In the midst of meeting held in the dark due to a scheduled power outage, Dave Daley, President of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce and local business owner, looked around the table and posed a question. “When did Churchill become such an afterthought?” The question left those in attendance, including Minister Cliff Cullen, Churchill residents, business owners, and the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce (MCC) silent.
The meeting was part of a day-long trip to Churchill by a contingent of government officials, local business groups, and stakeholders to get a firsthand look at the current state of the community following the halting of the grain shipping season through the Port of Churchill and reduction of freight service by OmniTrax. This trip was originally scheduled for August 8 but postponed due to poor weather.
After landing, the group was taken on a tour of the community led by Mayor Mike Spence. The beauty and research potential of the Northern town was on full display. With beluga whales in the background, Parks Canada shared information on the future of research development and excitement over the construction of a new marine conservatory with world-class researchers flocking to the community. From there it was off to the meeting hosted by the Churchill and Manitoba Chambers.
The meeting was the opportunity to local business owners and residents to talk directly to the government on the current state of the community and where they hope to go in the immediate future, and they did not hold back their feelings. Some congratulated the government for standing up to OmniTrax. Others stressed the importance of finding a new buyer for the rail line and port, whether it be the feds or a local consortium. One educator asked about the potential to educate seasonal workers on the history of the north or design programs around tourist management for locals. Some wondered aloud where the federal government was in all of this. One of the more impactful pleas came from the local owner of the Home Hardware, who has products that can’t be shipped out of Churchill and product sitting in Winnipeg that can’t be shipped up. He told those gathered that he might go broke before a plan is put in place. While the hour plus long meeting didn’t result in any tangible solutions, it did provide some candid discussion and at times cathartic release from a town worried about their very existence.
Later in the day, BELL MTS announced their commitment to expanding broadband service in the North. MCC feels rural businesses with the tools to be competitive will help them grow their business and open up new opportunities. Another announcement from the government includes an enhancement to funding available for tourism development, which led to the final meeting of the day focused on the impact of tourism in Churchill.
It is no secret that tourism plays an integral role in the economy of Churchill. However, it can’t be seen as the solution to the issues facing the community. Tourism will play a key piece to the overall solutions for the North, something those around the table expressed and understood.
The polar bear and beluga whales viewing make up a significant portion of the tourist season, and another of the natural sights of Churchill will soon receive a big push. Churchill is one of the best places to see the northern lights in the world. Travel Manitoba spoke to the tourism operators in the room and let them know that they will be starting a big marketing push centred on attracting people to view the lights and providing a third season for potential tourists.
Several tourist operators spoke about the high cost of flights to the community as a major impediment to future growth. Executives for Calm Air, who were part of the contingent for this trip, explained to those inquiring about the business challenges of running flights to Churchill, why price issues are the way they are and what it would take to lower fees.
CBC was also in Churchill to report on the trip. You can view the story produced by Sean Kavanagh that will give you some insight on what was said. Other media spoke with MCC President Chuck Davidson on the trip. Click here to read the Winnipeg Free Press story and here to read the Winnipeg Sun article.
It was a day of sobering, blunt conversation about the challenges facing Northern Manitoba and Churchill specifically. Lengthy delays in returning to Winnipeg allowed the group plenty of time to absorb and put into perspective what was said. The challenges facing Northern Manitoba extend well past Churchill. The news of the Tolko mill closure in The Pas presents a whole list of challenges that are similar but yet entirely different from the ones facing Churchill. The same could be said of Flin Flon and Thompson. With Northern Manitoba being so diverse, a blanket or one size fits all solution will likely not address issues facing industry and residents.
With all that said, there is vast potential for Churchill and all Northern Manitoba. It will take the commitment of the provincial and federal governments to put the pieces in place for future investment opportunities, and it will require the business community ingenuity to take advantage of those opportunities that will reinvigorate the communities and help grow the Manitoba economy. One thing remains clear following the trip to Churchill; Northern Manitoba is too important to our history and future to be ignored. How we answer the question posed by Dave Daley will say a lot about where this province will advance in the years ahead.