Despite a sunny sky in Winnipeg last Friday (August 5), inclement weather in Churchill grounded a plane full of Manitoba business leaders and government officials. The planned trip to the northern community was planned quickly following the news of the closure and subsequent layoffs at the Port of Churchill. Adding to the uncertain future for Churchill, was further news that OmniTrax, the company which has owned both the rail line and port, decided to cut freight trips from two to one per week.
Due to the unfortunate decision to postpone the trip, plans to meet face-to-face with Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, town council, First Nations from the community, and the local Chamber of Commerce are on hold. However, the group of business leaders, led by the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce (MCC), along with government officials, including provincial ministers Cliff Cullen (Growth, Enterprise, and Trade) and Scott Fielding (Families and Housing) took the morning to discuss ideas to identify future economic development, how to stimulate growth and interest in the region, and project some of the upcoming challenges facing First Nations, business and residents of our northern communities. Following a presentation by Travel Manitoba on future marketing plans in the north, it was clear that tourism has a role to play in revitalizing the region but cannot and should not be the focal point. The nearly two-hour meeting heard a wide range of ideas. Some of the topics discussed included the logistics of renationalization of the port, diversifying the shipping portfolio of the port, identifying the potential sectors that would be interested in future investment, establishing better communication channels between the communities, engaging First Nation communities, improving relationships and Duty to Consult processes, potential economic partnerships with Nunavut, and the idea of creating jointly administered regions in the North.
As the meeting continued, three things became very clear. The first was the stagnant nature of infrastructure in the north, something that has not been properly addressed over the last two decades. That is why the commitment of the new provincial government’s focus on the north and plans towards the development in their Yes! North plan are welcome. This commitment was reiterated a number of times by the government officials including Premier Pallister, who made a surprise appearance during the impromptu meeting.
The second is the need and importance to engage Northern leaders and their residents. It should be clarified that leaders in Southern Manitoba do not believe that we know best and have the answers for Northern Manitoba. But, there is a group of Manitoba business leaders that understand the need to grow the north and bring ideas and open dialogue with Northern leaders and companies. While there was criticism heaped upon this group meeting on Friday for a perceived lack of female and Aboriginal voices around the table, what took place last week is only the first step.
The third issue that became quite evident during the meetings and was highlighted by MCC’s President and CEO Chuck Davidson. The issues facing the north impact all Manitoba and that is something a majority of residents either don’t understand or care about. Changing that mindset is critical to turning Northern Manitoba’s challenges into a Manitoba solution. If the north continues to fall on hard times, the impact will be felt in all regions of the province in a multitude of ways, the biggest of which would be taxes and added financial challenges. All Manitobans must understand the impact all our regions have on our bottom line. What the North looks like in a few months, a few years and decades from now will need visionary ideas from visionary minds working towards for the betterment of a critical region of Manitoba’s future.
Despite the trip to Churchill being postponed, a number of meetings planned for our visit were able to take place via teleconference. The Deputy Minister for Growth, Enterprise, and Trade, Jamie Wilson, spoke with a number of First Nations leaders from Churchill and Northern Manitoba. The purpose of the call was to bring them up to speed on the issues discussed during our earlier meetings, and the challenges their community are facing since the closure was announced. Late in the day, MCC, along Ministers Cullen and Fielding, spoke with members of the executive from the Churchill Chamber of Commerce and some other local business owners on the issues they are facing and what they are hearing from residents.
The feedback was from a community concerned about the impact the rail line reductions will have on the already high cost of food. The delegation also heard concerns for the people directly impacted from losing their jobs and how that could potentially impact the community if those people are forced to leave to find work. That will be more money and people leaving the community, adding more uncertainty to the already fragile psyche of residents. One of the residents talked about the lack of communication with OmniTrax and if the line will still be maintained to accommodate Via Rail’s three times weekly service to Churchill. These trains are packed with tourists who are coming up for the beluga whale and polar bears. It was pointed out that hotels are packed, but if the line does not meet the high standards expected by Via Rail, the question was asked if that could that halt the flow of visitors. As no one was able to connect with OmniTrax, the questions raised by the community currently remain unanswered.
Residents of Northern Manitoba love their community. They are a resilient group of people, but that resiliency is being put to the test once again. It is difficult to understand exactly how they are feeling, but they have shared their concerns. The ideas and suggestions brought forward on August 6 will help develop the foundation for long-term plans to grow northern Manitoba. As MCC’s Chuck Davidson said in a government news release, “The next step will be to engage directly the residents and businesses in these impacted communities.”