Final wheat shipment this year through Churchill port could be last: wheat board

WINNIPEG – This season’s last shipment of wheat – and what could be the last load ever – has left the port of Churchill in northern Manitoba.

But the town’s mayor isn’t spending too much time dwelling on the port’s glory days as the hub of choice for the Canadian Wheat Board.

Mike Spence says he’s focused on diversifying the Hudson Bay port’s shipments if the wheat board loses its monopoly over Canada’s grain shipments starting next August.

“I’m the type of person who is always optimistic,” he said Wednesday. “I’m looking in a positive direction, hoping that we’ll be able to secure more grain and the port will diversify … I think we can do that.”

Critics of the federal government’s plan to abolish the board’s monopoly warn that the move could have devastating consequences for Churchill and its economy. The polar bear capital of Canada, about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, gets 95 per cent of its port business from the grain marketer.

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Board chairman Allen Oberg predicts that crucial business will evaporate once grain shipments are open to competition and companies opt to use less remote ports.

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“Their business models are less focused on transportation costs – which they can simply pass on to farmers – and more focused on maximizing grain flow through their own port facilities,” Oberg said in a release marking Churchill’s final shipment. “It is difficult to imagine why they’d choose to use Churchill.”

The federal government last month tabled legislation to abolish the board’s monopoly and allow farmers to sell grain to whomever they choose. Ottawa is promising up to $5 million in each of the next five years to help fund grain shipments through Churchill, as well as $4.1 million over three years to maintain port infrastructure.

Spence said the town can use the time to develop other clients for the port. Nunavut’s mining potential is opening up and Churchill is in a great position to service northern locations, he said.

The Chinese market – and that country’s insatiable desire for minerals – could also represent an opportunity for the port, Spence suggested.

But he added that all three levels of government have to come together and develop an economic plan.

“It’s not just Churchill, it’s Canada’s northern port. Canada’s North is developing. We’ve got a gem. All it needs is attention and a long-term plan.”

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There is a lot riding on replacing the wheat board’s business in Churchill. Some 200 jobs – about one-fifth of the town’s population – are directly connected to grain shipments.

Since the 1940s, Prairies farmers have had to sell their wheat and barley to the board, which in turn exports it to foreign markets. Despite vocal opposition and several lawsuits, the federal government is going ahead with a long-standing promise to abolish the monopoly.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the federal government is supporting Churchill through its transition and called the port a “valuable gateway to the North.”

“It’s clear that Mr. Oberg will stop at nothing, even creating market uncertainty with baseless accusations, in the hopes of keeping his job and forcing farmers to market through the wheat board,” Ritz said in an emailed statement.

“Mr. Oberg is doing a great disservice to the farmers and staff he claims to represent by refusing to work with us to give the Canadian Wheat Board and port of Churchill the best chance to succeed in an open market.”

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