Selena RossChief Betsy Kennedy of War Lake First Nation in Ilford, Man., is part of a coalition of Manitoba chiefs and municipal leaders hoping to take over the Hudson Bay Railway from OmniTrax.
Around 4 p.m., three days a week, people in Thicket Portage, Man., line up in a clearing at the edge of town. Parents nudge their kids forward as a train slows on the tracks in front of them. Even before it fully stops, the children are waiting beneath it with arms raised, muscles tensed.
Put aside lumber and milk for a moment. Canada’s ugliest cross-border business brawl is unfolding along a rickety railroad, balanced on permafrost, in northern Manitoba. Read on
The conductor hauls down bottled water, bikes and boxes of food. The children, at a sprint, drop their armfuls into trucks and wheelbarrows and return for more. Sometimes the train doesn’t return for two days.
For nearly a century, the Hudson Bay Railway, which leads to the port in Churchill, has been the only dependable link to the rest of the country for Thicket Portage and several Cree hamlets like it.
Thicket Portage is 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg, and its river freezes into a road in winter, but the only transportation options in summer are $2,450 round-trip charter flight or the train.
It’s no coincidence that Manitoba Cree are now poised to take over the iconic railroad from Denver-based OmniTrax Inc. Cree leaders say it should be no surprise, either, that they’re jockeying to buy it — they’ve been preparing for this very moment for years.
“We’re connected to this railway,” said Chief Betsy Kennedy of War Lake First Nation, about 100 kilometres north of Thicket Portage.
The train represents more than convenience. People across northern Canada struggle with untenably high grocery bills, a lack of local health care and unreliable cargo deliveries, but the train has made it possible for many northern Manitobans to stay on their land affordably.
But nothing has ever been simple with Churchill, and there are two competing Cree-led groups vying for ownership of the railroad as well as the port — Canada’s only shipping route through the Arctic.
On one side is a chief far from Churchill, near the Saskatchewan border, who has been talking secretively with OmniTrax for a year and a half.
On the other side is a consortium of northern Manitoba towns and First Nations, including Kennedy’s, located along the rail line. The group, which is majority First Nations, has been unable to get OmniTrax to the table and last year asked the government to help it take ownership.
But many of the Cree members of each group know each other well: they worked together for years to break into the railway business, and they share a dream of inheriting the Hudson Bay Railway that goes back much further.
Kennedy’s father, Samson Dick, told her stories about going to work for Canadian National Railway Co. as a teenager in the 1940s, equipped with just a shovel, fixing the track for 30 or 40 cents an hour.
“The (Chinese labourers) started to move away, and the Ukrainians started to retire,” said Dick, now 83. That was when CN Rail began to hire “treaty people.”
Dick was an employee but also felt he was helping safeguard a northern legacy. “It’d be nice to have it Cree,” he said this fall.
Several years after Dick retired and six years after OmniTrax took over the railway from CN Rail in 1997, two neighbouring chiefs approached his daughter.
They had a surprise proposal: across the province, northwest of The Pas, OmniTrax was preparing to abandon a section of its track. The two chiefs asked Kennedy if she wanted to join forces to buy it.
The soon-to-be-abandoned 159-kilometre route led off the main Hudson Bay route to another remote community called Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, near the Saskatchewan border, and OmniTrax no longer felt it was financially worthwhile.
The railroad was nowhere near War Lake or Churchill, it would employ none of Kennedy’s band members, and it would take years of commitment with little likelihood of ever turning a profit.
Kennedy jumped at the idea.
“I thought, finally. Finally!” she said. “The thought of it (was), we would eventually take over the Hudson Bay Railway.”
Fourteen years later, the Keewatin Railroad passenger train chugs twice weekly out of The Pas on its milk run to Mathias Colomb.
The train looks like it’s been through a war: the red upholstery is ripped, burned in spots and marked with black graffiti. An old school bus bench welded to the floor replaces proper seats in one place.
Built in 1957, legend has it that these are the oldest working rail cars in Canada, maybe even North America. Keewatin Railroad hasn’t been able to buy newer cars, and they often need to jerry-rig replacement parts.
The train takes nine hours to travel its length, but that’s due to the route’s roundabout path, rather than its upkeep.
“Best tracks in Manitoba,” said one Via Rail engineer this fall, words repeated by several other rail employees in the province. Keewatin Railroad has shaved five hours off its average run compared to before it was taken over.
As training wheels for a bigger railroad, the experiment has gone well in other ways, too.
“When we first took over the rail line, it was very hard for us to actually get a line of credit anywhere,” said the railroad’s chief executive Tony Mayham. “No one would want to deal with us. No one would extend us the credit to buy fuel, for example.”
He found one tiny supplier and went from there. “Basically, it boiled down to reputation,” he said. “Anything we said, we did.”
Keewatin Rail lured staff from OmniTrax, growing from four to 38 employees in peak season. It now has lucrative contracts doing maintenance in railyards belonging to Manitoba Hydro and other companies.
It gets some federal funding and funnels earnings back into track work, which is done by workers from nearby Mathias Colomb.
“Our own people have a pride in our own railway, and, all of a sudden, a train hasn’t derailed in the last 10 years,” said Arlen Dumas, chief of Mathias Colomb.
