Report from the senate: Rail service for Churchill

Common sense and compassion seem to have deserted the main players in the debate over fixing the rail line to Churchill, where the citizens are facing a cold, hungry and expensive winter if something doesn’t happen soon.

Our advice to the federal government would be to repair the rail line first and try to collect the money later. Indeed, Polar Industries of Ice Road Truckers, is looking to create a winter road from Gillam to Churchill to bring in supplies during the frozen months. This would be a good opportunity to use that road to haul in the materials needed to repair the line. Using the overland route to bring in supplies could save transportation costs and reduce the repair bill that Omnitrax estimates at $43 million (although locals say the cost would be much less).

Furthermore, there is an offer on the table from the Keewatin Tribal Council, which operates a northern railway of its own and has faced similar repair situations, to take on the needed repairs.

Senator Pat Bovey recently had the opportunity to question Minister Jim Carr about his plans to deal with the crisis at Churchill. The following, offered to Lifestyles 55 by Senator Bovey, is the official record of that exchange.

  • • •

Hon. Patricia Bovey: Welcome, Mr. Minister. My question also concerns the situation in Churchill, Manitoba, the gateway to the North.

I appreciate the fact that the government of Canada has sent a motion, a notice of default, demanding OmniTRAX repair and restore the railway service to Churchill.

I also appreciate the fact that chief negotiator, Wayne Wouters, continues to facilitate an agreement among all parties involved.

I think it’s unlikely that the railway will be repaired before winter. So what contingency plans does the government have in place to deal with the health and safety of the people of Churchill over the harsh months ahead? Long term, could you briefly discuss your vision of a stable, sustainable community in Churchill, Canada’s northern port, for the years to come, as the Arctic itself is opening up?

Hon. Jim Carr: I appreciate not only the question but the passion and commitment behind the question. I know that you have recently been in Churchill personally, and anyone who visits that place comes away with a profound appreciation and understanding for the quality of life and the tenacity of the people of Churchill.

In the short term, we’ll have to see what OmniTRAX decides to do. Meanwhile, we are certainly preparing for the possibility that there will be no rail service this winter. As a result, we are co-operating with the government of Manitoba to ensure that there is a sufficient fuel supply and to ensure that there is a subsidy through Nutrition North to make it more affordable to buy basic needs and groceries, but just as important is our commitment in the long term.

You know that times are changing. Climate change itself is having an impact on the Port of Churchill. The shipping season is considerably longer today for Churchill — which is good news — than it was five or 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. It’s also true that climate change has an impact on the roadbed, on the trail, on the train track, and that you have to factor in the consequences on both sides of that reality.

We also have to talk about the longterm role of the Port of Churchill and the town of Churchill. As I said earlier, the government of Canada believes that that role and that future is integral as Canada develops an Arctic strategy, for all the important reasons that are part of the geopolitical reality that we face — Canadian sovereignty, the role of the Department of National Defence, supplying remote communities.

All these interests are important to our government, and all of them can be served by having an active role [for] Churchill and northern Manitoba as we move forward.

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