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SSNS Home > Check This First > News > Northern Manitoba News > Churchill > The Russian Connection


The Russian Connection

Russia is interested in the Port of Churchill as a terminus of its proposed Arctic trade route to connect Russia and Northeast Asia to North American markets. This could mean enormous development possibilities for Churchill and the Hudson Bay Railway. It’s an unfolding story, and we need to think seriously about the implications. Are there opportunities here for future Churchill entrepreneurs?


12 January 2007: “Russia called key to Churchill boom” [Winnipeg Free Press, A6]

This article by Mia Rabson was positive news and a powerful antidote to all the doom and gloom associated with the global warming hysteria. Here’s the story. Early in January Russian Transportation Minister Igor Levitin told Manitoban and Canadian officials about a plan that would turn the Arctic Ocean into a great trading artery connecting Asia and North America. He said that the Russians were willing to break up the ice into port, so that ships could get into Churchill all year round. His plan was to bring in Indian and Chinese goods to North America via a shipping link connecting Murmansk and Churchill! Apparently, he saw this as a viable alternative to the “busy and backlogged” ports along the West Coast, that were increasingly irritating Chinese and Indian manufacturers wanting to get their goods into the North American market quickly.

The Russians were willing, the article went on to say, but the Canadian government was dragging its feet. Rabson noted that the future of Churchill is under threat because of the Conservative government’s bid to destroy the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB). Wheat is the mainstay of Churchill, and 79% of the wheat going through the port each year comes from the CWB. Without that business, the port and the railway would die, and the town would be devastated.

This article really doesn't delve into the underlying causes behind Canada’s lukewarm reception to the idea of port development at Churchill. As history reveals, the HBR was only developed because Western Canadian members of parliament held the balance of power at the time. Otherwise, eastern business interests would have won the day. It makes sense to develop Churchill, but you can be sure that those same business interests in eastern Canada will be joined by those on the West Coast to block any development in Northern Manitoba that could threaten their local economies. The question for Northern Manitobans is this. How do we fight back when our numbers are so few and scattered? It’s a topic northern teachers and students should discuss. Perhaps they can come up with an action plan that can have an impact.

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18 October 2007: “New day dawns on Churchill” [Winnipeg Free Press, B7]

Journalist Jerry Kusch reported the arrival at Churchill of the Kapitan Sviridov from Murmansk on October 17. This was the first ocean cargo brought into the port in seven years, the “first-ever ocean shipment from Russia to the port,” and the first ship to use the Arctic Bridge between Murmansk and Churchill. The ship started its journey two weeks earlier in Estonia, although the article did not explain how it got from there to Murmansk. From Murmansk, the ship travelled southwest along the northern tip of Scandinavia into the North Atlantic, passing between Iceland and Greenland and through Davis Straight into Hudson Bay. While in Churchill, it was loaded with grain destined for Italy.

The fertilizer shipment was the result of two years of negotiations between OmniTRAX, the Churchill Gateway Development Corporation, and the Saskatoon-based Farmers of North America, which did bulk buying “on behalf of 7,500 primarily western Canadian farmers.” What was significant about the purchase was that it allowed Farmers of North America to save $40 a tonne on shipping costs through Churchill, a significant amount when fertilizer was $500 a tonne in 2007, an increase of $150 a tonne in a single year. The hope was that the Russian competition will ensure lower fertilizer prices on the Prairies in the future.

The arrival was marked by an official celebration attended by government officials from both Russia and Canada and by business leaders as well. The mood was optimistic. Jason Mann, chief operating officer with Farmers of North America, indicated that his organisation was “interested in investing in storage and handling equipment at Churchill,” provided it could “negotiate a long-term deal with its Russian fertilizer supplier.” This was in response to a very real problem with the facilities at the port. Because “proper bulk storage” was lacking, the fertilizer “had to be shipped in 500-kilogram bags.” These in turn had to be “loaded into box cars or emptied into hopper cars for shipment south.” As a result, unloading took five days, two days longer than normal, according to Pavel Sarbashev, an official with the Murmansk Shipping Company. That did not dampen Sarbashev’s enthusiasm for the port, who said that the shipping season could be extended from its present July-early November length to mid December “without icebreaking equipment on years where ice build-up is moderate.” His company owned icebreakers, and he said that studies needed to be undertaken to see if they would be able to keep the port open year-round.

With the recent infusion of cash announced recently by Prime Minister Harper, it appeared likely that port facilities would be improved, but $8 million is far less than the $2 billion that was being spent at Murmansk for the same purpose. It remains to be seen whether the money promised by the government will be sufficient for the job.

