For more than a year Churchill has been cut off from the rest of the country. The only land link between Churchill and the rest of Canada is the Hudson Bay Railway line. The section of line between Gillam and Churchill has been rendered inoperable by the spring 2017 floods that damaged the track.
OmniTRAX, the Denver-based company that owns the line, declared that the floods and the $43.5 million required to repair the rail constituted a major unforeseeable circumstance that absolved it of responsibility to fulfil its contract with the government.
The agreement made upon acquisition of the rail line was that OmniTRAX was to ensure access to Churchill be maintained. In such circumstances, it would be reasonable to expect the government to step in and unilaterally buy out the line and restore the vital link to Churchill. Instead, the government has decided to pursue the issue through the courts.
The litigation process has been extremely slow. Last November, the federal government filed a lawsuit against OmniTRAX for $18 million for allegedly violating its obligation to operate and maintain the railway. This obligation stems from a 2008 agreement in which the federal and provincial governments each gave OmniTRAX $20 million to help upgrade the railway. OmniTRAX argued that the case ought to have been thrown out.
In January, there was a significant breakthrough in the litigation — the Canadian Transportation Agency agreed to hear a complaint filed by the Manitoba NDP about the failure of OmniTRAX to repair the line. In June, the agency ordered the company to commence repairs, and filed an order in the Federal Court to enforce the ruling. OmniTRAX will be appealing it.
Meanwhile, Churchill remains severed from the rest of the country.
The federal government recently demonstrated its willingness to nationalize large-scale infrastructure projects under the name of national interest with the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline. The government’s decision to pursue cumbersome litigation over immediate action demonstrates a telling view of what the national interest entails. Both the people of Churchill and the nation’s coffers have suffered as a result of the federal government’s inaction.
The long-term survival of the 900-person community and livelihood of its residents is in jeopardy. In 2017, gasoline prices went up 30 per cent, topping two dollars a litre, and food prices skyrocketed, with a package of meat being sold for $26 and a four-litre bag of milk for $10.
This February the federal government gave $133,000 to Exchange Petroleum, an airplane refuelling service, to offset the rising prices in Churchill and the provincial government spent $6 million to subsidize the town with propane for the 2017-2018 winter alone. The longer the line stays unrepaired, the more government relief will be required to maintain the survival of the iconic town.
With the prices rising, some Churchill residents are contemplating leaving their beloved hometown. Thirty families have already left, and the local school is down 40 students since June 2017. With steep price increases and precarious employment, Churchill is no longer liveable for many people. As one resident expressed, “For us, the train coming back — it’s not so we can leave. It’s so we can stay.”
The question of purchasing the railway from OmniTRAX has been taken up by a consortium of Indigenous and northern communities and two firms from Ontario and Saskatchewan. The talks were progressing until July 3, when they broke down. A week later, however, the negotiations resumed, although it remains to be seen whether the ownership transfer will be concluded.
While OmniTRAX attempts to extract every possible penny from the sale of the railway, the people of Churchill endure the effects of this flood-turned-political failure alone.
When the Liberals face Manitobans in the next federal election they will have to accept the fact that their unwillingness to buy out the rail left the famous northern Manitoban community abandoned and that they will be looked upon as indifferent and indecisive.