The Port of Churchill and Hudson Bay Railway are still up for sale by Omnitrax. Claude Daudet photo.
With negotiations between Omnitrax Canada and the Missinippi Rail Consortium, now down to just the Mathias First Nation, moving at the speed of a train on the last 100 miles to Churchill, another strong alliance has stepped up and expressed interest in acquiring the port and Hudson Bay Railway. Omnitrax does have a memorandum of understanding to negotiate the sale of its assets with MRC though the negotiations have recently stalled.
The new alliance called One North has apparently gathered widespread representation from various First Nations of northern Manitoba and incorporated municipalities residing up and down the rail line. The Kivaliq region in Nunavut has also reportedly joined forces with the group as well.
“This is an unprecedented coalition of communities — indigenous and non-indigenous. There is a historical significance here. Never in the history of northern Manitoba have all these communities come together like this in a shared vision.” stated Christian Sinclair, chief of Opaskwayak Cree Nation, and one of the key organizers of One North.
So far around 20 communities have joined forces with One North, including The Pas and the City of Thompson, two key, large communities on the rail line as well as all the First Nation communities served by the Hudson Bay Railway including Fox Lake, War Lake and York Factory. Many of these groups have rescinded their support letters from a year ago backing the Missinippi Rail Consortium run by Chief Arlen Dumas of Mathias Colomb First Nation and redirected them to One North Coalition.
The group has come together to not only purchase the assets of Omnitrax Canada and run the rail line and Port of Churchill but also facilitate a long term broader plan for the north and its people.
Churchill mayor Mike Spence has co-led the effort with Sinclair..
“We have a real issue here. We need to rectify it. We are putting together a model that will sustain these communities for a long, long time.” Spence said.
Omnitrax Canada place the port, rail line and assets up for sale in December 2015. Omnitrax president Merv Tweed at that time announced the company wanted to sell its Manitoba assets and was confident the company would have a deal in place before the end of 2015. That didn’t happen.
Dumas and Omnitrax entered into negotiations in January 2016 and although initial meetings seemed to imply a done deal, nothing has seemed to progress further.
When July came around, Omnitrax shocked the community of Churchill by laying off nearly 100 port workers and abruptly closed the doors to the port and cancelled the entire shipping season. No deal with with Dumas and his group was finalized.
Dumas and Omnitrax officials claim that talks are progressing well and that a deal is imminent though no recent news has surfaced on the deal. Omnitrax officials have not been available for comment on negotiations. When reached, Dumas had no awareness of One North’s interests. He did give away a little of his hand by stating; “Well, ask them to give me a call if they want to buy the assets and the interest off us.”
Sinclair admits One North is still trying to get an audience with Omnitrax. They currently have no official standing with the company and have only assembled a team with some technical expertise including Paul Power, an international railway specialist who was a founding director of the Keewatin Railway Company, and Marv Tiller, the original CEO of the North West Company who has had a long career assisting First Nations in successful economic development projects.
“We think Omnitrax does not want to talk to us because they want to get a management contract from the buyer, Missinippi Rail Consortium, so they can make $10 to $15 million advising and managing and have someone else take on the risk as well as cash out on all the government money that has been sunk into the line.” stated Power.
One North has made it clear to the government the direction they are wanting to go in and have met with Cliff Cullen, Manitoba’s minister of growth, enterprise and trade as well as Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and the Manitoba caucus in Ottawa. Modest funding has been received from the $4.6-million Churchill and Region Economic Development Fund, established in September by the federal government though the group has been primarily self-funded to date.
“The federal government is fully aware of where we want to go,” Mayor Spence said. “They have indicated to us that they like the model, they like where we are going. It plays into what the government wants to do to develop a new strategic plan.”
Railroad ties owned by Omnitrax in the Pas were destroyed by arson. RCMP photo.
A $5,000 reward is being offered by Omnitrax Canada for information that helps locate an arsonist that destroyed about $1 million worth of railroad ties that were to be used this summer on the Hudson Bay rail – line.
Fire lit up the sky around 5:30 a.m. in The Pas Monday morning from the Hudson Bay Railway yard. With relations strained between local residents and Omnitrax due to their recent abandonment of the Port of Churchill, communities all along the Hudson Bay rail-line are running high on emotions.
Omnitrax will offer the bounty to someone who can supply information leading to both an arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for the fire. Fortunately, no people were injured during the blaze.
“We are very troubled by this terrible act,” Omnitrax Canada president Merv Tweed said in a release.
The company has set up a tip line at 204-947-0033. The local RCMP number is 204-627-6204.
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.
Port of Churchill grain shipping operation on the Churchill River. Port of Churchill photo.
A northern delegation comprised of representatives from the Town of Churchill and The Pas, City of Thompson, Hudson Bay Route Association, and the War Lake First Nation have met with provincial and federal governments to try to sort out the recent Port of Churchill closure by american based owner Omnitrax. The company closed the port and issued two – week lay – off notices on July 25th of this year.
No grain has been shipped through the Port of Churchill prior to the shut – down in what Churchill Mayor Spence has characterized a “bumper -crop year”. The “unforseen” circumstances that Omnitrax is siting as reason for closure have still not been disclosed by the company that purchased the facility in 1993 from the Government of Canada which was at the time divesting itself from numerous crown corporations. The current closure affects nearly 200 paid positions all along the Bayline.
Speaking for the northern delegation, Mayor Spence stated “this is an emergency situation for our community, our region and indeed our country. We’ve been told by farmers that there is a bumper crop and as an export country we can’t be shutting down ports if we are able to keep people employed and grow our economy”.
The delegation is in agreement that the Government of Canada at national and regional levels should take responsibility to insure that the Port of Churchill is of national interest. In this light all involved feel the Port of Churchill needs to be reopened and continue to function as a part of Canada’s national infrastructure. This new delegation has pledged to continue to diligently work with the branches of government to find a long term solution for keeping the port operations running.
Michael Constant, Chief of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, reinforced the message by Mayor Mike Spence of Churchill stating “we have all come together to find a workable long term solution and we are prepared to advance a northern regional ownership model that we feel is the best approach going forward”.
Last December a group of Manitoba First Nations purportedly was in the process of finalizing an agreement to purchase the Port of Churchill though that news has simmered somewhat as no definitive sale has been finalized.
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.