Port problems challenge prosperity on the Prairies

Republished from the Brandon Sun Print edition July 30, 2016

Richardson International Limited is pleased to announce it is loading the first vessel of the season in the Port of Churchill. Yesterday, the M.V. Ikan Suji began loading 35 200 tonnes of No. 2 Canada Western Red Spring Wheat originating from Richardson Pioneer elevators in Manitoba and northeastern Saskatchewan destined for Mexico. for Winnipeg Free Press FILE
Richardson International Limited loads grain at the Port of Churchill destined for Mexico. for Winnipeg Free Press FILE

American journalist Don Lemon once said “there is a degree of deception in silence.” Deception was front of mind for the residents of Churchill this week after learning American rail company Omnitrax was cutting the balance of their ties with the northern community.

The company’s response, or lack thereof, following the layoff of its workforce and scaling back of rail service speaks volumes for their time in the community, and has forced the region to come to grips with cutbacks that affect the very lifeblood of the far North in Manitoba.

Omnitrax has struggled for some time to meet the volumes conducive to turning major profits in the grain trade. And ferrying goods to the northern community did little to help cover the bills. Compound that with the timing of this announcement and it all proves highly problematic for farmers looking to ship high yields of grain through the port to other destinations.

In a somewhat bizarre twist of fate though, Omnitrax president (and former Conservative MP and MLA) Merv Tweed is in the hot seat for Omnitrax’s silence on the issue. A silence that is eerily similar to his reaction to local farmers who fought to keep a single desk marketing structure under the Canadian Wheat Board, an entity that eroded during the previous Harper government.

Brandonites will undoubtedly remember the bushels of grain dumped on the MP’s doorstep in protest of the move. Now some five years later, the previous government’s inability to listen to the farmers who fought for the Wheat Board has had an effect on the ability of Omnitrax to do business through the Port of Churchill.

Numbers show that during its height the port accepted close to 500,000 bushels of grain per year, a number that had dwindled to less than 200,000 bushels following the elimination of the Wheat Board. Every year since that time a subsidy for the shortfall has come at the expense of the government. The issue is greater now though as returns look promising for production on the Prairies, and one less port to sell on the open market can cripple the ability for farmers to receive a top return for their product.

Clearly Omnitrax, like its predecessor Canadian National, is trying to force the federal government to bail out the services at the port; and Tweed, who was a longtime advocate against government subsidizing private industry, may actually now be coming forward, hand outstretched seeking taxpayers money to keep the operation afloat. There is a sad game of roulette happening right now between all levels of government and Omnitrax with the residents of Churchill feeling the brunt of the indecisiveness and noncommittal responses from both.

In all reality, Omnitrax can walk away from its business interests in the Port of Churchill and may pick up the slack elsewhere in its organization. What happens to the people out of work, and a community isolated from resources, is a much more troubling scenario.

Premier Brian Pallister and his cabinet must work with their federal counterparts to step up and provide support to keep the community afloat. For far too long Churchill residents have been a pawn in this political skirmish and now more than ever before all levels of government need to work in partnership to create some economic stability for the region. A quick fix is not the best plan of action as Omnitrax seemed to be one of those “quick fix” type solutions.

It is not time for the provincial government to prop up private interests as others have in the past, but they should at the very least be on the ground where the need is palpable and necessary, and offer a plan for the community moving forward. Whether the premier sees it as private business trying to leverage tax dollars or not, the people of Churchill deserve leadership from the province and answers from Omnitrax.

Our provincial government isn’t alone though. The port has a strategic importance for the Canadian government and so far, the prime minister has been mum on the issue. The Liberals have experience operating the port, as they manned it prior to Omnitrax taking over, in the interim they could, and should do it again.

One cannot begrudge Omnitrax for looking at suitors for the port and rail line. It is the right of any private business to exercise such prudence when costs outweigh profits. The problem lies in the way Omnitrax has gone about it.

Omnitrax may be calling the government’s bluff on this one. Time will tell though whether the government chooses to ante up, or fold its hand in making northern Manitoba sustainable.

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Shaun Cameron is a content contributor. A veteran of print, video and television, Shaun is a professional post-secondary employee by day, a filmmaker by night. Check out more of Shaun's work in the menu bar above.

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Shaun Cameron has worked in media for close to two decades. His work has been featured in print, internet, video, radio and television publications. A proud father of two, Shaun lives in Brandon, Manitoba with his wife Karol.

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