The Port of Churchill, which was created as a result of intense lobbying by pioneer western Canadian farmers, is not critical to the grain handling system.
However, the northern port is important for Canada’s northern sovereignty, and its role could be altered because climate change is expected to lead to a longer ice-free period in Hudson Bay.
So Ottawa and the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, along with northern communities, First Nations, farmers in the catchment region and the grain industry should put their thinking caps on and find a way to make this infrastructure work to the benefit of all Canadians.
There isn’t an easy solution: Canada’s only Arctic deep water port, 85 years after its inauguration, remains more an idea with great potential than a commercial necessity.
OmniTrax shocked everyone when it announced that it was suspending most operations at the port and laying off the staff.
The company had earlier announced it wanted to sell and was talking with First Nations groups in northern Manitoba about buying the railway and port, including its grain terminal.
OmniTrax decided it wanted out as it became difficult to attract grain since the end of the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly and as costs increased.
The CWB could direct grain to the port, maintaining an annual flow of about 500,000 tonnes for export during the shipping season that runs from about mid-summer through late October or early November.
When the CWB monopoly ended and the responsibility for wheat exports shifted to the grain companies, that flow was endangered because the companies want to generate revenue by using their own port terminals at Thunder Bay and the West Coast.
Churchill handled only 186,000 tonnes last year, even with a federal subsidy of $9 for every tonne of grain exported. That tonnage could easily be moved through Thunder Bay in about a week.
The subsidies end in 2017, providing one reason why OmniTrax wants out.
Churchill’s other issue is the Hudson Bay rail line, which makes the port possible but also has problems.
The line, which was built in the early 20th century at a heavy financial and human cost, crosses over shifting permafrost that plays havoc with the rails, leading to a train speed limit in some parts barely above walking pace. Even then, derailments and delays are common.
Climate change presents a wild card for Churchill. It could melt the permafrost and lead to more rail bed instability, but it could also lengthen the shipping season. The potential shipping season is already a month longer than it used to be.
A federal-Manitoba task force on the future of Churchill released in January 2013 said its survival would rest on building the capacity to handle additional commodities both outbound and inbound. It could also work with grain companies that don’t have their own port terminals. Tourism and northern supply are also opportunities.
This broader focus is needed because Churchill can’t survive on grain alone. Yet it will be a struggle to make it work. It would take decades to develop and even then might require an ongoing subsidy.
Canadians will have to agree that this is part of the cost of Arctic sovereignty and of nation building.
It was a cost a young nation in the 1920s was willing to bear, not without controversy, but ultimately, with hope, vision and resourcefulness.
Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.