The deMeulles Auto Gas Bar in Churchill reflects the price of gas prior to the rail line washout. Dale deMeulles photo.
Churchill’s gas prices have been reduced by fifty cents a litre thanks to the federal government accessing the economic stimulus fund once again. With petrol prices nearing the $10/gallon mark, this latest reprieve will keep the cost at about $8/gallon. And we complain about gas prices when they reach $3/gallon or more? Kind of puts things in perspective a little, eh?
With federal findings of a probe of Omnitrax, owner of the Port of Churchill facility and the defunct Hudson Bay Line, due to be released soon, residents are enduring rising prices and increased isolation leading to economic strife.
Last week, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr confirmed that the Ottawa government would allocate $132,870 for Exchange Petroleum to lower gasoline prices to prior levels before the Hudson Bay Rail Line was devastated by flooding last May. Shipping on the railway was the only way to keep costs for supplies and fuel low. Now, ten months later, the pressure is causing long-time residents to move south in search of a more affordable lifestyle.
In September 2016, Ottawa approved the Churchill and Region Economic Development Fund, intended for the diversification of northern Manitoba’s economy following Omnitrax laying off most of the port’s workforce that summer. Businesses have benefitted from the money by offsetting rising shipping costs of materials shipped by barge or airplane.
Last December Carr visited Churchill and announced the government would add $2.7 million to the existing $4.6 million relief fund. After seemingly turning a blind eye to the issue the federal government now is coming to the rescue.
The new windfall of cash will be transferred to Exchange Petroleum, owner of the Calm Air fuel-storage tanks located at the Churchill airport. These tanks are being used due to issues with the port’s storage tanks related to the viability of winter storage of the fuel.
Churchill Port tank farm is unable to store fuel for the town through the winter. Churchill Tank Farm photo.
“This project is a great example of how collaboration and partnerships can help lessen Churchill’s acute economic hardships, restore a quality of life, and keep its entrepreneurs in business,” Exchange CEO Gary Bell wrote in a statement.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence expressed thanks to Ottawa for its leadership and funding while conveying optimistic thoughts that rail line repairs would commence in the spring.
“This announcement means real savings for residents and businesses of Churchill during these difficult economic times,” Spence wrote. “It’s important to also give a great deal of credit to Exchange Petroleum who stepped in last fall.”
Now Churchill Mayor Mike Spence wants to have serious conversations with the provincial government about finding alternatives to shipping the animals to Winnipeg and other destinations where they ultimately end up spending the rest of their lives in zoos.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence wants polar bears to have alternatives other than being sent south to Winnipeg.CBC photo.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence and other Churchillians are concerned the old habit of just relocating orphaned cubs is outdated and archaic. The most recent capture of a pair of orphaned polar bear cubs from different mothers by provincial conservation officers has them talking and advocating for a different fate for the animals.
“It has always been an issue here,” says Spence.
“Polar bears are a critical part of the community. But once you have taken them out of the population, that’s it. They’re gone. I’ve told the minister we want to sit down and talk.
Polar bear cubs approach the polar rover within a few feet. Jeff Klofft photo.
“We want to get more research on polar bears. We need to do things differently. We can’t just continue to do nothing other than shipping them off to zoos.”
According to Spence, ideas for changing the current protocol include tracking devices to monitor the bears’ travel and a facility designed to allow the bears to be reintroduced into the harsh northern environment.
“We need to do something more than just saying, ‘Another bear gone to the zoo,’” he said. “We don’t accept sending cubs to captivity is the answer.”
The latest capture, like nearly all the polar bears relocated in recent years, will end up at Assiniboine Park Zoo’s Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre.
Statistics, as vague as they might be, tend to point to unfavorable survival rates when young abandoned cubs are left in the wild. Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires states that scientists know there is little hope for those animals.
Polar bears living out their lifespan in the Netherlands Wildlands Zoo. Sheng – Wen Lo photo.
“The unfortunate reality is that young cubs have very little chance of survival without their mother,” Squires said.
“Without a female to protect them, cubs are highly vulnerable to natural predators and also to the significant risk of starvation. Polar bear cubs depend on their mothers until they are about 2 1/2 years of age, by which time they’ve grown and learned to hunt for their own food.”
“Polar bears truly are irreplaceable and we consider them a jewel for the community of Churchill. For that reason, we will continue to devote resources to managing polar bears in the area and producing new research that supports their sustainability. While the Department of Sustainable Development is keenly focused on ensuring their survival, our government is committed to working collaboratively with the community to determine the future of these orphaned polar bears cubs.”
Let’s hope these new ideas come to fruition in the near future. Polar bears should be in the wild not automatically sent to zoos without exploring other options.
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.
Omnitrax, owner of the Port of Churchill and the damaged Hudson Bay Rail – Line, has apparently obtained an assessment of the severely damaged railroad tracks between Gillam and Churchill. After meeting with Transport Canada officials this past Monday, Omnitrax seems to have a clearer notion of what it will take to repair the tracks.
