Manitoba premier puts other priorities ahead of Alberta's request to ship oil through Churchill

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says her government will focus on issues such as affordability, health care and homelessness over considering shipping oil through Churchill. (CBC - image credit)
Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says her government will focus on issues such as affordability, health care and homelessness over considering shipping oil through Churchill. (CBC - image credit)

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says her government has more pressing concerns than entertaining Alberta's request for a meeting about shipping oil from the Port of Churchill.

Stefanson said she's open to future discussions, but the invitation from new Alberta Premier Danielle Smith isn't a top priority.

"I understand where the premier of Alberta is" coming from, Stefanson said. "She's facing an election and some tough things, tough challenges politically within her own province, and she wants to get some of these issues out of the way."

But those are not the Manitoba government's priorities.

"I will tell you, there are there are other, more pressing things for us to be dealing with right now, which is why we're here today to deal with the most vulnerable in our society," she said, speaking about her government's promise Monday to more than double funding grants for homeless shelters and transitional housing services, among other supports for the less fortunate.

She said affordability issues, improving the health-care system and addressing homelessness are some of her top priorities.

Stefanson was responding Monday to a request by Smith to meet in Churchill, Man., to explore ways the Prairie provinces could work together to transport oil and agricultural products through northern Manitoba to other world markets. Smith also asked Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe to attend.

"Our leadership will bring weight and purpose to the Canadian reaction against Russia's atrocities and will show the rest of the world that there is indeed a business case to export low-carbon Canadian energy and food products to Europe," Smith wrote in a letter that she posted to Twitter on the weekend.

The idea of shipping oil through Churchill isn't new but has long faced pushback. Some residents have worried about the consequences of derailments and oil spills.

Penny Rawlings, a small business owner in Churchill, said in a recent interview the port would benefit from more business, but "it's a balance between economics and protecting the environment."

She referenced new technology that stores oil into capsules as one possible solution since it's easier to transport and can float on water.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

In her letter to the Prairie premiers, Smith argued the economic case for expanding the Port of Churchill is improving. She said investors are looking for responsibly produced energy and don't want to rely on regimes like Russia after the attack on Ukraine.

Smith became Alberta's premier earlier this month. She campaigned for her party's leadership in part on a pledge to assert Alberta's independence over the federal government, which she has accused of disrespecting the province's energy resources.

To that end, Smith wrote in her letter to Stefanson and Moe that one of her first priorities as premier is to "harness the initiative of provinces rather than waiting for federal action." She argued Ottawa has proven unwilling to find alternative energy sources while Russia and Ukraine are at war.

Stefanson said any discussions around shipping oil must consult with — and benefit — First Nations communities.

'Part of the solution'

Europe could be on the verge of a "very significant energy challenge," Manitoba's premier acknowledged.

"I think we can be part of the solution, but let's have that discussion with the federal government and across the country as well, including with provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan as well," Stefanson said.

In response, Smith's press secretary, Rebecca Polak, said Alberta's premier looks forward to that conversation.

"In earlier discussions with Premier Stefanson, she indicated a keen interest to explore expanding market access opportunities at the port. Alberta stands ready to have these discussions with the premier when she is ready to do so."

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe told reporters Monday he supports any movement to expand services in Churchill.

Omnitrax
Omnitrax

In August, Stefanson's government kicked in $73 million to help the Arctic Gateway Group upgrade, operate and maintain the Hudson Bay Railway, Churchill's only land link to the south.

The railway line, privatized after the federal government sold the Canadian National Railway in 1995, runs through remote, boggy terrain and has been prone to lengthy service disruptions.

Its previous owners stopped running trains to Churchill for around 18 months after the railway line was badly damaged by flooding in 2017. Under former PC premier Brian Pallister, the province did not provide any financial support to repair the rail line.

At the time of the August announcement, Stefanson said the upgraded transportation corridor could help the world find alternatives to dependence on Russian exports.

Smith joins federal Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre in endorsing the shipping of oil through Churchill. Poilievre campaigned on the idea at a Winnipeg rally earlier this year, before he was selected as party leader.