Runaround on Port of Churchill closure strange but true

If you’re looking for answers from Ottawa on what the Port of Churchill’s closure means for grain transportation, prepare for some bureaucratic runaround.

Federal officials have remained silent, even as Canadian farmers are expecting a near record crop.

Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s office deferred the matter to Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains’ office, whose portfolio includes Western Economic Diversification.

Meanwhile, Transport Minister Marc Garneau deferred questions to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, whose office deferred the matter back to Bains’ office.

Churchill port hit by new grain realities

Bains’ office issued a statement July 26 expressing disappointment over the port’s closure, insisting that cabinet was “monitoring the situation closely.” The email does not mention the word grain once.

Asked again, Bains’ office said the minister had “no further comment at this time.”

Follow ups to MacAulay’s office were again deferred to Bains’ office.

While not a major player in terms of grain movement, the Port of Churchill's significance should not be dismissed. It is an integral piece to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty and a key economic driver for northern Manitoba. | file photo

While not a major player in terms of grain movement, the Port of Churchill’s significance should not be dismissed. It is an integral piece to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty and a key economic driver for northern Manitoba. | file photo

No one in Ottawa seems to be able to explain why the innovation minister is suddenly fielding questions about grain transportation  — an issue MacAulay was happy to answer questions about not even 48 hours earlier while in Calgary.

Word of the port’s closure broke July 25. Within 24 hours, more than a few questions had surfaced about the shutdown’s implications for Canada’s grain handling system.

While not a major player in terms of grain movement (the Western Grain Elevators Association says the tonnage moved by Churchill can easily be handled by Thunder Bay), the northern port’s significance should not be dismissed.

Churchill is an integral piece to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. It was Canada’s first deep water Arctic port and remains the only such port with rail access, which makes it a key economic driver for northern Manitoba.

The port moved an average of 500,000 tonnes of grain during its approximately 13-week shipping season, providing a small amount of contingency to a grain handling system that has struggled with logistics in recent years.

Several shippers opted to use Churchill in 2013-14 to get their stranded goods to market, although the harsh winter forced the port to close a week earlier than usual.

The amount of grain being shipped to the port was in decline. It handled 184,000 tonnes of grain last year, which was a far cry from the more than 600,000 tonnes moved in 2013.

Still, for farmers — particularly those in Manitoba — knowing Churchill was an option in case of a jam provided some peace of mind. Given the size of this year’s crop, Keystone Agricultural Producers is calling on Ottawa to keep the port open at least until the end of the 2016 shipping season.

Ottawa has said nothing about what the port’s shutdown means for grain. It’s a silence that is unlikely to earn the government support from an already frustrated agriculture industry.

The Liberals have very few friends in agriculture. In their first eight months, they’ve somehow managed to make almost every commodity group mad.

Dairy farmers are incensed over the federal government’s inaction on the diafiltered milk file.

Chicken farmers don’t understand the hold-up on a border control issue that is letting in a hundred millon kilograms of spent fowl (old laying hens) from the United States.

Farmers say it is undermining Canada’s supply management.

Meanwhile, some grain groups are livid over the Liberals’ poor transparency and availability on the grain transportation file. Many, including the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, are frustrated by Garneau’s unwillingness to meet with them face-to-face.

And while MacAulay has held his own roundtable on grain transportation, farm groups know Garneau, who is the lead on the file, will be the one making the final decisions.

Canada’s agriculture industry says it’s starting to feel ignored, and the latest runaround in Ottawa on Churchill and grain won’t help the Liberals win it over.

Nor will it appease fears that the Liberals will ignore rural Canada in favour of their urban buddies.

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