Bishop William G. Cliff of the diocese of Brandon has written a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling on the federal government to make provisions for the repair of a Manitoba rail line.
The line, which runs to the northern Manitoba town of Churchill, was washed out in May by severe flooding. It is the sole transport connection to the south of the province, leaving flight as the only option to import goods and materials.
During a pastoral visit to the parish of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, in Churchill, Cliff said he witnessed the stresses faced by communities that depend on the rail line. “There’s no way into Churchill other than flying in, and everyone up there has been cut off from family and friends,” he said. “Along with food, it just makes expenses impossible.”
During Cliff’s visit, the town, which is a tourist destination for fishing and whale watching, had “a noticeable quiet,” he said. “It was a lot slower than I expected for that time of year, and certainly the restaurants and hotels have noticed a difference.”
For Churchill residents, the added cost of transporting goods by plane has made prices of everyday necessities prohibitively high. A can of cola at the Northern Store now costs $2.25, Cliff says. One family celebrating an 80th birthday during Cliff’s visit had to fly children and grandchildren to the festivities; with airfare prices as much as $1,200 a ticket, such visits are becoming untenable for residents.
“This is a matter of making the ordinary things of life inaccessible, because of price,” said Cliff, adding that the northern area is now “even more isolated.”
For the Anglican parish in Churchill, the rail line closure means that repairs for their building, for which they’ve received a grant from the Anglican Foundation of Canada, are on hold, as the necessary materials must be transported by train.
Contention has swirled around the line since the spring, with OmniTRAX, Inc., the Denver-based company that owns the line, refusing to pay to repair the tracks. The company has declared that it is unable to fulfill its contract, citing severe flooding, which it says amounts to a force majeure.
Residents have voiced their displeasure with government inaction. “They’re blatantly ignoring us here,” Churchill resident Diane Stevens told the CBC at a protest in June. “Even though it’s an American who owns the rail line, Churchill is still in Canada, right? Do something for us.”
In his letter to the prime minister, Cliff wrote, “I am asking that you force OmniTRAX to fix the line according to its contractual obligations, or alternatively, nationalize the line and seek other parties which would be interested in the communities that are served, rather than in the simple bottom line mathematics which seem to be ascendant at this point.”
The federal government formally demanded on September 1 that OmniTRAX fix the line. On September 8, the government announced that it was prepared to supply interim funding for the repairs should OmniTRAX make an agreement with a new buyer. Two groups, Missinippi Rail Consortium, a consortium of First Nations, and One North, a group led by Mayor of Churchill Mike Spence and Opaskwayak Cree Nation Chief Christian Sinclair, have been reported to have expressed interest in the line.
However, only a narrow window of time remains for the necessary repairs to be made before temperatures drop.
“It’s a very big deal because it’s not just Churchill. There are communities all along that line, from Thompson to Churchill, that depend on that train for all of their goods. Under our constitution, railways are a federal matter…There’s only one level of government that can make something happen,” said Cliff.
Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, who was copied in Cliff’s letter, did not respond to a request for comment from the Anglican Journal. In a September 8 release, he stated, “Time is of the essence here, and quick action from all parties is needed now.”
Meanwhile, communities along the rail line continue to wait. In Churchill, a Via Rail engine and rolling stock sits at the station, unable to make the journey back.
Cliff has not yet received a response to his letter, though he expects it will take some time to get to the prime minister’s office. But, he said, “I wanted the people of Churchill to know that they are not forgotten. That there is support for them.”