The company has not yet released the findings and any strategic, updated plan to commence work in the near future. After 13 weeks of inoperability, the Hudson Bay line still sits damaged by spring floods resulting from two historic March blizzards. An August 4th updated engineering report detailing estimated costs for repairs was obtained by Omnitrax though they vowed to divulge the findings only after meeting with Transport Canada.
In early July, repair estimates by Omnitrax ranged between $20 and $60 million which they emphatically stated were “not economically viable”. However, the Canadian government continually insists that the company is responsible via federal transportation laws to keep the lifeline to the north running. Transport Canada, the enforcing agency for the law will not initiate an investigation until it received specific complaints from citizens and other agencies.
Correspondence so far from complainants has not been addressed directly to movement of goods and rail line abandonment prompting responses from some Churchill residents that Ottawa and Omnitrax are dragging their feet in the process. Telling Churchillians they have basically not “complained properly” is not sitting right with many of the distraught residents.
Damaged Hudson Bay rail line. CBC photo.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, mayor of Churchill, instead of encouraging residents to file complaints with the regulator has instilled trust in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau pledged he would find a solution on July 28. Trudeau, however, hasn’t said how he plans to proceed.
Home Hardware owner Rhoda deMeulles exemplifies the business owners woes in town by expressing her frustration on lack of supplies due to no cargo arriving via rail. “It’s hard to realize what you need all at once,” said deMeulles, whose store is close to running out of construction supplies and cash.
“We feel like we’re in jail,” said deMeulles, who still loves the town she adopted 38 years ago. “We need help; we need our rail line back.”
Something has to give as the government continues to subsidize groceries for the town. Everyone is expecting a decision by Omnitrax soon, possibly as early as next week.
Tracks have been washed out in multiple places between Churchill and Gillam. Mike Spence photo.
Omnitrax, owner and operator of the Hudson Bay Rail line is continuing to seek government and First Nation help to fix the only land access to Churchill. Estimates of $60 million would restore the tracks to operation by the end of October. However, Omnitrax says they can’t and won’t do it alone!
“It [the rail line] is not commercially viable, so we believe it’s a public utility,” said Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer for Omnitrax.
“We believe it’s still the least expensive way to supply service to the north, in particularly the community of Churchill, and we believe there is a role for the public to play in that.”
Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer for Omnitrax. Jaison Empson BBC photo.
Two March blizzards of epic proportions melted this spring into widespread flooding across the tundra from Gillam to Churchill. Water flows across the land since permafrost lies just beneath the surface and it does not percolate into the soil though. Instead, it flows across the land and when enough accumulates it can move with a powerful force destroying man made features in its path. The ensuing damage to the tracks between Gillam and Churchill have caused a storm of even greater proportions.
With the crucial lifeline to the town inoperable and the main shipping line for goods and supplies cut off, food prices have dramatically increased and businesses have been forced to lay off staff due to soaring costs of securing the goods for their business to operate.
A written statement from Omnitrax was released on Tuesday via a spokesperson for the office of Transport Minister Marc Garneau:
“Omnitrax has an obligation to repair and maintain its line and maintain service to residents, and we expect Omnitrax to meet its obligations,” the statement reads.
“If Omnitrax fails to meet its obligations, our Government will have to examine what are the next steps and alternatives to ensure residents can get the food and supplies they need.”
Omnitrax announced Tuesday morning, that the company has a 60-day plan starting in September to begin repairing the tracks contingent on securing contractors, housing and resources for the project
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence says the timeline for rebuilding portions of the track and replacing bridges and culverts is leaving very little wiggle room with regards to weather in the north.
“The end of October and that’s it, your construction season is done,” Spence said. “So we’re running out of time, here. Let’s get on with it.”
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence. Jaison Empson photo.
Provincial Infrastructure Minister Blaine Pedersen stated his dissatisfaction with the Omnitrax repair schedule and plan; “Today’s technical briefing provided by Omnitrax was clearly inadequate, leaving many unanswered and hypothetical questions.”
“Our senior provincial officials have repeatedly asked Omnitrax for details about their independent engineering assessment and future intentions of the rail line including timetables respecting necessary mitigation efforts, details of insurance policies and status of claims, to which we have had no response,” Pedersen said.
“What was made clear today by senior Omnitrax officials is that they are not prepared to repair, maintain or operate the rail line. It appears that they intend to abandon the line. If so then it is their obligation to the people of Churchill and indeed Manitobans to communicate their abandonment decision to the federal government.”
A third – party track assessment Omnitrax commissioned was completed by AECOM Canada and the engineering company identified 31 washout areas, 68 culverts and 13 bridges requiring repair over the 300 kilometer run of the track from Gillam to Churchill.
In June the Canadian government approved an extension for the Nutrition North food subsidy program so Churchill would be able to keep grocery prices at a somewhat affordable price until rail service resumes. With Manitoba Health also contributing to the subsidy effort the rate will be at $1.60/kg.