Most of us take for granted that the majority of our roads and highways are publicly funded and built at cost in order to serve the overall public good. There is no clamour asking why those roads are not being given away to private companies to let road barons profit from them. For good reason! If anything, recent events in northern Manitoba should prove to us that, like highways, the fate of crucial rail lines should not be in the hands of private companies.
The Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay Railway that serves it have real potential to benefit the communities they connect to — if they are publicly owned and managed to serve Canada’s greater public interest. Both are vital infrastructure with important and irreplaceable roles in both our economy and social fabric.
Churchill is the Canadian prairies’ only ocean port. It provides an additional route for grain transportation. Utilizing this corridor reduces pressure on the West Coast and Thunder Bay to help prevent logistics bottlenecks when there is a bumper crop. From a farmers’ standpoint, the port can also counteract the inefficiencies caused by vertically integrated grain companies shipping exclusively to their own grain terminals at Canada’s other ports. Shipping grain over the rail line that serves Churchill reduces maintenance costs for prairie highways in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It also supports the line’s economic viability, providing northern residents and tourists a gateway to the North that is less expensive and more environmentally friendly than air travel.
In spite of all these benefits, the future of both the port and the railway are uncertain. Omnitrax abruptly closed the Port of Churchill on July 25, 2016, and the fate of the rail line that connects to the rest of Canada is now up in the air. Today’s situation is the result of a dangerous domino effect set in motion by Omnitrax’s negligence combined with a series of missteps by different governments. It can be traced back to the privatization of Canadian National Railway in 1995, the give-away of the Hudson Bay rail line to American-owned Omnitrax in 1997, and the removal of the farmer-run single desk Canadian Wheat Board in 2011.
To secure the port’s benefits for future generations of Canadians, the federal government should take back ownership of both the Port of Churchill and the Hudson’s Bay Railway. In addition, it needs to take measures to ensure the port remains viable for the communities connected to the rail line and farming communities that are within its catch basin. Northern communities, local workers, businesses and farmers who rely on the line must be part of the decision-making for the publicly owned entity that replaces Omnitrax as owner and manager of these facilities.
As they do with roads and highways, the federal and provincial governments must commit to investing in the rail line and port infrastructure in perpetuity. There should never be risk of potential selling off of line assets.
An adequate grain catch basin fed by both CN and CPR railways must be secured to bring grain to the rail line serving Churchill. Storage facilities must be secured and, if necessary, built, to ensure grain is available to feed the port during its operating season. The railway must be set up to actively facilitate rapid grain movement in years with large crops. Allocating railcars to serve Churchill must be a priority during its active season.
The mere existence of the needed facilities is not enough, however. Grain movement is essential for port viability. Therefore a grain logistics oversight system must be in place to make all the parts work together effectively. A farmer-first orderly marketing agency is needed to secure a strong export market for grain handled through Churchill, along with good prices for farmers. Logistics oversight, together with the marketing agency, would ensure the port’s viability by meeting or exceeding a 500,000 tonne annual throughput.
In short, we need to replicate the function of the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board to ensure both the railway and the port are viable by providing a consistent and reliable flow of grain through the port. Assurances from the private grain merchants are paper thin and do not benefit farmers’ bottom line.
With the right plan, the Port of Churchill can be a thriving entity that supports thousands of people and hundreds of businesses while bringing vibrancy to our North. Governments must ensure that the rail line and Port of Churchill belong to the people and must not be sold off or given away ever again.
Churchill is our Canadian Prairie and northern port. We are all Churchill.
Harder is a National Farmers Union board member. He farms with his family on their grain farm near Lowe Farm, Man.