With little time to waste a new player has surfaced in the crucial sale of the Port of Churchill to two independent First Nations groups in the north. Investment firm Fairfax Financial Holdings from Toronto hopes to partner with One North and Missinippi Rail LP to wrest ownership from Denver, Colorado-based Omnitrax and set forth in motion the extensive repairs to the Hudson Bay Line damaged by severe flooding last May.
The Port of Churchill may be under new ownership soon. CBC News photo.
The new prospective partner will also bring a financially sound backing and a strong business base to the deal that Churchill officials and residents hope will secure access to the south and free them from isolation.
According to reliable sources, a negotiator for the federal government, former clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters, has brokered a deal with the two potential owners.
“This development has the potential to contribute to an arrangement supported by First Nations and communities in northern Manitoba,” Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said in a statement released Thursday.
“This would enable a sustainable business approach that results in a safe and reliable rail line.”
Paul Rivett, president of Fairfax Financial Holdings, said “we are optimistic about the prospects of northern gateways.” stated in a press release.
“The Churchill rail corridor and the Port of Churchill are important pieces of infrastructure for northern communities and to the economy of Canada. Partnering with First Nations and communities is the right model for this investment,” Rivett said.
He said Fairfax will rely on a company it has invested in, AGT Foods, to develop a plan that is “viable and profitable in the long term as a business.”
Earlier this week, Ottawa responded with an $18-million lawsuit against Omnitrax after it filed filed a claim for damages against the federal government under the rules of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The head of the Fairfax, V. Prem Watsa, has been characterized as the “Warren Buffet of Canada” often investing in troubled companies and turning them into a positive entity. Watsa invested in BlackBerry and Fairfax has significant holdings in several other companies.
Fairfax Financial CEO and chair V. Prem Watsa.CBC News photo.
Omnitrax signed a memorandum of understanding with First Nations Consortium Missinippi Rail in June and then joined forces with One North to strengthen interests in purchasing Omnitrax’s Manitoba assets.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, in a written statement to CBC News, said transferring the port and rail line to a stable, strong northern regional ownership group is the highest priority. He is behind the efforts to find a partner to purchase the assets one hundred per cent.
“I am pleased that there are outstanding companies that also share this vision. We now need the negotiations expedited and [to] ensure our preparations for repairs to the rail line and port are ready for the 2018 season,” wrote Spence.
People in Churchill and the north have been talking about a road to Churchill for as long as I can remember. Now the dream will become a reality sooner than later with the original “ice road truckers” coming to the rescue! Only news such as this can take the lead news story during the polar bear season!
The Churchill train depot sits idle as no service from the south is operating due to damaged tracks. A proposed winter ice road may ease the burden for local residents. Natural Habitat Adventures photo.
While the solution is not exactly what Churchillians had in mind to replace the abandoned and washed out Hudson Bay Line, it will allow a reprieve of sorts from the lack of supplies and disconnect with the outer world. The only way to get in and out of Churchill at the moment is by air. The sea route will soon be closed off with the winter ice forming.
Fox Lake Cree Nation and Remote Area Services is partnering with Polar Industries based in Winnipeg are joining forces to construct a winter road to Churchill from Gillam.
Mark Kohaykewych, president of Polar Industries, hopes to haul roughly 250 loads throughout winter to isolated Churchill on the shores of the Hudson Bay. The initial plan is to haul loads of 10,000 to 15,000 pounds to start and increase to 80,000 pounds per load as the ice road takes form over the winter.
“I’ve never backed down from a challenge,” Kohaykewych said. “We’re confident we can get this done.”
Kohaykewych stated that three alternate routes have been mapped out with plans to build the road prior to Christmas. Cargo vehicles will begin hauling by January, dependant on the amount of snowfall and presiding weather conditions. With a rough terrain formed by glacial movement over thousands of years, the small thermokarsts or ponds formed as a result were partly responsible for the flooding that washed out the tracks. As they freeze over winter and snow build -up occurs, the ice road will be more level.
Up to 15 vehicles will be utilized on the ice road project. Wide -track vehicles that are good in the snow with light, wide trackpads will be needed to sufficiently transport heavy loads at a moderate speed. Kohaykewych estimates that three-vehicle convoys will leave daily from Gillam and take 30 hours to cover the 300 – kilometer distance in about 30 hours.
However, he notes that this is not a long-term solution to the crisis the disabled rail line has caused for the town of 900 people. Once winter ends the road will not be passable. Hopes are that a solution to the train route will be found by then.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to keep up with the demand,” Kohaykewych said.
“We have customers in hand and we’re talking with various Churchill operations who will need help.”
Kohaykewych, originally a hometown boy from Churchill, has been collaborating on the project for several months with Churchill Mayor Mike Spence. The two, along with Fox Lake, are prepared to finance the ice road themselves though they are hoping for some provincial assistance as well.
“This effort is to provide much-needed goods and supplies to the community in the short term,” said Fox Lake Chief Walter Spence. “Fox Lake continues to support the Churchill community and Mayor Spence’s efforts to have the rail line repaired and back in operation as quickly as possible.”
Polar Industries is the longest-featured company on Ice Road Truckers and if any company can get this done it’s them. Their experience in many of the most dangerous places to build winter ice roads in North America will be ample knowledge for the relatively safe terrain between Gillam and Churchill.
“This is not unfamiliar territory. We have gone into places like Peawanuck and Fort Severn (on the Hudson Bay coast in Ontario) and that’s a 450-500-kilometre stretch of strictly bush travel,” Kohaykewych said.
With all the media coverage on this potential new venture, Churchill should get the much-needed rail service back sooner than later.
A temporary track is laid to get the Via rail train up next to the cargo ship. Alan Spence photo.
Via rail train at the Churchill Port. Alan Spence photo.
Getting ready to load the train engine. Alan Spence photo.
Train engine being hoisted onto the cargo ship at the Churchill Port. Katie de Meulles photo.
A temporary rail track was laid leading up to the Port of Churchill in order to move the stranded VIA Rail train onto a cargo ship early today. The train will be returned south so that VIA can utilize it on its mainline routes. With talk of repairing the Hudson Bay Line seemingly stalled, for the time being, the train was costing the company money as it sat unused. We have hopes of seeing this one back in Churchill very soon!
This National CBC news special on Churchill and the rail line is so touching to those that know the heart and pride of the people of Churchill. Aired last night this video footage brings to light the terrible strife the town has endured since May. We will keep you posted on any progress in repairing the Hudson Bay Line during the ensuing weeks of polar bear season. I’m sure there will be opportunities to help the town as well. Churchill is all of our thoughts!
The Hudson Bay Line has been in the news since nearly 20 sections of track were washed away or damaged by melting floodwater from two late spring blizzards. Churchill waits for news from the government on plans to reach agreements with first nations groups and owner Omnitrax on the sale of the railroad and subsequent repairs. Time is running out for getting anything done before the winter freeze sets in.
This video provides 13 facts about the development and construction of the now very infamous Hudson Bay Line to Churchill! Kind of cool to dig up this vintage video. Enjoy!