Manitoba considers building 2nd port on Hudson Bay, sidelining Port of Churchill

Manitoba is exploring the idea of building a second deepwater port on Hudson Bay as part of a plan to ship potash from Saskatchewan and petroleum products from Alberta through the Arctic Ocean.

The NeeStaNan project, which could also involve a rail line or pipeline to carry bitumen or natural gas, would relegate the existing deepwater facility at the Port of Churchill to a regional supply hub, Manitoba Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Doyle Piwniuk said Friday in an interview.

Environmental groups are already sounding the alarm about the project due to concerns the southwestern coast of Hudson Bay is too remote for cleanup crews to remediate oil spills and too ecologically fragile to sustain more industrial activity.

The provincial support for the shipping corridor and port proposal also has the federal government stressing the strategic importance of the Port of Churchill, the recipient of almost $300 million worth of federal and provincial investment in recent years.

NeeStaNan’s backers, however, said the transhipment of commodities through Hudson Bay could bolster exports from all three Prairie provinces and provide an economic development windfall for Indigenous communities located along the shipping route.

“The port and corridor will be 100 per cent Indigenous owned,” said Robyn Lore, a NeeStaNan director based in Calgary. 

Lore, an entrepreneur with a background in energy and agriculture, said his company NeeStaNan Projects Inc. is set up to determine the feasibility of the project.

On Thursday, Manitoba announced it will contribute $6.7 million to study the NeeStaNan’s feasibility, provided Alberta and Saskatchewan cover the remainder of the $26-million study cost.

Piwniuk said NeeStaNan would complement the Port of Churchill but largely consign it to serving as a regional as opposed to international port.

“We got a lot of supplies that go up to the north to Churchill. That can still be a distribution centre,” Piwniuk said Friday in a telephone interview from Medicine Hat, Alta.

“This is an opportunity to look at other natural resources that can come to Hudson Bay. And this is what feasibility study is going to be … where [is] the best place to locate this possible port?”

A map of the proposed NeeStaNan corridor suggests it would terminate at Port Nelson, a ghost town at the mouth of the Nelson River.
A map of the proposed NeeStaNan corridor suggests it would terminate at Port Nelson, a ghost town at the mouth of the Nelson River. Construction of a port on this site, the original intended terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway, was abandoned during the First World War due to problems with silting on the fast-flowing river as well as labour shortages. The railway was eventually completed to the mouth of the Churchill River instead. (

Right now, NeeStaNan intends to place the port along the Nelson River, hundreds of kilometres southeast of Churchill, effectively resurrecting a century-old abandoned megaproject called Port Nelson.

From 1912 to 1918, the federal government attempted to build a deepwater port along the north side of the Nelson River but was thwarted by labour shortages during the First World War, the extreme climate on the coast of Hudson Bay and heavy silting along the fast-flowing river.

The Hudson Bay Railway was originally intended to terminate at Port Nelson but was later diverted north instead to the mouth of the Churchill River, where the Port of Churchill was completed in 1931.

Piwniuk said it would be easier to build along the Nelson River now that Manitoba Hydro has built dams along the Nelson River, claiming there is less silt in the river now.

Lore also said the Nelson River is a preferable site because it has less permafrost along the route than the northernmost reach of the Hudson Bay Railway.

Hydro development and climate change, however, have made it even more difficult to build infrastructure along the Nelson River now than during the 1910s, said Tricia Stadnyk, a University of Calgary hydrologist and former Manitoban.

Nelson producing more sediment: hydrologist

Manitoba Hydro’s diversion of part of the Churchill River’s flow into the Nelson River drainage basin in 1973 has increased the volume of the Nelson by about 25 per cent, increasing the silt within the river, Stadnyk said.

Less permafrost along the Nelson has also loosened up the sediment along the lower reaches of the Nelson, she added.

“That has actually decreased the cohesiveness of the sediments and it actually makes it easier for the banks to erode and fall into the river,” Stadnyk said Friday in an interview from Calgary.

