary research on the transaction.The rail line is the lifeline that connects all the small communities that have no road access in the region.

“It’s a group of communities along the line and others that, you know, over the period of time have always believed the railway was theirs. This now can become a reality based on current negotiations,” said OmniTrax president Merv Tweed. With the invested interest that the group has to keep the rail line running smoothly as a means of access to their remote communities, train service there and onto Churchill should thrive for the distant future.

At this juncture of the negotiations the buying group nor the purchase price of the assets has not been specifically identified.

“They’ll make their own statement in their time,” Tweed said.

For the next 45 days OmniTrax and the First Nations group will engage in a “due diligence period in which both parties will work together to ensure that a purchase becomes a reality,” a news release from Omnitrax stated. Omnitrax has agreed to work with the First Nations group for the next several years to facilitate a smooth transition. However, given the lack of success that Omnitrax has had in managing the port and increasing the shipping quota, this new regional rooted infusion might be a time to try new strategies for building the business and attaining higher levels of success.

OmniTrax acquired and began operating the port and rail line in 1997, though a reduction in grain shipments has placed financial strain on the operation. An attempt to diversify and specifically ship oil through the port was met with voracious public outcry which inevitably killed the initiative. The operation just seemed dead in the water after that battle this past year.

All these factors combined spurred the company to announce earlier this month plans to sell the operations. A quicker than expected sale agreement and local interest in the growth of the operation has instilled high hopes for the next phase in the life of the Port of Churchill. The operation employs roughly 100 local workers.

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