In an uncertain world, Saskatchewan needs resilient trade corridors and strong connections to global markets more than ever.
The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic caused supply chains and shipments to slow worldwide which led to immediate shortages of basic necessities. Throughout the pandemic, Canada’s supply chains have been further disrupted by an ongoing shipping container shortage, rail blockades, record congestion at ports, wildfires and floods in B.C., soaring costs, droughts in the prairies, and border blockades.
To aid in Canada’s economic recovery and in response to the present global supply chain crisis, Minister of Transportation, Omar Alghabra announced that the Government of Canada was providing $1.9 billion of additional funding to the National Trade Corridors Fund (NTCF) and launched a new call for proposals to increase the resiliency of the country’s supply chains on Dec. 9.
Created in 2017, the $4.2 billion NTCF is a component of the government’s $180 billion Investing in Canada Plan. Representing Canada’s long-term commitment to work with stakeholders on strategic infrastructure projects, 98 investments have already been made through NTCF to address bottlenecks, vulnerabilities, and congestion along Canada’s trade corridors. Algharbra announced the new NTCF call for proposals, “Increasing the fluidity of Canada’s supply chains,” at the Western Transportation Advisory Council’s (WESTAC) bi-annual forum held in Vancouver. WESTAC’s members include transportation leaders from carriers and logistics providers, ports and terminals, shippers, as well as labour unions, and the three levels of government who come together to discuss the issues impacting their sector.
Founded in 1973 by cabinet ministers and business leaders, WESTAC’s president and CEO, Lindsay Kislock says their cooperation to define the challenges impeding the efficient movement of goods within and between the Western provinces continues to this day.
“If you can’t get your product to market it doesn’t help you very much, it doesn’t create jobs, it doesn’t help your economy,” Kislock says.
“Saskatchewan’s government and business connections to the Port of Vancouver, through all the intermediary steps along the way were limited so this group, WESTAC, brought together everybody who was interested in trade transportation.”
She believes that its members’ collaboration is so important because none of the issues they face can be solved by one organization. Because these complicated problems require multifaceted solutions, Kislock says the additional funding and new calls under the NTCF signal the federal government’s continued interest in being a part of the solution.
In September 2021, WESTAC conducted its fifth annual Compass Report to examine the views of the transportation sector’s senior executives, with 90 per cent of those surveyed identifying aging infrastructure and insufficient capacity as major challenges.
In addition to the survey’s key findings on the impact COVID-19 has had on every organization’s operations, climate change, and workforce issues, the Compass Report also identified the need for a new comprehensive strategy for Western Canada’s trade corridors.
Kislock believes that a national “Western corridor strategy” would not only provide a cohesive plan for collaboration to tackle the supply chain crisis but could also support the NTCF’s funding for infrastructure projects.
“I think planning is important because if you invest [into one project] but you don’t understand the whole network you could just be moving the problem farther down the system, and you might need to make another investment to maximize the [initial] investment that you intended to make,” Kislock says.
She says WESTAC can participate in helping develop a strategy around investment in physical infrastructure, but to resolve the interdependent economic, social, and environmental impacting the transportation sector “we also need a digital strategy.”
“There’s building roads or infrastructure, there’s also maximizing or optimizing your infrastructure,” Kislock says. “Then we should also have a people strategy [because] it doesn’t matter if you have the best technologically enabled roads and bridges in the world if you don’t have people to run them or to do what you need to move goods through that system.”
Kislock believes an opportunity for leveraging digital solutions to improve the transportation system’s performance includes finding ways to merge and make the data different information ports, railroads, and companies already collect accessible to other organizations without compromising their confidentiality.
Pointing to the rapid response to repair the highways and infrastructure damaged by the November 2021 British Columbia flooding event, Kislock thinks we can learn from this emergency to expeditiously develop projects to increase the resiliency of Canada’s supply chains, which can take seven to 10 years under normal circumstances.
An example of how the NTCF’s past calls for proposals have improved the safety and traffic flow within Saskatchewan to its biggest trading partner and neighbor, the United States, are the recent Highway 6 and 39 Corridor improvements.
While the Government of Saskatchewan’s 2030 Growth Plan and budget aims to improve 10,000 kilometres of highway within the province by the next decade, it also received $53.3 million in federal funding through the NTCF for these trade and resiliency corridor improvements.
