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SSNS Home > Check This First > News > Northern Manitoba News > Churchill > Churchill's Transport Challenges


Churchill's Transport Challenges


Churchill may be vital to the proposed CentraPort Canada, but neglect of its rail connections to the interior of North America threatens future development. It also makes life difficult local residents.

  • Article Summaries:
    • 17 September 2008: “Churchill faces food shortages: Poor rail line causes lengthy service delays”
    • 3 January 2009: “Panicked Churchill shoppers hoard food; Snap up perishables after Via Rail cancels Christmas Day train trip”
    • 10 January 2009: “Frenzy? What Frenzy”
    • 10 January 2009: “Hold the high-fives”
    • 12 January 2009: “Churchill residents blast shortages: Rail, food service called unreliable”


17 September 2008: “Churchill faces food shortages: Poor rail line causes lengthy service delays” [Winnipeg Free Press, A4]

It was a frustrating year for OmniTRAX in many respects. According to a report by Bartley Kives, service was disrupted to such a degree that a trip from Thompson to Churchill extended from the normal thirteen to upwards of twenty-five hours, and when a derailment occurred passengers had to be flown between the two communities. Food and other supplies to Churchill were delayed so long that store shelves were empty. The town had to appeal to Ottawa for temporary relief to prevent shortages in October when eco-tourists arrived in October to look at polar bears. The problem appeared to be the slow speed with which the railroad was making repairs. As Mike Woelcke of Via Rail explained, “We’ve had very poor performance because we haven’t been able to get our trains on time, to Churchill or in Winnipeg.” Churchill MP Tina Keeper couldn’t explain why “rail conditions remained poor 11 months after the promise of new maintenance and repair money.” She said the people were “frustrated.” However, Churchill Mayor Mike Spence and Manitoba Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Steve Ashton said repairs were taking place at the north end of the Bay Line and “OmniTRAX was doing everything in its power to improve the track.” The problem seemed to be the fact that so little had been done over the last few years, and the accumulated work could not all be done in one year. Ashton said that improvements would be more visible in coming years, a promise in keeping with Churchill’s vital role in “new resource extraction opportunities in the Arctic in coming years.”

Discussion: The history of the Hudson Bay Railway has always been full of challenges like the one described here by Bartley Kives. There has never been enough money earned from transport to maintain the infrastructure. However, things may be changing. If an inland port facility developed in Winnipeg. How would it affect the rail line and Churchill in a positive way?

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3 January 2009: “Panicked Churchill shoppers hoard food; Snap up perishables after Via Rail cancels Christmas Day train trip” [Winnipeg Free Press, A3]

Journalist Carol Sanders reported that the cancellation of a Via Rail train in late December resulted in a shopping “frenzy” at Churchill, when residents cleared the shelves of milk, bread, and eggs at the Northern Store, the only grocery store in this town of 1,000 people. According to one woman, some people were buying “four, five, six containers of milk and freezing them,” while others went without. There were even rumours that people were “‘bootlegging’ cigarettes and milk.”

Michael McMullen, executive vice-president with the North West Company that operated the store, felt that panic buying was out of proportion to the realities of the situation. As a result, it was doubtful that a two-week supply of milk (31 cases) shipped by air on December 31 would meet local needs. Even signs, like “our regular shipments will be arriving - no need to panic,” had no effect. He understood, however, because residents had been ‘burned before.” Evidently, the problem was with the railroad, which has been plagued with “derailments and track repairs.” As a result, the store had to use expensive air transport to bring in perishables, but McMullen said that the cost had not been passed on to consumers.

According to a local woman, who did not want her name published, “millions of dollars in government funding” hadn’t solved the problem with the railroad. She rode the rails every month, and the line was “worse each time.” Sometimes it felt like it was going to “topple over.” “Is that what everyone is waiting for?” she asked, “A disaster to put us in the limelight so people can take notice?”

Discussion: What kind of image does the title of Sanders’ article evoke? After reading this article, what could one conclude about shortages and their cause? Now read the following two reader responses, and reevaluate Sanders’ article.

