Port of Churchill layoffs in effect, uncertainty remains

WINNIPEG — Layoffs from Manitoba’s Port of Churchill are now in effect, but questions remain for those formerly employed by the port, the future of the tow, and the dynamics of Canadian grain handling.

Answers to those questions aren’t coming from the Denver-based railway that operates the port, OmniTrax, as officials have remained mostly silent since issuing layoff notices July 25.

“It’s unfortunate that this is happening up there for sure, but we want them (residents of Churchill) to know there are a lot of people working hard to try and find a solution for them,” said Elden Boon, president of the Hudson Bay Route Association.

Churchill, which is located in northern Manitoba, is home to about 800 people. The port was North America’s only deep water Arctic seaport and was the largest employer in the town, hiring about 10 percent of the population during seasonal operations, the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees said.

“It’s about these communities in the North having a great economy, and their communities. It’s about people having jobs and a brighter future,” Boon said.

He said the federal government has listened to the HBRA’s concerns about the port’s closure, but added there is no concrete solution in the works.

The port had been receiving federal funding through the Churchill Port Utilization Program, which was set to run until the end of the 2016 shipping season.

The closure comes at an especially inopportune time as harvest nears and old-crop grain sits loaded and destined for the port, said Dan Mazier, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.

“Those contracts were established, they were signed, sealed and just not delivered on,” he said.

“We closed the port, so what does this do to our reputation as far as exporting?”

Mazier said closure of the port has directly farmers and will have a long-term effect on the value chain.

The port had been touted for eliminating time-consuming navigation for the prairie farmer, reducing handling costs on the St. Lawrence Seaway and avoiding congestion at other Canadian ports.

The port moves a small amount of grain but has supported movement during backups. It has moved a long-term average of 500,000 tonnes of grain per season.

However, the port moved only 184,000 tonnes of grain last year.

“No matter what kind of jam there was, it was an outlet,” Mazier said.

“If anything, it’s going to add more pressure to the eastern and western ports.”

Farmers are expected to start harvesting near the end of August and into September. The Western Grain Elevators Association says grain harvest could reach 74 million tonnes this year, which is near 2013’s record level of 76.8 million tonnes.

“We obviously will have a pretty good crop coming off very soon, and here we are closing off our export port now. I don’t think that bodes well for the grain industry,” Boon said.

OmniTrax officials did not respond to a request for comment.

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