There was a time when hundreds of thousands of tons of Prairie grain transited annually through Churchill, Man.
Those days are gone, owing in part to the dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board. Now, the northern deep-water port sits closed, while the railway that leads to it from Winnipeg has fallen into a state of disrepair.
Although there have been interested buyers – a sale of both the railway and port from their Denver-based owners to a Canadian consortium was close, before seemingly falling through – the cost of repairs appears to be a sticking point.
This is where the federal government should come in. If Ottawa is unable to facilitate a private sale, as federal officials say they are still attempting behind the scenes, it should consider taking an ownership stake itself – for the sake of both short-term needs and long-term interests.
In the immediate, lack of overland access since flood waters washed out 19 sections of the railway last year has left residents of Churchill and points north with sharply limited and exorbitantly priced supplies of everything from from groceries to building materials. And the tourism industry on which many residents rely, especially since port traffic ceased, is suffering.
In the longer run, there is a very significant prospect the port returns to being a strategic national asset.
Multiple studies indicate that the Arctic’s summer and fall shipping season has been steadily lengthening for decades. It remains relatively short, but climate modelling suggests that could change drastically by 2040.
As new Arctic shipping lanes open, Canada will need more northern maritime infrastructure. A deep-water port is to open in Iqaluit in 2020 and renovation work continues on a naval refuelling station on Baffin Island. The Churchill port already exists. Why leave such an asset to rot?
The Trudeau government is less enthusiastic than its immediate predecessor regarding all matters Arctic. But it has also recently displayed a willingness to take ownership of troubled (and far more expensive) infrastructure projects deemed of essential national interest. Churchill may offer a forward-looking opportunity to show that the North and its inhabitants matter.