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Speech on Crisis in Churchill, Manitoba (Inquiry of Senator Bovey)

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Hon. Donald Neil Plett: I will speak briefly to this today. It is also on day 14, so I will make some comments on this today.

I want to begin by thanking Senator Bovey for bringing this very important issue to the floor of the Senate.

This is a time-sensitive issue and can be highlighted, discussed and, hopefully, rectified as quickly as possible.

Senator Bovey mentioned her trip to Churchill, and I am pleased that she had the opportunity to make the trip to a place that is near and dear to my heart. Allow me to elaborate a little bit on my experience in Churchill and why this strikes a personal chord for me.

While I have been to Churchill many times, I first started travelling to Churchill when my company was hired to install a large heating and ventilation system at the airport in Churchill and then, later on, in dozens of homes and apartments in Churchill. Since then, I have attended many of the annual First Vessel ceremonies commemorating the start of the shipping season each year at the Port of Churchill.

I personally led a delegation of Chinese officials to Churchill, whose reaction was of complete awe as they took in the beauty of Manitoba’s Far North, and it is something that I will never forget. Believe it or not, I have personally helped to carry a 1,000-pound tranquillized polar bear out of the landfill in Churchill; it was breathing on my left wrist as I was holding onto the stretcher, carrying out the polar bear. I asked the conservation officer if the bear was asleep, because his eyes were wide open. He said, “No, he is not asleep. He is awake, but he can’t move.” I asked the conservation officer, “Does the bear have a very good memory?” He said, “He will never forget you.”

Now, I have travelled to and stayed at the Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, one of the many lodges that Mike and Jeanne Reimer operate. The Polar Bear Lodge is located at Seal River, a destination that can only be reached by a 30-minute floatplane flight from Churchill. I have also had the pleasure of staying at the Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill, owned and operated by Wally and Dawn Daudrich.

These businesses are now suffering as a result of government inaction on this crisis. On that note, I find it alarming that since Senator Bovey first brought this to the attention of the Senate in June, there has been no meaningful action from the federal government to seek a solution. I find the silence from the members of the House of Commons and, namely, the Liberal members of Parliament from Manitoba equally alarming and frustrating.

Colleagues, as has been stated, there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Churchill. Churchill is situated at the edge of the Arctic and is only connected to the rest of Canada by either rail or air. As Senator Bovey stated, there are no roads into town. Rail is their lifeline.

Having originated as an outpost, it developed as a seaport in the 1920s with construction of the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill. In 1942, the United States Army Air Corps established a base called the Port of Churchill, located just a few kilometres east of town. After the Second World War, the base served several other purposes, including as a Strategic Air Command facility. The area was later the site of the Churchill Research Range, with its first rocket launching in the 1950s. The range continued to host launches for research until its closing in 1984. A private, American-based company, OmniTRAX, has operated the port and the Hudson Bay Railway since 1997.

In May, the only land link connecting Churchill, Manitoba with the rest of Canada was washed out by a 200-year flood. The damage to the Hudson Bay Railway was by any measure catastrophic. The loss of the rail line has left northern Manitoba communities stranded, without access to affordable food and other critical supplies.

Since the crisis began, I have met with numerous key players involved in order to move towards a solution. However, in doing so, it has become patently obvious that this vulnerable and isolated population has been all but ignored by the Prime Minister and the federal government.

The Honourable Jim Carr, the minister responsible for Manitoba, has demonstrated a striking indifference. For what Minister Carr and the Canadian taxpayers gave to the Assiniboine Park, the people of Churchill and northern communities could have entirely restored rail access. The Prime Minister himself, in handing over a $35-million cheque for a “diversity garden” in one of Winnipeg’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, misled northerners that his government was working on a solution for the troubled rail line.

Since OmniTRAX Canada made it clear that the railway was no longer commercially viable and they would not be able to fund any further costs associated with the line, the federal government has done everything it can to shirk its responsibility to help resolve this issue.

First, they appointed a negotiator with no apparent mandate to negotiate. They have threatened a lawsuit that will tie the matter up in the courts for years, all the while nothing would get done to reopen access to Churchill. They have alienated the very First Nations leadership so integral to a renewed, locally owned Hudson Bay Railway. They have declined repeated invitations to visit the line and inspect the damage first-hand. And not one government representative — not one — has visited Churchill to speak to the people directly affected by this disaster.

Our esteemed Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce recently published a report entitled National Corridor: Enhancing and Facilitating Commerce and Internal Trade, in which they made clear the strategic importance of Churchill, noting that the closure of the port was unfortunate because it is the shortest route to Europe for a number of Canada’s exported commodities.

