Flooding at Churchill’s Goose Creek subdivision. Riccki O’Connor photo.
Nobody really thought ahead when the massive blizzards were pounding Churchill this past March. When the spring thaw came, permafrost has prevented meltwater from permeating the soil and has lead to major flooding in parts of the tundra from Thompson to Churchill along the Hudson Bay rail line.
Once again, as was during the time of the blizzards, supplies and groceries have been delayed due to lack of train service to the northern community. During the March storms groceries were stranded in the south for three weeks leading to a state of emergency.
“With the spring melt underway, water is everywhere”, said Mayor Mike Spence. “We’ve got historic record water flows coming into our community here. It’s a lot of water coming down,”.
Not expected to peak until early June, the Churchill River, as of last weekend, was flowing at about 160,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). With ice still on the Churchill River the flow of overrun onto land can be unpredictable due to tidal flow and ice jamming along shore.
The Goose Creek subdivision has been flooded up river and volunteers have been furiously filling and placing sandbags to try to contain the water. The tracks over parts of the 100 mile stretch of the Hudson Bay rail line have been completely flooded over and no trains have been through since May 23rd.
“We have a rail problem here where we are not able to use the train system because of damage to the rail line, so that needs to be attended to, and that actually can’t be attended to until the water conditions are dealt with.” stated Spence.
Churchill is working with Thompson’s Calm Air, to work out plans to fly groceries into town as soon as possible!
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.”
This short documentary about Churchill gives some perspective of the town through the eyes of local residents and the Churchill Mayor Mike Spence. It’s a rare candid view on what life is like in the polar bear capital of the world. This footage is from 2009 though in my experience things stay pretty consistent in the town. Not a lot changes over the years. It is quite a fascinating town. Enjoy the Churchillian perspective!
The first winter I spent on Cape Cod the Cumberland Farms convenience store ran out of milk in the middle of a two day snowstorm. I was in awe that a store in a developed, though somewhat remote, area could run out of such a basic life staple. Churchill, a very remote location by most standards, had a slightly bigger problem …no gasoline for three days.
A look outside the Churchill Northern Studies Center. Donna Kelber photo.
Details of the “shortage” are somewhat sketchy. At what was first construed as a gas shortage was later confirmed by Mayor Mike Spence as a “interruption in service” between town and the 50 million liter tank farm which is only seven kilometers outside of town adjacent to the Port of Churchill. Both facilities are owned by Omnitrax company out of Denver, CO.
Taxi’s were forced to shut down and town vehicles were being garaged and saved for only emergency usage. The town’s only gas station remained closed for the three days.
Petrol service has since been restored and Mayor Spence has vowed that the issue won’t arise again. He and the town are working with Omnitrax to insure service workers will be available to transport fuel from the storage tanks to the gas station.
Port of Churchill with four fuel tanks in the background.
In a location where weather conditions are extreme on a fairly regular basis, the inability to travel across town to the grocery store, work or hospital becomes vital. Even though Churchill is tiny compared to other towns in the world, the winter conditions make a short 10 minute walk across town feel like traveling cross-country.
Keeping out of the political side of this mishap, it serves as an example of how precious fuel resources in the world are and how we all should treat them as such. Most of us do not think twice about being able to drive five minutes and fill our car’s gas tank. If we all had to experience life without fuel for three days it might serve as an excellent reminder of how valuable these resources are. Maybe reassessing trips we all make in our automobiles should be a goal for this year ahead.