More than polar bears

One of the most political of political railways and harbours in Canadian history will receive a fresh infusion of cash to  help fulfill a decades-old dream.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Churchill last week to announce that its port and the Hudson Bay Railway would be the recipients of $68 million in private- and public-sector money for upgrades. The governments of Manitoba and Canada will cost-share $48 million, while the HBRC has committed $20 million for rail line improvements over 10 years as part of a renewed agreement by its parent company OmniTRAX Canada, which operates both the port and railway.

“Manitoba’s port of Churchill is growing in significance each year as Canada’s only deep-water Arctic port,” said Premiere Gary Doer. “And the rail line is an essential link that connects the port and several remote northern communities and economies to key markets.”

When announcing the funding, Prime Minister Stephen Harper repeated his earlier mantra for Canada’s Far North,  “use it or lose it.”

The prime minister has been making his rounds of the North, announcing funding ranging from a new deep-water port in Nunavut to icebreakers with the growing realization that Canada’s Arctic region is coveted by a number of nations with borders ringing the North Pole. The United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway are all making their own claims to the Arctic, while Canada struggles to add its voice to the nations wanting their slice of territory.

The Arctic debate has seen renewed vigour due to the tantalizing prospect that its seabed and islands are the depositories of vast quantities of gas and oil and minerals. Global warming is now placing these resources within the reach of any nation willing to back its claim with a solid presence in the region; thus the “use it or lose it” assertion from Harper.

On the other hand, some see Harper’s sudden interest in the North as a political manoeuvre leading up to a federal election. Getting tough on the North against the big bad Russian bear and the American eagle is one way to win the hearts of Western Canadian voters.

The Hudson Bay Railway and a northern port serving Prairie farmers and other Western Canadian interests has been a political football tossed around since the 1870s. At election time, it has been particularly alluring. In 1908, former Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier used the issue as a major plank in his success campaign strategy. Plenty of politicians were on hand toward the end of the 19th century and beginning of 20th century to lend their support to the project designed to have Western Canadian products flow out of a northern port on Hudson Bay. In the early 1900s, federal rail minister Frank Cockrane placed his faith in “the scheme and I will push the Hudson Bay Road (railway) for all its worth.”

It was worth a lot. Federal money poured into the railway and northern port. Actually over $20 million — a fortune at the time — was spent on Port Nelson before it was realized it was not suitable as a deep-water port facility and had to be abandoned in favour of Churchill.

At the time, Sir Frederick Palmer, a consulting engineer from Britain hired by Ottawa to compile a report on the suitability of Port Nelson, openly wondered if politics had not been a factor in its selection. After all, he wrote, “Not withstanding the predisposition of the government towards Nelson, the facts concerning physical conditions, the estimates of costs and the time required for construction are overwhelmingly in favour of the selection of Churchill as the terminal port for the Hudson Bay Railway ...”

Of course politics played a role and even today politics are the motivation for continuing the dream of a northern deep-water port linking southern Canada with the north. What makes Churchill unique from the Nunavut port announcement is that it has the advantage of a rail link with an already existing port, none of which would be part of any politician’s agenda if not for the intervention of Denver-based OmniTRAX which had faith in the north after most had abandoned all hope. 

When the American rail company arrived on the scene, ViaRail was hemmoraging cash from operating a line that was steadily deteriorating along its  route to Churchill. ViaRail was one of the poor cousins of federal politics — seldom considered other than when it came time for budget cuts.

Speculation about the viability of the Port of Churchill has also been a constant issue in Canadian politics. Whenever the Manitoba government went cap in hand to Ottawa to beg for more money to save the port, federal politicians replied “maybe” or initiated a new report that invariably was relegated to some backroom shelf. By now, reports on the northern port and railway dating back in the 1880s must line an entire length of backroom shelves.

For those who kept the faith for so many years, OmniTRAX was a blessing. And politicians grabbed onto the company’s  coat tails because of the popularity generated by the 1990s rescue. 

In fairness, the Manitoba and Canadian governments have since helped the cause with periodic infusions of cash for upgrades, although the most recent announcement represents more money than has been received in years.

A federal heritage plaque erected at The Pas earlier this month to commemorate the completion of the Bay line in 1929 contains the lines: “Since the 1880s, the Hudson Bay Railway has been a persistent part of Prairie Canadians’ vision of their place in the nation, its initiation, construction and operation have engaged the energy and imagination of Canadians for over a century. It  stands as a testament to the drive and determination needed to overcome the many challenges if faced, both engineering and political.”

Since the completion of the Port of Churchill in 1932, its potential has been plagued by political interference — or the lack thereof — and bad press. What is now helping the port to win good press and more converts are announcements that more grain and products are flowing from its facilities. For example, shipments rose to 480,000 tonnes in 2006, an increase of over 20 per cent from 2004. And the projection is that shipments will surpass 600,000 tonnes by the end of the shipping season this year. 

Consider this quote from the conclusion of last week’s Heritage Highlights article on the port and railway, “Perhaps the farmers’ dream that started in the 1870s has not died — it’s just taking a lot longer to realize than was originally expected.”