Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) president Dan Mazier is dismayed by delays in reopening the Port of Churchill to export grain this year.
“I will put this right at the feet of the federal government — either the transport minister or the agriculture minister,” Mazier said in an interview Aug. 6. “There are (grain) contracts out there that said they are going to go to the Port of Churchill. What does that tell the rest of the world about what is going on here? And they (government and port owner OmniTrax) are saying nothing. There is no talk about how this is hurting business. Mum is the word and that is concerning. You can have all the consultations you want, but it is time for them just to step up with a plan so we know what we are going to do with this thing.”
July 25 OmniTrax, which also owns the railway to the port, shocked port staff by laying them off at the time grain shipments from Canada’s only northern deepwater port would normally begin.
Two weeks later OmniTrax still hasn’t commented publicly on its actions.
Northern Manitoba leaders met Aug. 3 with Jim Carr, Manitoba’s senior cabinet minister and the minister of natural resources.
“We will take all this information and look at what the responsible options (are) for Canada moving forward,” the Winnipeg Free Press reported Carr saying.
“Everything will be considered by Canada as we move forward.”
Some, including Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, are calling for the federal government to buy the port, which it owned until 1997 when it sold it to OmniTrax.
In December OmniTrax said it wanted to sell the port and railway. A consortium of northern First Nations expressed interest. OmniTrax president Merv Tweed said the port and line should be operated as a utility.
Mazier said grain is waiting at The Pas to be shipped to Churchill for export.
“It is just sitting there right now,” he said, adding he didn’t know the volume.
KAP supports Churchill because it’s another export outlet for grain, especially in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
When grain backed up on the Prairies in 2013-14, exports through Churchill jumped 50 per cent, Mazier said.
“What about those customers who are waiting for the product? That is what this year is about,” he said.
“It is a viable option when we needed. That’s the farmers’ side.”
But Canada also needs Churchill, Mazier added.
“There are Canadians up there,” he said. “There is opportunity. How do we do it? There is a short-term goal of making sure that any existing contract gets cleaned up, the medium-term goal of what is the transportation strategy for Canada and what role does the Port of Churchill play and then more long term, maintain it and move forward.”
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said July 28 his government would not subsidize a large corporation to run the railway and port.
“Leveraging in order to obtain a better business deal is not the way that we are going to be engaged with corporations, now or in the future,” he told reporters.
Aug. 5 Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen and Families Minister Scott Fielding met northern municipal, First Nation leaders and business owners to discuss economic diversification for the Town of Churchill and northern Manitoba.
“Manitoba’s North holds so much untapped potential,” Fielding said in a news release that offered no specific plans to get the port operating again. “Our government will soon introduce a strategy that will focus on the North as a region with unique economic and social factors that have been handled for too long on a reactive basis. It is our hope representatives of OmniTrax will follow our lead and will reach out to the communities that are being impacted by their recent decision. Some communication to clarify its future intentions — both on operational activity at the port and regarding the negative effects of reduced rail service — would be a good first step.”
The Port of Churchill began operating in 1931, and on average handles around 500,000 tonnes of grain a year, which could be handled by Thunder Bay in two weeks.
The Canadian Wheat Board said it saved on transportation costs exporting from Churchill and shared them with farmers. Private grain companies say they want to export through their own terminals.