“That’s generally speaking why that project was abandoned in the first place,” she said, referring to Port Nelson.

A river with its banks in the foreground.
The Nelson River flows north from Lake Winnipeg to Hudson Bay. The volume of the river was increased in 1973, when part of the Churchill River’s flow was diverted into the Nelson. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

Lore, however, said the Port of Churchill remains unsuitable for shipping because the natural harbour is too small to allow container ships to turn around.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence nonetheless said he remains bullish about the Port of Churchill’s future.

“We’ve been pleased to have the strong support of the Government of Canada, the Government of Manitoba and Indigenous and northern leaders for many years as we focus on strengthening the Arctic Gateway Trade Corridor through Canada’s only deep-sea Arctic port in Churchill,” said Spence, who is also the board chair for Arctic Gateway Group, which operates the port and railway.

“It’s positive to see other provinces and First Nations engage in opportunities of looking north for trade corridors, but we remain confident in our plans for progress.”

Dan Vandal, the federal Minister of Northern Affairs, expressed support for Arctic Gateway.

“This unique, community-ownership model represents ongoing steps forward on the path to reconciliation for all Canadians and it is a critical and underused infrastructure connection that is essential for supply chains, local food security, regional connectivity,” Vandal said Friday in a statement.

“Input and involvement, from the very beginning, by local First Nation communities and leaders is essential in nation-building projects like these.”

An official with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakinak, which represents northern First Nations, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

NeeStaNan, meanwhile, has the support of both Gambler First Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation, according to Piwniuk. 

Morris Beardy, Fox Lake’s chief, is listed as a board member of Arctic Gateway. Spence would not say whether he has left the organization.

NeeStaNan is also represented on its website by actor and musician Tom Jackson, who said in a promotional video the project is more than a trade corridor.

“It is the ability to free up potash, grain, energy and distribute them to a world being held hostage to a political agenda,” said Jackson, who refers to himself in the video as a strategic advisor to the project.

A man in a plaid shirt stands in front of trees.
Eric Reder of the Wilderness Committee says shipping natural gas or bitumen to the Hudson Bay would be an environmental disaster. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Environmental organizations, meanwhile, panned the idea of shipping petroleum products out of Hudson Bay.

“The idea of putting bitumen into Hudson Bay is a terrible idea. There’s just no way that Hudson Bay can handle a bitumen spill or a cleanup,” said Eric Reder, a campaigner for the Wilderness Committee in Winnipeg.

Reder said when the idea of shipping oil by rail through Churchill arose during Stephen Harper’s time as Canada’s prime minister, officials were advised it would take three days for cleanup crews based in Quebec City to respond to a spill in Hudson Bay. 

By that time, Reder said, the strong tides in the bay would have dispersed oil to the point where it could not be collected.

Reder also said a second port on Hudson Bay would disrupt endangered polar bear and caribou habitat. He condemned the provincial government for supporting NeeStaNan.

“It seems like Premier Stefanson and the Manitoba government are living in a completely different world than the rest of us,” Reder said.

“Climate change is here now and it’s affecting us and we have to act. No matter how clean and green the existing hydro electricity is in the province, we can’t tie ourselves to fossil fuel projects out of Alberta. It’s a terrible idea.”

Chris Debicki, vice-president of environmental organization Oceans North, said in a statement the consideration of a new Hudson Bay port “ignores the fact that Manitoba already has a railroad to tidewater and a functioning port owned and operated by responsible partner communities at the Port of Churchill.”

He said it doesn’t make sense to double the environmental impact of rail and port facilities instead of improving the Port of Churchill.

A map shows the path of the Nelson River as it flows north from Lake Winnipeg past Gillam to the mouth of Hudson Bay.
A map shows the path of the Nelson River as it flows north from Lake Winnipeg past Gillam to the mouth of Hudson Bay. (Natural Resources Canada)