CHURCHILL, Man. – A federal promise of $4.6 million for economic development projects in northern Manitoba was received Friday as a welcome, but temporary, measure to help a regional economy that has been served a double whammy.
Navdeep Bains, federal minister responsible for Western Economic Diversification, was in Churchill to announce an economic development fund to jump-start projects that will create jobs in tourism, Arctic research and other areas.
The aid follows a decision by Denver-based Omnitrax not to open the seasonal Port of Churchill this year, due to low demand, and to scale back freight service on the Hudson Bay Railway line — the only land-link to Churchill and nearby communities.
“It’s encouraging that there’s actually something solid and concrete now. It’s been close to two months and we’ve heard nothing from the Liberal government,” said Marianne Hladun, regional vice-president with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents workers at the port.
“The money is encouraging. It’s not going to assist with the opening of the port, but at least there might be employment opportunities for our members to get through the rest of this year and get their (employment insurance) benefits.”
The port closure threw 60 people out of work in a town of 800. Omnitrax bought the port and railway from the federal government in 1997 and the union, the NDP and others are pushing the government to take it over again and ensure its survival.
Hladun, who spoke to Bains by phone from Winnipeg, said the minister was noncommittal.
“The door didn’t appear to be closed, but I don’t foresee anything in the short term on the nationalization issue.”
Hladun said the cuts in rail service are already having an effect on store shelves. One of her members recently spent $140 to travel to The Pas to stock up on groceries, she said.
The Manitoba government has promised to look for long-term solutions to help the battered northern economy, but has ruled out bailouts for Omnitrax and is offering no guarantees.
“We’re looking for some type of a long-term solution for the rail line and to see if there is a business case available for the port for the long term as well,” said Cliff Cullen, the province’s minister for jobs and the economy.
— By Steve Lambert in Winnipeg