By Keith Norbury
That Churchill became a port town at all was an accident of history. In 1912, the federal and provincial governments in western Canada decided to develop an ocean port, Port Nelson, on Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Nelson River, according to a 2013 Canada/Manitoba Task Force Report on the Future of Churchill. A rail line was even started to connect to Port Nelson but work on the line was halted in 1918 when it was found that the location silted up.
Churchill proved to be a superior location for the port. So, work on the rail line resumed from where it had stopped, with the link to Churchill completed in 1927.
“They just took a dogleg north into Churchill,” said Elden Boon, President of the Hudson Bay Route Association. “The best place to build it would have from Thompson northeast to Churchill because that’s on a rocky ridge. But that’s hindsight.”
Dr. Barry Prentice of University of Manitoba said that a more easterly route over the Canadian Shield would have been far superior than the chosen route, which traverses the deep peat bogs of the Hudson Bay Lowlands. “When you’re on the shield, it doesn’t matter if the permafrost melts because you’re on rock,” said Dr. Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the university’s I.H. Asper School of Business, and a former director of the Transport Institute at the university. “Building a railway through the Canadian Shield, you take a deep breath because you’re blasting rock and forging water courses and other things,” Dr. Prentice said. “So it’s not like it’s ever going to be inexpensive. But it would be permanent.”
Cold War peak
In the 1961 Census, Churchill registered a population of 3,932. At its peak during the Cold War, the town and surrounding area was home to nearly 7,000, according to some sources. That was attributed to Canadian and U.S. military personnel at an U.S. air base established during the Second World War, and at the Churchill Research Rocket Range established during the sixties.
Both grandfathers of Dale De Meulles, who co-owns the town’s Home Building Centre with his wife Rhoda, came to Churchill during the 1940s. He himself was born in Churchill and his dad even worked briefly at the rocket range. Since the early 1960s, though, Churchill’s population has steadily declined, notwithstanding that recent bump. “I’ve got to say we’re pretty tough birds up here,” Mr. De Meulles said. “Especially when you live here all your life, you see so many ups and downs. Right now, all I do is say, ‘Throw some more because we can take it.’ We’re going to be here no matter what you do to us.”
At least Churchill residents can fly in and out of their town. One legacy of the military’s presence is the airport, which is the former site of the U.S. military base. The airport boasts a runway 2,804 metres long — about 9,200 feet — capable of handling Boeing 747s and 777s.
The 2013 federal-provincial task force report on Churchill’s future noted that many polar nations “have begun to re-examine their military capabilities to operate in the Arctic.” However, it did not volunteer any opinions of whether or not Canada should do that or if the military should return to Churchill.
Mr. Boon, however, said Canada needs a greater presence in the north and that returning a military base to Churchill would be appropriate because of increases in Arctic shipping and the presence of cruise ships in the region. “I think Canada needs to be there to protect its interest,” Mr. Boon said.
Sustainable Churchill, prepared following a 2010 Arctic Gateway Summit in Winnipeg, similarly acknowledged that the military helped shape Churchill and that with a threat to Arctic sovereignty “it may be prudent to bring them back.”
Whether or not the De Meulles become prisoners of a fly-in only community — should the flood-damaged Hudson Bay Railway not be repaired — their town is a prisoner of geography. Just below the 59th parallel, it is farther south than Oslo, Stockholm, or Helsinki. Churchill is even around 1,000 kilometres farther from the North Pole than the Arctic Norwegian port of Narvik which, despite being inside the Arctic Circle, is ice-free year-round courtesy of the Gulf Stream. Hudson Bay, however, freezes over for most of the year, acting like a giant ice box.
Churchill’s shipping season has averaged about 11 weeks annually — typically early August to late October — from 1997 to 2014. However, climate model projections prepared by researchers at University of Manitoba’s Centre for Earth Observation Science call for a season of closer to 30 weeks by 2050.