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10 January 2009: “Frenzy? What Frenzy” [Winnipeg Free Press, A10]

Reader Walter Sinclair of Winnipeg, who had been at Churchill during the Christmas week, was skeptical about Sanders’ article. He acknowledged that people were concerned about the train cancellation and shortages of some items, but had observed no frenzy or hoarding. He claimed that friends and family in Churchill said that the Northern Store didn’t have the foresight to stock up on necessities like milk, eggs, and bread. There were also businesses that went in and purchased “all the milk, eggs and bread with no regard for members of the community.” “Once again,” he said, “another article on Churchill had generated “more than a few laughs” among former and current residents. It had also sparked resentment against the local store, which he felt “should try to absorb more responsibility when it comes to circumstance like this.” 

Discussion: Did Sinclair’s comments alter your opinion of Sanders’ report? What new perspective did he add?

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10 January 2009: “Hold the high-fives” [Winnipeg Free Press, A10]

Echo Finlay of Churchill wrote that Sanders’ article was a “hot topic” in Churchill and nobody she talked to considered it an accurate picture of what the community was “going through” with the Northern Store. Here’s how she saw it.

I think the article was trying to shed light on our dependency on the rail line to transport goods and people at a less expensive rate than the airlines, but to be honest, it really came across as Michael McMullen (executive vice-president of the North West Company) giving himself a corporate high five for staying calm and collected despite the pandemonium at the store as crazed townspeople battled it out with pitchforks and leg-wrestled to get the last jug of milk.

Finlay thought the suggestion of bootlegged milk was “laughable.” As a daily grocery shopper, she had never noticed the “no panic” sign, remarking, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that it was a great idea, not “condescending at all.” There had been no panic buying, simply because Churchill shoppers had to be “flexible,” and planned ahead, because neither the Northern Store (nor the local restaurant, for that matter) could bulk order properly to ensure a steady supply of food to the community.

Discussion: What further insights about the local situation were provided by Finlay’s letter? Why would her views be more readily evaluated by local residents than those of the anonymous woman Sanders interviewed? Why is it important that we know the names of people who give interviews? How might Carol Sanders have written her article differently, if she had been aware of the Sinclair and Finlay perspectives? Why is it important to read a variety of articles before drawing conclusions?

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12 January 2009: “Churchill residents blast shortages: Rail, food service called unreliable” [Winnipeg Free Press, A8]

Citing again negative comments from an anonymous resident of the community, Sanders once more reported on the situation in Churchill, noting that the milk, bread, and eggs finally arrived on January 5. She also modified the previous story with new information. In the January 3 article, she had reported that McMullen said panic-buying and hoarding had occurred at Churchill, but in the January 12 article, she wrote that he had only “heard reports of panic-buying and hoarding [emphasis added].” She also wrote that Churchill’s chief administrative officer, Albert Meijering, had told her in an e-mail that OmniTRAX only ran one train at Christmas and that “it was believed that this was overlooked by the Northern Store and they did not order sufficiently for the train schedule change.” The Northern Store was bringing in daily supplies of perishables and there was no “panic-buying or hoarding taking place.” Moreover, two freight trains had been in with more supplies. Nevertheless, as if to bolster the headline chosen for the article, Sanders quoted “one shopper” who claimed that “perishables were snapped up by nervous shoppers as quickly as they were unloaded onto store shelves.”

Sanders concluded her article by reiterating local frustration over “chronic grocery shortages and sketchy rail service” and the $60 million in repairs that had been promised to improve freight and passenger rail service to Churchill.

Discussion: Why was the title of this article chosen? What was it designed to do? Was it misleading? What might have been a more appropriate title? Did the new article address the concerns of Sinclair and Finlay? The Conservative Government had indeed promised million of dollars for repairs to the railroad. In view of the importance of this money to the Port of Churchill, what additional information could Sanders have included to make this article of greater value to the residents of Churchill?

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Last updated : September 10, 2009


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