“Northward, northward, turn your vision
To a land that’s fresh and braw
Til you’ve tasted God’s Own freedom
In the wilds around The Pas.
There’s a life that grips and holds you
In the wilds around The Pas.”
Selected verses from The Northland, author Bert Huffman, July 20, 1920
When you visit The Pas and OCN, the first thing you notice is that the air is fresh, the forest is thick, and the Saskatchewan River that bisects the two communities looks markedly similar to the Red River that winds through Winnipeg. Then you meet the people who call the northern town and First Nation home, and you feel warmth and hopefulness. You sense community and pride, and you’ll hear story after story from locals who came to the area on a short-term teaching, nursing, or construction contract “all those years ago,” and just never left.
“This region has so much opportunity and promise,” says Jennifer Cooke, general manager of the local paper, The Opasquia Times, and vice-president of The Pas & District Chamber of Commerce. “As I drove the highway in to town 25 years ago, it seemed so remote, and I couldn’t believe I was moving here. But I’m still here. I’ve made a great life in The Pas, and the potential for others to do the same is definitely here.”
On April 24 and 25, 2019, more than 20 members of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce (MCC) boarded Calm Air flight MO126 bound for two full days of tours of local operations, meetings with business and community leaders to explore potential relationships and alliances, and for some, a first-time, eye-opening visit to a northern community.
“This is the second economic development tour the MCC has hosted, and it was productive,” says Chuck Davidson, Manitoba Chambers of Commerce President & CEO. “Our delegates had a jam-packed itinerary, including presentations from OCN leaders and The Pas elected officials, and from regional economic development professionals who showcased current initiatives, goals, as well as investment opportunities.”
The delegation toured University College of the North, a provider of educational options ranging from one-day soft skills training to four-year bachelor of nursing and education degrees. The group was also treated to tours of successful local businesses such as Canadian Kraft Paper Industries – a sustainably-operated paper mill that has risen from the ashes to employ more than 300 people; Otineka Mall – a 250,000 sq ft shopping centre and the largest mall in the north; and the OCN LED Smart Farm, a sophisticated joint operation with a South Korean company and University of Manitoba researchers that grows fortified produce year-round in a 1100-square foot space at the back of the bingo hall.
“Our community utilizes LED Smart Farm technology to support local nutritious food growth and promote food security, and we’ve seen our produce come out 4 to 7 times more nutritious than what’s in the grocery store,” says Stephanie Cook, Smart Farm technician. “Our goal is to achieve a 40% reduction in the number of imported vegetables and a 20% reduction in community diabetes rates by 2023.”
The harvest is provided free of charge to local community members — more than 60% of who are living with diabetes. The goal is to take the operation to the next level, and to help other northern communities implement the technology. Best of all, the project is still in the running for the federal government’s Smart Cities Challenge, with the potential for a $10 million prize.
Participants also heard from Jamie Wilson, VP, Corporate Development, Arctic Gateway Group, a partnership of Manitoba and Nunavut First Nations and Northern communities, Fairfax, and AGT Food and Ingredients. Wilson shared that the consortium resurrected the former Hudson Bay Rail line from The Pas to Churchill and became owner/operator of the Port of Churchill, Canada’s only Arctic seaport serviced by rail. Strategically located on the west coast of Hudson Bay, the Arctic Gateway is the front door to Western Canada, linking Canadian trade in resources to the global marketplace.
According to tour delegate Mick Lautt, CEO, SciMar Ltd and Executive Director of the Wellness Transformation Network, the tour was two days well-spent.
“I really appreciated the diversity of site visits and the level of engagement from local stakeholders and leaders. We were warmly welcomed and graciously hosted, and our time was efficiently organized to provide good exposure and value,” says Lautt. “I was able to initiate a surprising breadth of business relationships with the Northern folks we met and networking with the Southern crew was productive and a lot of fun. Personally, I made more valuable connections than I had expected, and I learned more about the communities than I had hoped. As a bonus, the location was beautiful and the food excellent.”
Adam Nepon, Partner, Realcare Inc., Indigenous Services, says he will definitely apply to participate in future MCC northern tours.
“The Economic Development Tours are one of the most efficient ways for businesses just starting to explore opportunities in Northern Manitoba markets. Like most tight-knit communities, reputation and who you know is everything. Delegates are personally introduced to key decision-makers which could potentially take weeks, months, or years to reach without the proper information and contacts,” says Nepon. “The tour also provides an opportunity for companies looking to start their paths to Reconciliation. Our great province has unique demographics, and one in five Manitobans will identify as Indigenous by the end of 2020. That’s 20% of our population, and in turn, 20% of our economic capacity.”
Davidson, originally from Snow Lake, co-chaired the Look North Initiative with the goal to boost interest and activity in the north, and says that the tours are so important to the selected host communities.
“Our hosts are so pleased to be able to spotlight what’s happening in their local regions, to talk with us about associated social issues, and to connect with business leaders from throughout Manitoba. Thank you to all our gracious hosts in The Pas/OCN! Next up – Churchill on July 3 and 4!”
Interested? Click here to apply to participate in a future MCC Economic Development Tour.