'No warning:' Churchill mayor angry over shutdown of grain shipments

WINNIPEG – Politicians, workers and farmers say they were blindsided by news that the Port of Churchill in northern Manitoba is effectively shutting down.

“It totally came out of nowhere, actually, and the community is just shocked by it all,” Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said Tuesday.

The Union of Canadian Transportation Employees said workers at the port were told Monday afternoon they were being laid off and that the small, seasonal port on the coast of Hudson Bay will not operate this year.

It was also a surprise to Manitoba’s largest farmers group, Keystone Agricultural Producers, which said the port is needed to help handle a large grain crop expected this year. The port’s closure will hit farmers in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan hard because the cost of transporting their grain to southern ports is higher, the group said.

The port has been the biggest employer in the subarctic town of 800. Port employees make up about 10 per cent of the population.

Omnitrax, the U.S. company that owns the port, did not comment on the announcement nor did officials respond Tuesday to interview requests.

Omnitrax has been trying to sell the port, along with the rail line that connects Churchill to southern Manitoba, and announced a tentative agreement in principle with a group of First Nations last year.

Workers had been negotiating a new collective agreement and were shocked by the company’s decision.

“They had mentioned that our numbers were low, that our shipments were low … but they never, ever gave us any indication that they were going to shut the doors,” union representative Teresa Eschuk said.

The union and Spence hope the federal government, which ran the port until it was sold to Omnitrax in 1997, will step in to ensure it survives.

“Basically, the course of action is to lobby the government so that we can come up with a plan so that we can in fact reverse the (closure),” Spence said.

The Manitoba government said it has received assurances that freight service along the rail line to Churchill will continue, including shipments of subsidized fresh food.

The province also said it will work with the federal government and others to see what more can be done.

“We are focused on partnering with communities and business leaders to attract investment, assist entrepreneurs and facilitate expansion of existing opportunities to ensure prosperity for northern Manitoba communities,” Cliff Cullen, minister of growth, enterprise and trade, said in a written statement.