Canadian News

Visiting the ghost of Churchill past

Peter Carlyle-Gordge December 11 1978
Canadian News

Visiting the ghost of Churchill past

Peter Carlyle-Gordge December 11 1978

Visiting the ghost of Churchill past

Manitoba

Peter Carlyle-Gordge

Doug Hoey, chief engineer of the $ll-million Churchill Town Centre complex, sadly packed his bags last week and flew 700 miles south to Winnipeg to look for work. He had held the job since the centre opened in 1975, wasn’t fired—and still liked Churchill. He quit a good job in a town with 25-per-cent unemployment because his conscience bothered him. “To run this centre properly would take an annual budget of $1.2 million and this year it will scrape along on $769,000,” he explained bitterly before he left. “It’s like having a brand-new car but not having enough money to change the oil. We don’t have enough engineers or maintenance men and sooner or later something will go badly, perhaps dangerously, wrong.”

But what on earth is Churchill, population 1,400 and falling, doing with such a palatial complex containing everything from a high school, civic offices and a hospital to a hockey arena, curling rink, bowling alleys, poolrooms, swimming pool, theatre, library, cafeteria and such minor trinkets as a $16,000 children’s slide in the form of a sculptured polar bear? Residents alternately call the centre—which they appreciate but didn’t ask for—a Cadillac, a white elephant and a millstone. It might equally be termed a monument to bureaucratic myopia on a grand scale— an expensive piece of driftwood left behind by a fast-receding tide of what Mayor Les Osland, 57, calls “suitcase citizens.” Those northern carpetbaggers are federal and provincial government employees who do a brief stint in the North, set wheels in motion, then exit stage south, leaving the permanent residents to cope with what’s left behind. In Churchill they have left quite a lot.

Churchill and its “suburbs” lie at the mouth of the Churchill River on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay. From its modern port facilities, 25 to 30 million bushels of wheat and barley are loaded during the three ice-free months each summer for shipment via the short circle route to Europe. A mile back from the elevators the town clusters about its imposing new centre. To the east

sprawls what’s left of Fort Churchill, the once bustling military base; Akudlik, a village built by the white man for the Inuit and now largely boarded up; and Dene Village, home for a dwindling number of Chipewyan Indians.

The whole of the Canadian West was opened up by Hudson’s Bay Company traders pushing inland from the first Fort Churchill they built 295 years ago, and the earliest Prairie grain farmers imagined reversing the route as a shortcut for their grain shipments, avoiding the long haul down the Great Lakes. By 1908 they’d won a commitment from Sir Wilfrid Laurier, but the CNR didn’t complete the muskeg-sodden rail route until 21 years later; the first grain shipments began in 1931. War brought Churchill its first boom when the U.S. Air Force built a long-range bomber base that flourished until intercontinental ballistic missiles made it obsolete in the ’60s. The addition of a Canadian base for giving troops northern training and an experimental rocketry range used by the National Research Council for atmospheric studies gave Churchill a peak population of 6,000. But then the armies sounded retreat and Churchill slumped gradually to 3,500. Civil servants and their paycheques remained plentiful, though the town was still a straggling, mud-mired mess.

For all that, as Churchill entered the 1970s, things seemed to look up. The NDP government of Ed Schreyer had pledged at election to pump money into the North to make amends for decades of neglect, and Churchill asked for a modest $800,000 sewer and water system. What it got instead was a $40million federal-provincial face-lift— not only the requested municipal plumbing system but also paved streets, two apartment blocks, 300 new rental housing units and the splendiferous town centre—three football fields long—designed to bring all administrative, educational and recreational activities in from the northern cold (-45°C is not unusual). In addition, the National Harbors Board proceeded to spend $12 million on improving port facilities, while the province established the Churchill Fabrication Plant to pre-

fab the new houses and train unemployed, unskilled residents—mostly natives—to erect them.

As Mayor Osland recalls the remaking of Churchill, “We were never consulted about the plan, but we didn’t say ‘no.’ Too much happened too fast. Ex-

perts were flown in and flown out. Local businessmen were just nickeling and diming off the leftovers while the big contracts went to outsiders. As the good

government giveth, so it taketh away.”

The taking away started even as the building began, when the National Re-

search Council slashed its Churchill team from 200 to 60 in 1970; now at 25, it

may be down to five by spring. Worse followed. As town administrator Elsie Forrest recalls, “Everyone assumed that once the new housing was built, public works employees would move from the military base downtown.” Instead, hundreds of federal workers were transferred right out of town and the DPW began to demolish the fort’s 300 houses and two big administration buildings—to save taxes, says the mayor. “Ottawa is spending $2-to-$3 million on outside contractors to knock down $50-million worth of installations which might be useful to the town one day. It’s senseless.” Ottawa also moved its administration staff for the Eastern Arctic (Keewatin) far north to Frobisher Bay and Rankin Inlet. Akudlik was closed down. By 1975 the local paper, Taijja Times, had folded, and soon afterward the CBC cut its staff from 10 to one—and today there is none.

Churchill began to feel like a bride showered with gifts and riches, only to

be jilted at the altar. The final slap was the election of Premier Sterling Lyon’s Conservative government in the fall of 1977. Pledged to eliminate “NDP waste and mismanagement,” it closed the Churchill Pre-Fab Plant, which had gobbled up $6 million in four years. The natives trained and put to work were consigned once again to the welfare rolls and the Churchill branch of Alcoholics Anonymous noted a falloff in attendance. Says Jack O’Connor, owner of Arctic Enterprises (soft drinks and potato chips), “The closing was a crazy blow. The present government says if something doesn’t make a profit, to hell with it. They’d sooner pay out welfare.”

But the Churchill survivors, now settled in for one more long winter’s siege, are sticking because they love the life there. It’s the place all of them who once lived south were looking for, “somewhere over the rat race” they left behind them. “There’s a feeling of being close to other people here, a feeling that we’re all in the same boat,” says Doreen Osland, school-board member and the mayor’s wife, and mother of six. Besides the indoor recreation available at the new town centre, “It’s a good outdoor life—lots of snowmobiling and snowshoeing.” Like others she grumbles about high northern prices (celery $2.35 a bunch, hamburger $1.90 a pound, milk 77 cents a litre compared to 55 cents in Winnipeg). But when Maclean's visited the Oslands, they’d just returned from Winnipeg and were clearly relieved to be home. Says Chamber of Commerce Chairman Joe Cloutier, “I guess this really is the winter of our discontent—but the survivors will be the true northerners.” Like true northerners, they’re quick to find grounds for optimism:

• Research: The Churchill Northern Studies Centre, offering universitylevel courses in ecology and modest lab facilities for visiting scientific researchers, was created two years ago by Churchill residents with Manitoba and government help. Catering to 50 people at a time, it plans modest expansion.

• Polar bears: Churchill’s five hotels already accommodate many summer tourists who go to study northern flora and fauna and its almost over-friendly polar bears. Southern travel agents are starting to offer package tours.

• Greater grain shipments: The port can handle more if only CN would improve its roadbed to withstand the new and heavier hopper cars. Churchill boosters suspect counter-lobbying by rival eastern ports and Jack O’Connor, one of the town’s doughtier survivors, offers his own starkly prophetic view of the future: “If Quebec were to separate and endanger access to the St. Lawrence, it might be the best thing that ever happened to Churchill.”