With the crisis in Churchill continuing to affect the everyday lives of all 800 residents, a recent art project coordinated by Kal Barteski has brought hope and promise of change to the isolated northern town. Barteski organized artists from around the world to gather and paint northern themed murals on neglected and mostly abandoned buildings around the subarctic outpost on the Hudson Bay.
Now a short documentary film has been made portraying the roots of the project and how it became a reality.
“I Know I’m Here” is a collaboration of 18 artists looking to leave a mark of reassurance and hope for this small community fighting through some very tough times. Within the past couple of years, the Port of Churchill has been shut down, the Hudson Bay Line has been washed out and inoperable for a year, and just recently the most popular restaurant, Gypsy’s Bakery, burned to the ground. The strife has been constant and the heart and resilience of the residents are being tested beyond belief.
As Churchillians deal with stresses from being shut off from the south with the only way in and out of the town being by air, Kal and her group of artists have created these massive murals have transformed the landscape and instilled some hope in the community.
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.
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.
The Port of Churchill has been a symbol of uncertainty in Churchill. Katie de Meulles photo.
A Manitoba First Nations group has formed a partnership with an independent company to establish the reopening of the rail line to Churchill and potential operation of the grain port in Churchill.
Heard that before? Well, this time we might be in for the real thing.
A recent press release confirms that a consortium of Manitoba First Nations, led by Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson, will partner with iChurchill Inc., a private Canadian company, entering into an acquisition agreement with Denver-based Omnitrax, to take over control of the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay Railway.
“The port has got all of the grain handling equipment and simply said, the first thing we want to do is resume that commercial activity,” said Louis Dufresne, president of iChurchill Inc., in a phone interview Friday.
Northern residents of the town of Churchill along with Indigenous leaders say the railway and port are crucial to the existence of towns and all First Nations in northern Manitoba.
Last May, a year ago, the Hudson Bay rail line owned by Denver-based Omnitrax sustained flood damage from the spring melt of two late-season blizzards. The damage was estimated at nearly $60 million and Omnitrax balked at its contract to repair the damage and therefore reopen the train line to Churchill. Soon after, a native group under the name Missinippi Rail LP, a consortium of about 15 Manitoba First Nations, signed an informal agreement to purchase the port and rail line for $20 million. Further strengthening their offer and position, the group enhanced their buying power by joining with One North, a group representing First Nations and communities served by the Hudson Bay line.
Photo by Major MacLachlan (zambonista.com/hbr/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
With that deal seemingly dormant and not gaining any momentum, this new one is being praised by Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.
“Hopeful always when I hear these announcements, but of course like the people of Churchill, I just really would like to see the rail line rebuilt and the port reopened with solid commitments with whoever is going to take charge of the ownership that they are committed for the longer term.”
Now, iChurchill Inc. is hoping to formalize and seal the agreement by mid-June in order to commence repairs and reopen the line in time for the fall polar bear season. These details have not been confirmed by Omnitrax as of yet,
Communities have been suffering for a year now with increased costs of transporting goods to the outlying towns in the north. The isolation has touched everyone’s lives in every community. With another end of this dilemma in sight, people have been given hope once again.
iChurchill Inc. is expected to release more information today regarding plans for repairing the rail line and potential reopening of the port at a Winnipeg press conference.
Any new agreement would need approval from the federal government. Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr is expected to release a statement Friday.