I joined the learning vacationers on their town day last week. Though I’ve been enjoying my time at the CNSC, it is very isolated. The CNSC is located 23km outside of the town of Churchill, and getting to town can be a bit of a mission. Somebody at the centre likened the experience of being here to being on a cruise ship, and I completely get it. At the CNSC, you can travel throughout the building, and occasionally can go outside and have a short walk around, but that’s not a terribly large space. So when the option arose to join the vacationers on a day in town, I was very happy to go.
On the way to town:
We visited some of the shops, had lunch, and stopped to look at the port. I learned that Churchill’s port, and its train, were originally built as a method of shipping products from the prairies. The prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, aka “Canada’s bread basket,” produce a large portion of Canada’s agriculture, especially grains. When these products are exported, sending them by train to Churchill and connecting to the port there can be a faster way than sending them all the way to, say, Montreal. The port used to account for about a third of Churchill’s economy, but it was closed in 2016.
Currently, the town exists and manages to stay alive off of tourism. Tens of thousands of people visit Churchill each year, as it’s earned the nickname “polar bear capital of the world” for good reason. They don’t have the highest number of polar bears of all the places in the world, but they do have the greatest density of bears worldwide during October and November. Over the years, Churchill has managed to expand its tourism industry even further. Now, the “Welcome to Churchill” sign in town boasts that they are the polar bear capital of the world – and the beluga whale capital of the world from late June to late August – and the bird watcher’s paradise from late May to late September – and nature’s light show, from November through March.
We also drove around and looked at several of the murals in town. I mentioned the SeaWalls mural festival in an earlier post; it was during the summer of 2017 that SeaWalls came to Churchill, and that time added a significant element to the festival.
There are no roads into Churchill, and the only way to get here is by plane or train. After a freak blizzard followed by a massive flood in May 2017, the train tracks were washed out and the train to Churchill stopped for a full eighteen months. During that time, Churchill became even more remote. Flying in and out is very expensive, and wasn’t feasible for many of the residents. Many people who had family in other cities didn’t get to see them for over a year. Roughly 200 people ended up moving away from Churchill, mostly families.
It was during this time that SeaWalls came to Churchill. SeaWalls itself was a feat to accomplish. Since the artists all had to fly in, instead of taking the train, they weren’t able to bring many of the supplies that they’d planned on bringing. The town of Churchill had to come up with all sorts of extra paint, scaffolding, and materials to help make the festival happen.
SeaWalls painted 18 murals around town. One artist had an idea for her mural before arriving, but once she got to Churchill and spoke to the residents, she changed her mind. She painted this instead:
“Know I’m Here” refers to the issues Churchill was facing at the time, when they were far north, unconnected from the rest of the world, and their future seemed uncertain. “Know I’m Here” also became the title of a CBC documentary about the festival and Churchill.
Since then, luckily, a group of local stakeholders came together and took action. Forming the group “Arctic Gateway,” they purchased both the tracks and the port. The tracks were fixed and the train service has resumed, reconnecting the community to the rest of the world. Some of the former residents have moved back, and some new residents have come as well.
However, Churchill is still facing challenges, such as those posed by climate change.
Many of the murals speak to the impact of climate change upon oceans; Churchill was chosen for SeaWalls because of their proximity to the ocean. In Churchill, which is located on Hudson’s Bay, the effects of climate change are indisputable: they can literally see them. The ice that forms over Hudson’s Bay has been breaking up earlier in the spring and forming later in the fall. This change has happened steadily, and over the past 30 years, there’s an average of 30 more days of open water than there used to be.
Some of the murals around town:
We finished with a stop at this inuksuk by Hudson’s Bay. Inuksuks were built originally as landmarks, to convey messages (i.e., to signify the location of food or a camp nearby). This one is just decorative.
As an international development graduate, I find Churchill a fascinating place to visit and see how they’ve handled issues such as supplying food up here, providing healthcare, and having certain services in such a remote area. It’s a very unique place, with a spirit all its own, and unlike anywhere I’ve ever been in Canada.