Manitoba: Northern First Nations Oppose The Shipment Of Oil To Churchill Through Their Traditional And Territorial Lands And Environment


The Hudson Bay railway runs through the Hudson Bay Lowlands region which contains thousands of lakes, ponds and small waterways. There is a long history of aboriginal peoples living in this area. The Fox Lake, War Lake and York Factory First Nation peoples occupy and continue to use this land for hunting, trapping and spiritual purposes. It is a fragile and unique eco-system. The traditional knowledge of the local Cree are preserved in place names here, reflecting the long-past history and connection to the land. The Fox Lake and York Factory First Nations continue to help manage the area through participation on the Wapusk National Park Management Board. York Factory First Nation (YFFN) has land in Churchill in close proximity to the Churchill Marine Tank Farm which will be upgraded to accommodate the oil venture. A large number of YFFN members living in Churchill have raised concerns about the potential impacts to their means of livelihood, transportation and environment in light of the recent disaster in Lac-Megantic. In addition, members of several other First Nations have contacted their leadership to express their concerns and opposition to the OmniTRAX plan based on health concerns, environmental risks and infringement of their aboriginal and treaty rights.

OmniTRAX recently announced they want to ship 330,000 barrels of crude oil from the Port of Churchill in a test in October. It proposes to ship bakken crude oil which is produced by hydraulic fracturing of the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana. In addition, starting either next year or in 2015, OmniTRAX, Inc. plans to transport Bakken and Western Intermediate sweet crude oil on 80-tanker car Hudson Bay Railway trains from The Pas to Churchill to load for 10 Panamax-class tanker ships per shipping season out of Hudson Bay from July through late October or early November.

“Brede told a press conference in Winnipeg Aug. 12 negotiations are underway with about 25 Alberta oil companies that are interested in shipping oil through the port to refineries on either the east coast of Canada or in Europe. But before prospective customers are willing to make long-term commitments, they want to conduct a trial run, Brede said. If all goes according to plan, a tanker carrying about 330,000 barrels of oil will leave the port on a test run in October” (Thompson Citizen, August 14, 2013).

Bakken crude oil was involved in the Lac-Megantic tragedy that killed 47 people on July 6, 2013. This concerns the First Nations of Keewatin Tribal Council as it does the US Federal Railroad Administrator. “We believe there’s risk,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said. “Most grades of crude would not be that volatile.”

KTC Tribal Grand Chief Irvin Sinclair said, “Our communities do not take any comfort with an 80 year old northern rail line carrying an additional 330,000 barrels of crude oil travelling through our communities, risking our territory that is still used for trapping, hunting and spiritual purposes. Surely, we cannot forget the destruction seen at Lac-Megantic which took the lives of 47 people. We cannot and will not sit by and watch this happen”.

The statement, “The speed we can afford to keep” made by OmniTRAX officials at a public meeting held in Thompson August 15, 2013 does not sit well with First Nations. The Hudson Bay Railway has had 63 railway accidents for the years 2003 to 2012. Accidents have happened every year from a low of 3 in 2010 to a high of 14 in 2007. Freight train derailments occurred in both 2010 and 2011. The statement suggests OmniTRAX is only willing to spend the minimum required on track maintenance to allow for a certain level of speed and that track maintenance is a low priority. We are concerned the rail line will not be able to handle the increase in traffic volumes under the current track maintenance plan.

The Hudson Bay Railway (HBRY) was created in 1997 by OmniTRAX, a US-based holding company that specializes in transportation-based services. OmniTRAX also took over operation of the Port of Churchill around the same time. It operates 627 miles of track in Manitoba between The Pas and Churchill.

“The overarching concern to all our citizens and for our territory is the potential for loss of human life; loss of traditional lands and the devastating impacts overall to our collective environment” said Chief Walter Spence of Fox Lake Cree Nation. He added, “As Treaty people, there is a Crown’s obligation to consult and inform First Nations affected regarding this venture. To date, this has not been done by any level of government nor OmniTRAX”.



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