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28 October 2007: “Wrestling over the Arctic – and Antarctic” [Winnipeg Free Press, B7]

An informative article by Maxim Krans appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on 28 October 2007. Krans was a political commentator, who worked for the Russian News and Information Agency Novosti, so his was a Russian perspective on Arctic sovereignty. What appeared to have prompted Krans’ article was a United States report entitled A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower that was presented to the Senate on October 17. The report outlined a “unified United States maritime strategy” …in an era marked by increased globalization and change” and described the Arctic as rapidly “becoming a scene of ‘competition and conflict for access to natural resources.’”

Krans was particularly interested in the Arctic because of Russian claims there. Noting that the Senate had also been “urged to approve U.S. participation in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Krans speculated that the United States was going to oppose the claims of Russia and other Arctic states to the resources in this northern region. Krans denied that this renewed interest had anything to do with Russia’s recent public claim to the sea shelf along its northern coast, which he asserted was “fully in line with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.” On the contrary, the flurry of activity in the North was because Artur Chilingarov, deputy speaker of the Russian parliament’s lower house had organised an expedition that planted a flag under the North pole in August 2007. Krans felt this venture “did a disservice to Russia,” because it provoked an irritating media fuss that prompted other governments to assert their claims to the region more vigorously

According to Krans, Canada’s response included plans to map the seabed, patrol the high latitudes with warplanes and combat aircraft, and increase the number of rangers at the northern bases. These followed up on an earlier Canadian decision to construct a “deep-water seaport and a military training centre in the Arctic to assert the country’s sovereignty to the region. Canada was not alone. “Denmark and Sweden joined hands to send the Swedish Arctic-class icebreaker Oden to the area north of Greenland on an expedition named LOMROG (Lomonosov Ridge off Greenland), the ridge over which the Arctic countries are fighting.”

Krans noted that the United States and Canada were at odds on Arctic sovereignty. Canada asserted that it “had full rights over those parts of the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that pass[ed] through its territory” and that it could bar ships from travelling there. The United States, on the other hand, asserted that the passage had to remain free to all. This represented a bargaining chip for the Russians, who could throw their support behind the United States in opposition to Canada in return for United States support of Russian claims. Russia also had “an ace up its sleeve.” In 1990 Eduard Shevardnadze, then foreign minister of the Soviet Union, had given the United States a disputed area of 50,000 square kilometres (19,305) square miles in the Bering Sea, but this was never ratified by the Russian parliament. In future discussions with the United States, the disputed area could become an issue again. In the meantime, the Russians were preparing for the next meeting “on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.” Apparently, Chilingarov was preparing “in his own way” to go to the North Poke “on a Russian dirigible,” which Krans described in his concluding sentence as “an ambitious feat [that] could be applauded – in a different situation.”  

This article raised some interesting questions. What was the rationale for Chilingarov’s rather bizarre behaviour? How had it undermined the efforts of Russian and North American business people to forge intercontinental trade links through the Murmansk-Churchill ocean route? Did the Canadian assertion of sovereignty help or hinder efforts to get this route underway? Was the American claim that the Northwest Passage be open to all ships helpful or unhelpful? Why?

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28 October 2007: “Protecting Canada’s sovereignty – round three” [Winnipeg Free Press, B7]

In an article next to that of Maxim Krans, Colin Grittner, a graduate student from Carleton University, reminded us that the Canadian view that it owned the Arctic to the North Pole was not shared by the rest of the world.[1] In August 2007 the Russians challenged Canada’s claim by planting a titanium flag on the continental plate beneath the North Pole, and the Danes did the same thing in 2005, when they placed the Danish flag on Hans Island, an island claimed by Canada that lies between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Grittner reiterated the various actions Canada took in 2007 to reassert its sovereignty, but noted that such efforts have a long history.

When the oil tanker S.S. Manhattan navigated the Northwest Passage in 1969, it had the help of a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir John A. Macdonald to get it out of the ice, but that didn’t negate the problem that the Manhattan was a United States ship. From the American point of view, the Northwest Passage was international water and anyone could use it. It took a year before the Canadian government finally asserted its sovereignty in no uncertain terms, and “gave notice that it would flatly refuse to accept any international rulings to the contrary.” In the years since, Canada has been unable to effectively enforce its sovereignty, so that it has remained vulnerable to other claims, American and otherwise. In 1985, the United States “without permission, sent its mammoth Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage” much to the outrage of Canadians. The government responded with legislation to improve its presence in the Arctic, but budget restraints prevented anything from being done. Colin Grittner felt that the Canadian government was responding appropriately to the recent challenge to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, but it remained to be seen if current proposals would lead to a Canadian presence in the North.

So what are we to make of this? If the Canadian government operated according to precedent, it would talk assertively while media attention was on the issue, then quietly turn its attention to other priorities. On the other hand, it could just mean what it says.

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Click on the footnote number to return to the text:

[1] Does this mean that Santa Claus may not be Canadian?


Last updated : September 10, 2009


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