In response to the closure of the Port of Churchill a movement has arisen demanding that the port be nationalized to save the jobs in this strategic industry. Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton has come out in support of this demand for nationalization against the latest symptom of the crisis of capitalism. We support the call by Ashton and the community. In part one of this two-part article we detail the struggle in Churchill. In part two we explain the wider crisis in the North and the need to expand the tool of nationalization as a general solution.

In the small northern town of Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay, the announcement of the closure of the Port of Churchill in July 2016 has been nothing short of devastating. There has been outrage from workers and members of the broader community against OmniTRAX, who own the port.

There will no longer be any shipping at the port, and all freight railroad services on the Hudson Bay Railway leading into the town have been shut down. The announcement comes hot on the heels of other closures in the region.

On July 28th almost 100 local residents came together in protest and to raise demands including “nationalize the port and rail line”. NDP MP Niki Ashton has echoed these demands.Ashton represents the electoral district of Churchill-Keewatinook, which covers Northern Manitoba. 

She has launched a petition calling for the port to be placed under public ownership:

 “People in Churchill and across Manitoba see OmniTRAX’s actions as reprehensible. The federal government made decisions that put Churchill at risk. Now it’s time for the federal government to show leadership and work with the Town of Churchill, First Nations and the Province of Manitoba to ensure a sustainable future for this strategic port. It’s time to bring it under public ownership.”

This demand is absolutely correct and it is very positive for a parliamentarian of the NDP to raise the call for nationalization. It is also a breath of fresh air compared to the right-wing policies of the leadership of both the Federal and Manitoba NDP in the last period. 

Impact on Local Communities

The community of Churchill has a population of 800, and the economy is primarily dependent on grain shipping through the port. At the beginning of the summer, workers at the port were shocked to find that shipping had ceased. Not a single cargo ship docked at Canada’s only deep-water Arctic port this year.

About 40 regular employees have already been handed pink slips. A further several dozen seasonal workers have also been notified that they will not be needed. An estimed one in ten people living in Churchill are employed at the port. The closure threatens to undermine the entire town’s economy, drive up the price of food and other goods, and is already having an impact further afield. 

The town of The Pas is also affected by the closure with about 30-40 seasonal rail jobs on the line as a result of the closure in Churchill, according to local union leaders. The town is located 700 km Southwest of Churchill and operates the rail lines that are the effective starting point of the route to the port.

This isn’t the only problem facing The Pas as it too faces the closure of its largest employer. The city’s paper and lumber mill, owned by Tolko Industries, is set to close on December 2nd, 2016. There are 332 workers at the mill, all of whom will be out of work. A further 250 work as subcontractors “in the bush”, supplying the company with wood, and would also lose their jobs. Many, or even a majority, of these workers are aboriginal. 

This would be devastating in a city with a population of about 5,500. According to mayor Jim Scott, “It’s a one-two punch and this second punch is almost like a death blow; it really does hurt.”

If this wasn’t enough these Northern communities, Vale Canada is planning on shutting down its smelter operations in Thompson, Manitoba by 2018, which could result in 450 job losses. There is also the likely closure of the 777 mine owned by Hudbay Minerals in Flin Flon, Manitoba, due to the exhaustion of the ore reserves. The mine employs almost 1,500 workers in its primarily copper and zinc mining operations.

Northern communities handed over to corporate profiteers

Politicians and business leaders have fallen over themselves to come to the “aid” of Churchill, to provide wise advice and to point the finger at each other over who is at fault. Lloyd Axworthy, former Foreign Affairs Minister for Jean Chretien, demanded political intervention and blamed the province’s previous NDP government. Cliff Cullen, a Minister in Trudeau’s government, led a delegation of business and tourism officials to Churchill at the end of August 2016.

Cullen and Axworthy had a lot to say, but what they didn’t say was even more important. It was their party – the Federal Liberals – who privatized the Port of Churchill leading to the present crisis. In fact, Axworthy almost certainly played a personal role in the matter. The Port of Churchill was built in the 1920s and was publicly owned for over six decades. In 1997 the port was privatized by the Jean Chretien Liberals and handed over to OmniTRAX.

OmniTRAX is a private Transportation Management Company based in the United States and is one of the largest private owners of railroads in North America. It operates rail lines in 12 US states and 3 Canadian provinces. After plundering public assets and receiving government subsidies, the company has turned around and thrown its workers out.

