Federal government and railway owner face off, Brandon bishop just wants line to Churchill fixed

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Bishop William G. Cliff says that despite the federal government’s promise of legal action, “the immediate need of the people hasn’t changed.” Photo: Diocese of Brandon

Diocese of Brandon Bishop William G. Cliff is “very pleased” to see the government taking legal action over northern Manitoba’s washed out railway, but says it “doesn’t fix the line to Churchill.”

The rail line, which has been inoperable since May, has turned Churchill, a popular tourist destination for fishing and polar bear sightings, into a fly-in community.

Negotiations between the federal government and the U.S.-based owner of the line, OmniTRAX, have broken down. On October 13, the government imposed an ultimatum on OmniTRAX to restore service to the line within 30 days or be subject to an $18.8 million lawsuit for breach of contract.

The 30-day period ended November 12, during which time no repairs were made on the line, and on November 14, Transport Canada filed a lawsuit against OmniTRAX.

The Winnipeg Free Press reports that in response, OmniTRAX has filed a claim against the Canadian government under NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) alleging that government’s dismantling and privatization of the Canadian Wheat Board devalued OmniTRAX’s investment. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, the claim states that OmniTRAX will sue the government for $150 million if arbitration does not result in a settlement that sees the rail line repaired and transferred, along with the OmniTRAX-owned Port of Churchill, for a negotiated amount.

Cliff wrote a letter to Justin Trudeau in September, in which he urged the prime minister to “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.”

Cliff received a response from the prime minister’s office, dated October 23, in early November, acknowledging receipt of his letter. The response states that a copy of Cliff’s letter was also forwarded to Minister of Transport Marc Garneau.

“The immediate need of the people hasn’t changed,” said Cliff, speaking of the residents of Churchill and surrounding communities, who have dealt with a steep increase in the cost of food, gas, and travel since the spring.

Cliff sent his letter September 15, out of concern that the time to fix the rails was running out—early reports suggested that repairs would have to start at the beginning of September to be completed before winter set in. “They’ve already had blizzard warnings and things up in Churchill, so we’re past the ability to do anything this year,” Cliff said.

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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