An accepted stance in Canada’s climate change discussion is that Arctic ice is melting and with it comes the potential opening of the fabled Northwest Passage to international shipping and resource extraction.
Canada claims the waters of the Arctic as its internal waters, fending off similar claims by Russia, the United States and Nordic countries.
Last July a Finnish research ship sailed from Vancouver to Greenland in 24 days to set a new record for the earliest transit of the Northwest Passage.
Yet Canada’s only Arctic deep-water port, the beleaguered Port of Churchill on Hudson Bay, has no Canadian Coast Guard, no icebreakers or naval ships. The tiny RCMP detachment doesn’t even have a boat. The port has not docked a single sea freighter in two years and its only rail link has been broken and abandoned since May 2017.
The 900 residents of Churchill have resorted to grocery swapping on Facebook, a volunteer-built, slow and dangerous winter ice road and expensive airlifts to simply find enough food to eat.
In Churchill a small tomato will cost $3; a loaf of bread sells for $8. “I haven’t bought a banana in months,” one local told Western Investor.
With the area’s biggest employer idled, unemployment has soared and people are fleeing, especially young families.
Shipping through the Arctic to Europe is 10 days faster than through the Panama Canal, and Churchill locals say Hudson Bay is not freezing solid now until late November. It has been 10 years since Canada has sent a ship through the passage, though Russian freighters are often spotted sailing past.
Two years ago Nikki Clace worked at the port when it was still shipping to the world. Today she is an assistant at the local chamber of commerce and worried, like many in Churchill, about the future.
It is expensive to stay but more expensive to leave, she said.
U.S.-based Omnitrax bought the railroad and port from the federal government in 1997 and was soon exporting record volumes to Europe and the rest of the world. But Omnitrax closed the port and its rail service in August 2016 as the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly wound down.
A May flood last year washed away a substantial section of the rail line and Churchill was cut off. Ottawa and Omnitrax have been battling ever since on who will pay the $50 million it will take to fix it. Omnitrax has zero interest in doing so.
Since rail repairs must start before winter sets in, time is fast running out.
The federal government must step up to restore this vital link. Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic and its reputation as a global trader are at stake, not to mention the abandoned residents of the Port of Churchill.
UPDATE: The federal government announced August 31 that the vital rail line link to Churchill will be repaired with work to “start immediately." It is expected to complete in about 60 days.