Located on the wind-blown shore of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, the town of Churchill, population 1,035, was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eco-tourism, which forms a significant part of the town’s economy, was devastated as international travel stopped in 2020. Also, a dry summer in 2021 on the prairies led to lower grain volumes shipped through the Port of Churchill, which is owned by a consortium of Indigenous and northern communities.
“So it was hard on everybody, emotionally, mentally, financially,” said Churchill Mayor Michael Spence in a phone interview. “The real turnaround would’ve been this bear season, mid-August through the fall 2021. It was not a normal season as you know. There just wasn’t enough time to market and people were still concerned about travelling.”
Spence gave the 2021 polar bear tourism season a six or seven out of 10 in terms of returning to normal. But there’s more to Churchill than bears, he explained. There are beluga whales, tundra flowers, general exploring, and northern lights (aurora borealis).
Other than fewer grain shipments, Spence said there’ve been other issues with the Port of Churchill, which is the northern terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway. The railway has experienced periodic shutdowns due to flooding and washouts over the years. In August, the federal government announced a $40 million investment to upgrade the rail line, mostly between Churchill and the town of Gillam, 271 km south as the crow flies.
“The port plays a big role in the economy as well,” he said. “You have people who are employed not only in the port, but the rail side of things. I mean, both of them are pretty much equal in terms of economic importance.”