It’s all in the family at northern port

CHURCHILL, Man. – Up here, being a Spence means never having to look far to find another.

The extended family dominates the workforce at the Hudson Bay Port Company’s grain terminal, makes up about 30 percent of Churchill’s population and counts many leading citizens in its ranks.

How is the port’s acting grain master, Ronald Spence, related to Churchill mayor Michael Spence?

“He’s a cousin,” said Ronald, who is also head of the port’s union.

How is Ronald related to Randy Spence, the terminal’s supervisor?

“Cousin.”

How is Randy related to Alan Spence, the port’s shipping office supervisor?

“Cousin,” said Randy.

How is Alan related to the mayor?

“He’s a distant cousin,” Alan said.

ADVERTISMENT

Alan admits that it’s sometimes bewildering to be in a town populated so liberally with people with the same last name. Unlike most locals, Alan lives most of the year in Saskatoon, where he is a researcher.

But since 2001, he has been coming back most summers to work at the port, which is where he’s run smack-dab into this ocean of Spences.

“I’m getting to know a lot of relatives here,” said Spence, whose father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather also worked for the port.

“I don’t know everybody yet, but they all seem to know me. Everybody around here knows me because they associate me with my grandmother.”

Alan’s grandmother Esther and grandfather Francis Spence were well known locally and Francis had fame as a Beluga whale hunter. Their names were famous in California as well, where two Belugas captured by Francis were named Esther and Francis in honour of the couple.

Most Spences are treaty Cree Indians, but most also have mixed blood from generations of cross-cultural marriage in this remote cultural turnstile, where Europeans and aboriginals have lived together since the late 1600s. Not only have descendents of Cree, English and Scottish fur trade workers lived and died here, but so have Dene from farther north and Thunder Bay grain industry workers from far south and east.

Mayor Spence’s family lived in remote York Factory, farther south on Hudson Bay, where his father worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, but moved to Churchill decades ago along with almost all the other people there.

Apart from the Spences, many other aboriginals work at the port. Randy estimated about 75 to 80 percent of the terminal’s workers are aboriginal.

Alan said he likes coming back to Churchill to work the short but intense shipping season, not only to earn money and develop skills but also because it puts him back in touch with his aboriginal culture and with sub-arctic wildlife.

ADVERTISMENT

“I see white foxes here,” said Alan.

Randy said drawing back skilled workers like Alan, who was born in Churchill but has lived away for most of his life, is a key goal of local leaders like him.

That’s why they hope the port keeps busy and doesn’t go through bad years like it suffered in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was occasionally closed.

“People love Churchill and they’ll come back, but it’s hard to live here if you don’t have work,” said Randy.

Apart from drawing skilled workers back to the town, which sits at the mouth of the Churchill River, people like Randy also hope to train locals to become skilled tradesmen.

He believes that’s easier than drawing in workers with no Churchill connections. And it’s important to stop people fleeing Churchill for jobs elsewhere.

“We’re trying to keep local guys here,” said Randy. “Because we’re isolated, we have to do all the work. We can’t bring in a contractor.”

Alan said he thinks he has benefited from the hire-local policy, even though he’s only slightly local. His birth here and his giveaway name make this place home.

“I kind of count as local,” he said.

ADVERTISMENT

  • Ruby McLeod nee Spence

    The mayor of Churchill, Micheal (Mike) Spence is my brother. I live in Saskatchewan. I worked at the Port of Churchill seasonal in the years 1981/82/83/84. I was an elevatorman worked in the basements (old annex and new) shipping grain on the belts to the ships. Also worked in the console room as a console operator. Then I also worked for the Canadian Grain Commissioner at the port checking grain for the grades as they come off the chutes, It was an experience working at the elevator meeting other workers from Saskatchewan and Manitoba and Ontario.