After weeks of layoffs and business closures in the north, The Pas and Churchill got some good news Monday.
Talk of partnership dominated meetings in The Pas Monday as union officials, mayors, business owners, First Nation leaders and provincial cabinet ministers discussed how to avoid a job loss crisis and the looming closure of the local Tolko paper mill.
About 300 workers would be without jobs if the mill in The Pas closes. The B.C.-based company announced in August it plans to shut down operations Dec. 2.
Chief Arlen Dumas of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation said the meeting was historic and probably one of the first times in recent history that everyone with an interest in the mill sat down at the same table to chart a path forward.
“We’ve challenged our provincial government partners to look at solutions we’re bring forward,” he said.
While he wouldn’t get into specifics, Dumas also confirmed a consortium of business and First Nations will take over the Port of Churchill and Hudson Bay rail line, which runs from The Pas to Churchill.
“It will happen, Dumas said, adding the consortium has been in talks with OmniTrax recently and the deal is in development
Denver-based OminTrax announced in August it would be closing the Port of Churchill and has already cut rail service down to Churchill in half.
Mathias Colomb, one of three First Nations that own Keewatin Railway Co., made an offer to buy the port and rail line in January.
That move angered some elders in the community who claimed they weren’t given enough details about the purchase before Dumas expressed interest on their behalf.
Dumas, who is up for re-election in October, said no promises were made regarding purchasing the mill in The Pas Monday, but there was an overall openness to work together and find a solution.
“I’m certain something positive will come from what we were able to do here today,” he said.
‘Ready to move forward’
The Pas Mayor Jim Scott said Monday’s meeting showed that everyone is on the same page and wants to do everything they can to avoid a closure.
“We’re all ready to move forward, we believe we can find a solution, we believe we have the people to do it,” he said.
Scott said it’s possible a consortium could form to take over the Tolko paper mill and Hudson Bay rail line in The Pas.
“There’s lots of talk of tire kickers,” he said, adding Tolko has confirmed there have been expressions of interest in taking over the mill. “It’s really going to depend on if one of those tire-kickers decides to go for a test drive.”
Manitoba Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen said he applauds the community of The Pas for banding together in uncertain times.
Several ideas came up in talks Monday and Cullen said the province is open to working with groups interested in stepping in for the long haul.
“We’re not interested in short-term solutions for short-term political gain. Anytime that we would entertain any kind of assistance is if it’s going to be a long-term concrete business plan,” Cullen said.
“If we can participate in some kind of business plan like that, that’s in the best interest of Manitoba over the long-term, we’ll look at all kinds of options.”
Cullen welcomed involvement from the Trudeau government as stakeholders work towards a solution.
‘Don’t want a handout’
Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government signaled last week it would not be bailing out the mill.
Dumas said potential partners “don’t want a handout” from government to buy the mill. Instead, he says, they want “an investment in the people of the north.”
“Whatever that means we need to determine what that is and we need to continue building upon our communities in the north,” he said. “We need to encourage innovative ways of moving forward.”
Dumas said the closure of the port and associated Hudson Bay rail line are related to the fact that First Nations historically have not had a spot at the negotiation table.
He believes the port and rail line need to be owned by a Manitoba-based organization to ensure workers and communities aren’t under the thumb of out-of-province corporations.
“Now that these things are being forced to restart or to be reinvigorated, it allows us to have a meaningful participation and ensure there is more longevity in how our north develops,” he said. “Really, we want to do what’s right for the north, it’s not just specifically for First Nations.”