Three Cree nations built Keewatin Rail together, but Dumas split from the chiefs of the other two nations when he started talking privately to OmniTrax in the fall of 2015. They signed a non-binding memorandum of agreement just before Christmas.
Splitting off wasn’t his preference, he said. OmniTrax gave him the chance to enter exclusive talks in exchange for signing the strict non-disclosure agreement, which prevents him from sharing details of the company’s offer, even to potential co-owners such as his Keewatin partners or the Town of Churchill.
All he would say last fall is that the proposed sale is a “non-traditional, not-cash purchase.” Dumas declined to comment more recently.
Dumas said he expects Arctic tourism to be a linchpin of Churchill’s future, but didn’t want to give details of his bigger plan for the shipping route. He said one thing he “can appreciate as a First Nations chief is that we can affect and decide what will be transported and what won’t be transported” along the line. Namely, not oil, he indicated.
First Nations ownership would be a boon to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, he added. “When the indigenous people say, ‘This is my land,’ how can you question that?”
Dumas has often been seen as one of the country’s most promising young chiefs. Sent on scholarship to the elite Lakefield School in Ontario and later Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, he has lectured across the continent on First Nations law and returned to Mathias Colomb, a lakeside community of about 3,500, to be elected chief when he was just 29.
Mathias Colomb owns a small airline that flies to The Pas and a 30-year-old construction company that works in and outside the reserve.
“We’re very entrepreneurial, we make sound business decisions, and (the rail purchase isn’t going to be any different,” Dumas said.
But unwilling to sign on to something they haven’t seen, Dumas’s potential co-owners coalesced into a competing group first called the Northern Delegation and then One North.
It includes every community that relies on the Churchill line: seven Cree First Nations, the towns of Churchill, Gillam and Thompson, and The Pas Chamber of Commerce. Another member is the Kivalliq Inuit Association of Nunavut, which depends on cargo shipped from the railway.
OmniTrax hasn’t responded to One North’s interest and hasn’t said why it is only negotiating with First Nations or, more specifically, only with Chief Dumas. It did not respond to a request for comment, but OmniTrax Canada president Merv Tweed said he would prefer an indigenous buyer when taking questions at the Hudson Bay Route Association’s annual meeting in April.
“When I reached out to Chief Dumas, I believed that it should belong to First Nations,” he said. “I believe we’ve put a plan together that will make it work.”
After failing to win a meeting with the company, One North last year asked the government to intervene. Transport law expert Gavin Magrath said Ottawa appears within its legal rights to force a sale to the group, but the government won’t comment on whether they are considering that possibility.
The group’s leaders say Churchill can’t afford any foot-dragging, and they distrust OmniTrax’s intentions in its talks with Mathias Colomb.
One North said its plan will include something neither OmniTrax nor CN Rail ever seriously tried, though it was often discussed: finding new international investment for Churchill.
About three years ago, a group of Korean engineers from Kast Engineering Co. were in the woods near The Pas, researching the construction of Manitoba Hydro’s Bipole III Transmission line. Their car broke down, and they “happened to come across some trappers” from nearby Opaskwayak Cree Nation who drove them into town, said Christian Sinclair, Opaskwayak’s chief.
“What was interesting is, a lot of our veterans, including my grandfather, fought in South Korea,” Sinclair said. The engineers said they’d “like to help,” he said.
Kast embarked on a long-term project with Opaskwayak to build a low-energy “vertical farm” that can grow vegetables with LED lights and no soil. Since 2015, the greenhouse has produced lettuce, kale and 32 other vegetables year-round.
When the Churchill rail line came up for sale, Sinclair’s thoughts turned to Asian partnerships and he said his Korean partners are “looking at” it. Kast Engineering did not respond to a request for comment.
“The largest demographics in the world are India and China, and they’re hungering for resources right now,” he said. “They’re going to want the cheapest shipping routes possible … the main artery from Churchill goes right down into the heart of the Midwest and North America. It is a major gateway.”
One North wants to reintroduce fertilizer imports from Russia — a well-received but short-lived effort a decade ago — and solicit “folks from offshore” who are interested in investing in the port’s infrastructure, said Michael Spence, Churchill’s mayor and part of the group.
Despite their long planning, the Churchill port’s sudden closure last summer put northern Manitoba Cree under unexpected pressure. The port, and the cargo that the train hauled to it, is what made the rail line economically viable.
Several local leaders said the looming threat that the track could be abandoned is the strongest part of their pitch: they’re more motivated than anyone to ensure the shipping route turns a profit.
On an early morning last September, the train pulled into Thompson carrying people from Pikwotenei, population 60, to do their weekly grocery shopping.
If the train shut down, even for just a few months, many would need to relocate to Thompson, without cash for rent, and “they’d be living on the streets,” one woman said.
Chief Betsy Kennedy also stepped off the same train into the chilly parking lot of the Via Rail station and headed for a pickup truck, ready to drive the rest of the way to Winnipeg. She makes the 22-hour journey every two weeks to attend business meetings.
Asked what would happen if the rail line were to be suspended or shut, tears came to her eyes.
“It would be extremely hard,” she said. “We have to do something.”