The Federal Liberals literally sold out the town. And the price they sold it for: one dollar.

OmniTRAX refused to comment for weeks after announcing the closure, but under public pressure has tried to justify its decision from the standpoint of economic viability. The fact that the profits of billionaire shareholders are being protected will provide little consolation to workers losing their livelihoods and community.

In the present context, OmniTRAX’s statement reeks of hypocrisy. The firm was not only given the Port of Churchill free of charge, it has been given millions of dollars in subsidies over the past two decades.

The most recent deal was made in 2015. It included a commitment by the provincial NDP government to pay for capital upgrades at the port and to provide a subsidy per tonne of grain exported. It also included a confidentiality clause, meaning that workers and communities facing layoffs cannot even know the details of the deal that saw millions of their tax dollars go to corporate executives.

According to the National Post, the subsidies provided, “includes $50.5 million in direct transfers to OmniTRAX, $48 million in rail line and port upgrades, and $25 million in ‘grain shipping incentives.’” According to the Federal-Provincial Task Force, they have spent or committed $197million, “to benefit, directly or indirectly, both the privately owned port and rail line leading to it, and the community of Churchill.”

As recently as August 2016, OmniTRAX was insisting the provincial government owes it another $1.74 million in capital improvement subsidies. Tolko Industries in The Pas was also the recipient of millions in corporate subsidies while it laid off workers.

It must be highlighted that the Manitoba NDP was in power for 17 years until it lost power this April. The right-wing Greg Selinger leadership of the Manitoba NDP was responsible for many of the subsidy agreements with OmniTRAX and Tolko Industries – agreements that contained no guarantee of continued employment.

After a prolonged policy of appeasing corporate interests, Manitoba voters showed the provincial NDP and the Selinger leadership the door. Now we see the results of this policy of “moderation”. After looting the public purse for handouts, the corporate parasites are leaving a path of destruction in their wake. This shows how jobs cannot be saved via corporate welfare. You cannot control what you do not own. 

Privatization of the Canadian Wheat Board

The privatization of the Canadian Wheat Board by Stephen Harper’s Federal Conservatives also played an important role in the closure of the port. About 90% of the grain exported from the port came through the Canadian Wheat Board. 

In 2015, a 50.1% majority stake in the Wheat Board was sold to a joint venture between a New York based company and a Saudi firm. Stephen Harper rammed the privatization througdespite 62% of farmers voting against it in a plebiscite in 2011.

The Port of Churchill typically exported 550,000 tonnes of grain annually, but in 2015 only 184,000 tonnes of grain were exported via the port. Private grain companies prefer to ship through their own terminals in Vancouver or Thunder Bay, and the privatization of the Wheat Board has given them greater power.

Shipping through Vancouver or Thunder Bay hurts prairie farmers who get a lower price for their crop, but it increases the profits of the grain companies. The privatization of the Wheat Board has contributed to the steep decline in grain exports at Churchill, hurting both grain farmers in the prairies and the port and rail workers operating the port.

This is a clear example of the effect of capitalism and privatization on the working class, on aboriginal communities in the North and on small farmers. The Liberals, Conservatives, and the previous right-wing leadership of the Manitoba NDP, have all in turn contributed to this agenda of privatization and corporate subsidies.

Take Back the North

The demand for nationalization being raised by the local community and by Niki Ashton is absolutely correct. As Ashton expressed it:

“The Billionaire class blaming government for their misfortunes while looking for corporate welfare… again. Pretty rich statements from OmniTrax. Time for them to pack up and go. Time for the Feds to step up. Time to nationalize the Port.”

The Port of Churchill should be seized without any compensation given to the billionaire owners. OmniTRAX “purchased” the Port of Churchill for a single dollar and has received over $200 million in subsidies since 1997. These corporate parasites don’t deserve a penny of compensation.

The demand for nationalization should also be extended to other mills, mines, and transportation firms that are facing closure, as well as to the recently privatized Canadian Wheat Board. These workplaces should also be placed under democratic workers control and management. The accounting books should be made open to the public.

The future of working class communities cannot be left in the hands of corporate executives who make decisions only on the basis of their profits. This is especially true for many Northern communities who are reliant on a single employer, where a factory, port or mine closure means total disaster for the local community.

Nationalize the Port of Churchill under democratic workers control!

No compensation for the corporate parasites!

Continue to Part II