It is also becoming clear that others, notably China, appear more willing to fill the void left by our government’s indifference to the North. In 2016, China published a shipping guidebook to the Northwest Passage and to date will not acknowledge Canada’s sovereignty over the increasingly viable global trade. Maclean’s reported in June 2016 in “How Ottawa abandoned our only Arctic port,” that Chinese diplomats have visited Churchill seeking to recruit locals interested in Mandarin language training.

If the pleas for help from the people of Churchill are not enough, perhaps protecting our northern territories from opportunistic foreign powers will spur this government to make Churchill a priority.

Back in June, OmniTRAX entered into a deal with Grand Chief Dumas and a First Nations consortium to sell the line for $20 million but the federal government intervened and blocked the sale, which resulted in the government failing to come through with their end of the bargain. The government requested that Chief Dumas partner with another First Nations consortium to purchase the rail line, which he and OmniTRAX both agreed to. There was another deal ready to go. Then the government stated that it cannot support this deal because they feel as though the First Nations consortium was paying too much for the rail line.

This is absurd. First, because it’s a private sale. Second, the value of the steel alone on the railway is worth more than double what the buyers had agreed to pay.

As Chief Arlen Dumas stated in June in a CBC interview, “Lo and behold, when we actually come to an agreement and sign on the bottom line, those very same people who have been speaking to us about the most important relationship in the country are quick to kick us to the curb.”

Chief Dumas further said that this is an affront to pledges made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, promising First Nations communities a new relationship with the federal government. He continued, “To be disrespected this way is ridiculous. I am absolutely frustrated because we’ve done the hard work. We’ve taken the initiative to find a solution for what we need in the North . . . having the federal government, who we allowed to be partners in helping move this forward, pull the rug out from under us is a shock and a disrespect to what we have done.”

The federal government now believes that the answer is to threaten OmniTRAX with a lawsuit. This adds to the confusion surrounding the government’s priorities and the process for determining which legal matters are worth pursuing.

Colleagues, I spoke in this chamber about the government having recently spent more than $110,000 fighting a First Nations girl in court to block payment for an orthodontic treatment that cost $6,000. This same government readily and eagerly handed out $10 million to a convicted terrorist, citing the avoidance of excessive legal fees for settling out of court. And now we have OmniTRAX, the company that has had a deal ready to sell the rail line since June, and a subsequent agreement with Grand Chief Dumas and a new coalition of First Nations buyers since August.

The only entity getting in the way of the sale is the federal Liberal government, and they are threatening to sue OmniTRAX if they do not fix or sell the line. They’re trying to sell the line. This is more than inaction. This is obstruction.

In the meantime, the government has assisted VIA Rail in moving their cars out of Churchill, which was a terrible symbolic letdown for the community. People in the community contemplated some kind of public action to keep the cars in town, but were eventually resigned to the fact that it was beyond their control.

The government then arranged to have fuel flown in for the winter. These actions are giving the residents of Churchill no hope that the government has any intention of facilitating the repair of this line.

Has the intention of the government been to make this a fly-in community all along? And if not, how can the government justify dragging its feet and leaving the community of Churchill in the dark?

These are some of the questions I posed to Minister Carr when he appeared in this chamber for Question Period. And as we have seen every step of the way since this crisis began, we receive no answers.

Colleagues, it is not too late to change how this story ends for Churchill and Canada’s North. There is a plan in place that could reopen the rail line in 30 days, albeit on a very limited basis. But it will help to ensure that critical supplies can flow north over this winter. There is also an agreement in place that could see the Hudson Bay Railway sold to and operated by a consortium of First Nations communities along the line. Federal government leadership is the only thing standing in the way.

I know first-hand now dependent businesses are on this railway. The company I owned was entirely dependent on the railway to get our supplies into Churchill.

The businesses I mentioned before — lodges, tour companies and expedition companies — are struggling immensely without the rail, which is essential to transport any tourists and any necessary supplies. The tourism industry has entirely plummeted. We have small-business owners pleading with the Prime Minister to act, one shop owner promising him a new pair of moccasins if he steps up and does the right thing.

The Prime Minister’s Office self-righteously boasted as recently as yesterday:

. . . this prime minister and our office have made a commitment to engage heavily and regularly with Canadians, Indigenous peoples, provinces and territories, and stakeholders . . . .

Again, this proves that, when it comes to the North and Churchill specifically, this government is all talk and no action.

It is time for the federal government to do its job. It is time for the Prime Minister and Liberal MPs from Manitoba to end their deafening silence and take leadership on an issue of national importance. It is time for Ottawa to show the rest of Canada how it feels about Canada’s North.

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