Financial considerations aside, the fact that the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill are now completely under the control of communities and First Nations from within the region where it lies and that it serves could be a good step toward greater long-term stability for the important Northern Manitoba transportation assets.
OneNorth, a group of Northern Manitoba and Nunavut communities and First Nations which purchased the port and railway from former owner OmniTrax back in 2018, after the railway had sat damaged and unused for more than a year and the port had stopped loading grain vessels for two shipping seasons, announced last week that the 50 per cent share held by AGT Food & Ingredients and Fairfax Financial Holdings had been transferred to OneNorth.
Obviously, the purchase from OmniTrax would not have taken place without the help of millions of dollars from the federal government but perhaps the most important thing about the new ownership group is that it is made up of people who truly have a stake in seeing the port and railway be successful, even if it isn’t necessarily a significant financial one made up of their own assets. To anyone who watched the communities along the line and particularly Churchill at the end of it languish in limbo for month after month after month as OmniTrax said it couldn’t afford to fix the Hudson Bay Railway after flooding washed out portions of the railbed between Gillam and Churchill, it was obvious that the owner’s biggest problem was that it just didn’t care. Business can often be about numbers on spreadsheets and profit margins and EBITDA and monetary considerations and that’s fine. But when that business is the only land transportation link a community has to the rest of the province and literally the lifeline on which their residents depend, whether for supplies or to bring in tourists to keep their businesses going, having what is, in effect, a sort of absentee landlord be in charge of whether it thrives or limps along or fails completely, is far from an ideal situation. The people in positions of power at OmniTrax were not riding the Hudson Bay Railway and rarely stepped foot in the communities it served, if they ever did so at all. They had purchased the port and railway for a literal handful of dollar bills from the federal government in the late 1990s, thinking that they could make some money off it but it turns out they were wrong. How much that error was a result of difficult economic conditions and how much of it was due to them not understanding what sort of business they were getting into because they weren’t familiar with Northern Manitoba may never be known, but it is safe to say that, after 20 years or so of their ownership, the people of Churchill and other northern communities between it and The Pas were definitely not sorry to see the last of OmniTrax.
The fact that the rail line and port are now owned by entities within and around Northern Manitoba is by no means a guarantee of financial success. But there’s no denying that the people who now have the task of trying to ensure that success have some real skin in the game and are going to be more motivated than a purely bottom-line concerned corporation to turn that hope into a reality.