By William Hryb

After 103 years on the Thunder Bay grain scene, Canadian Ports Clearance Association (CPCA) will close its doors. In a surprise announcement to stakeholders earlier this year, Doug Hilderman, President of the non-profit association, advised it had “embarked on a review of its operations, to assess where the association would fit into a post Canadian Wheat Board monopoly market place.” Rumours of CPCA’s closure began to pop up at the beginning of the year, not long after the Conservative government voted in favour of disbanding the almost 77-year-old Canadian Wheat Board.

“In order to be fair to the dedicated staff and to ensure the stakeholders had ample time to do the planning needed, the Board of Directors is announcing that effective August 31, 2012, CPCA will terminate its operations across Canada,” read the bulletin e-mailed to grain industry officials and port user groups across the country. Based in Winnipeg, with offices in Vancouver and Thunder Bay, the organization is responsible for coordinating the movement and transfer of grain from port terminals to domestic and international grain loading vessels. 

CPCA’s primary function and mandate is to expedite the handling and movement of grain. The association has the advantage of a centralized information desk that can coordinate the storage and movement of grain for its members. Others in the grain industry believe that by its very nature, a centralized sharing of data serves only to compromise the sensitive, competitive nature of their grain trading operations.

With The Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly winding down, large grain companies are looking at the association as a dinosaur and no longer required for their operations.  The negative or positive effects of CPCA’s demise will undoubtedly play out this fall after it closes its doors at the end of August.

Established as Lake Shippers Clearance Association in 1909, the organization has been an important player in the movement of grain at Thunder Bay and Vancouver. The association morphed into Canadian Ports Clearance Association in 1999 – a title chosen to better brand the company, when Vancouver’s B.C. Clearance Association joined the organization. 

CPCA represents a wide range of grain stakeholders, including terminal operators, grain companies and vessel operators. For years, stakeholders have depended on CPCA’s impartiality, acting as a de facto grain-port authority and ensuring those companies who have a vested interest in the efficient movement of grain are treated fairly, on a first-come, first serve basis.

Arriving grain ships at Thunder Bay are assigned load berths by CPCA, depending upon the availability of the product and load elevator. With eight grain terminals operating at the port, coordination is crucial. Port officials are uncertain what the ramifications will be and whether another entity will take its place.

It is too early to speculate if the grain companies will control their own product and vessels. “I don’t know what will happen after they close … Canadian Ports Clearance Association has been a fixture on the Thunder Bay waterfront as long as I’ve been here,” said Captain Gerry Dawson, President of Thunder Bay Tugs Services Ltd. “They have always been extremely helpful to us, letting us know when ships are coming in or if they require tug assistance maneuvering into the grain elevator docks … I’ll be sorry to see them go.”

The big question remains, how will CPCA’s closure affect ship logistics at the port? It is no secret that Thunder Bay’s handling of grain has been exemplary over the past century. Nobody seems to know how the dynamics might play out. One thing is for sure: it’s an end of era and the beginning of another.