Canada's tiny Arctic port faces uncertain future

Thu Nov 10, 2011 1:11pm EST
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By Rod Nickel

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Every summer for three months, the Hudson Bay ice breaks up and ships load Canadian Prairie grain for export, putting more than 100 people to work in the tiny northern Manitoba town of Churchill.

The town of just 900 - well known for the polar bears that often wander through its streets - is Canada's only Arctic port. But that key driver of the local economy could become as endangered as the polar bear next year when the Canadian Wheat Board, the port's biggest shipper, loses its monopoly on marketing Western Canadian wheat and barley.

The Wheat Board will become a smaller grain-pooling option for farmers starting next August, according to legislation being put through Parliament by the Conservative government, and that could threaten Churchill's long-standing share of grain shipments.

The CWB has previously favored the northern port for its cost savings, thanks to its proximity to Prairie farmers and access to some European markets.

But big grain handlers like Viterra, Richardson International Ltd and Cargill may be more likely to use port terminals they own on the Great Lakes and or on the West Coast to ship grain overseas.

"(The port) brings a lot of out-of-towners here and local businesses get a boost off of it," said Michlynn Gulick, a local manager for trucking firm Gardewine North, adding she's optimistic the port will remain busy.

"It's been here forever."

Manitoba's agriculture minister, Stan Struthers, has said the end of the CWB's marketing monopoly will hit Churchill hard, referring to it according to one report as "the slow death" of the port, which dates back to the 1930s.   Continued...

<p>An aerial view of the port of Churchill, Manitoba, October 5, 2007. REUTERS/John Woods/Pool</p>