“It keeps our goods moving and that’s what we have to do, whether they’re running out to the ports on the coast for export that way or down to the United States,” says Fred Bradshaw, Minister of Highways and Minister responsible for Saskatchewan Water Security Agency.
From Regina to the international border passing lanes and twinning began being added in 2018 “to help ease congestion” with intersection improvements, access consolidations, and service road construction happening between Estevan and the South Regina Bypass.
The recent 2022-23 Budget includes $846 million to operate, maintain, build and improve the province’s roads and highways with 1,100 km of improvements to the provincial highway network planned for this year.
Although Saskatchewan’s exports typically run east, west, or south, with the climactic events that delayed shipments to Pacific ports, in terms of supply chain resilience planning Bradshaw believes in the potential of shipping North through Hudson’s Bay and that “we should enhance some of the existing corridors, and one of them would be the Port of Churchill.”
Fortunately, Canada’s only deep-water Arctic shipping port has already been closed for two years as the rail links to the docks are being extensively rehabilitated and improved with the laying of Geocell technology, a 3D honeycomb-shaped plastic material that stabilizes soils beneath the railways.
The Port of Churchill and the 627-mile Hudson Bay Railway (HBR) running from The Pas, Man. to the port were recently acquired by the Arctic Gateway Group (AGG), which is owned by the OneNorth Partnership, an organization between 29 Indigenous and 12 non-Indigenous communities located along the HBR.
Before beginning construction at the port in November, AGG received a $40 million investment through Indigenous Services Canada’s Strategic Partnerships Initiative for the rehabilitation of the HBR, where AGG’s CEO, Sheldon Affleck says they are deploying Geocel as well.
“It creates these sort of six-inch canisters that you fill with a granular product that doesn’t expand or contract and when it’s compacted hard you basically have [something] like a concrete foundation expect it doesn’t crack, it will float on and spread the load over a large area, and it has been used for many years in northern Alberta for building roads into swampy areas,” Affleck says. In 2004 Affleck co-founded Mobil Grain Ltd., which manufactured modular, transportable grain terminals to process commodities for export, and served as president until its acquisition by AGT Food and Ingredients in 2015, and continued in that role for AGT until he retired in 2020.
According to Affleck, the first vessel Mobil Grain shipped went through the Port of Churchill and the company shipped the country’s first export of durum wheat after the Canadian Wheat Board’s trade monopoly was dissolved in 2015. With his familiarity with the port and experience exporting grain, Affleck believes the Port of Churchill is a “diamond in the rough, and some parts aren’t even that rough.”
“If you go there with an export frame of mind, it’s incredible to think that I can take a two-hour flight from Regina and I’m at the saltwater where we’re exporting very efficiently to all of Europe, [and] basically anywhere except Asia is efficient,” says Affleck.
The business of the future
Not only could enhancing the Port of Churchill help strengthen Canada’s connections to global markets by providing an alternative to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence seaway but the AGG is renewing its efforts to diversify instead of predominantly exporting grain.
With a shorter operating season due to its northern location and farmers’ annual harvest being exported in the fall, Affleck wants to maximize this timeframe by moving products such as canola and wood pellets, and CanaPux, an innovative technology for safely transporting extra-heavy crude oil as floatable, solid pellets to global markets.
“It’s a non-hazardous product for the environment, it’s better than grain if you had a cleanup to do because you can pick the individual pieces up,” Affleck says. “It’s noteworthy that Canada has about 52 per cent of the world’s heavy oil … the world needs it and Churchill is the place to do it from.”
He says the season can also be extended and maximized by icebreaking and Mobil Grain shipped goods through Churchill and Hudson Bay on ice-class vessels that were capable of powering through over a foot and a half of arctic ice. With these enhancements improving the fluidity of Canada’s supply chains, increasing economic activity in the north, and international trade being further destabilized by Russia’s illegal military aggression, Affleck says that Canada’s only Arctic port could capitalize on these changes while contributing to the country’s territorial sovereignty as well.
“When you look at the Arctic and then you look at the aggression that is taking [place] Canada’s not in a good position to even defend our rights in Arctic waters,” Affleck says. “In my opinion, if we had the presence of the Canadian Coast Guard at the Port of Churchill for safety, which we currently do not, and we complete the track rehabilitation on our 180 mile weak link between Gillam and Churchill by next year, the future for exporting and importing all types of commodities from Churchill with an extended season is very bright.”