Trudeau, Pallister talk northern rail and health care funding

Trudeau said Ottawa is willing to use all options to repair a flooded-out rail line that has cut off the community of Churchill, Man.

WINNIPEG – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Saturday the federal government is willing to use all options to force Denver-based Omnitrax Inc. to repair a flooded-out rail line that has cut off the subarctic community of Churchill, Man.

The remote town’s 900 residents have had to have goods flown in, at much higher cost, since the rail line was severely damaged by high water this spring. The rail line was once federally-owned but was sold to Omnitrax in 1997.

Omnitrax has estimated repairs at between $20-$60 million and has said it cannot afford the cost.

After a half-hour meeting with Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, Trudeau said the federal government will demand Omnitrax follow through.

“Omintrax has legal obligations to clean up and to repair the tracks. That is something that we are very serious about making sure that Omnitrax lives up to,” Trudeau said.

The prime minister was asked whether the government might sue Omnitrax for breach of contract if the repairs are not made.

“We’re looking at all options as we ensure that contracts and obligations are respected and fulfilled,” he told reporters.

“We will be using the tools at our disposal to ensure and stand up for the people of Churchill,” he added when pressed further.

Churchill mayor Michael Spence said in a news release that he spoke with Trudeau on Friday night, and that the prime minister noted the importance of the railway to Manitoba’s north.

The rail line was the main topic of conversation for Trudeau during his meeting with Pallister. But the two men also discussed areas of disagreement, such as Manitoba’s refusal to sign on to the national health accord that outlines health care payments to the provinces for the next 10 years.

Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government is the lone holdout. Other provinces that have signed on since the deal was announced last fall have been given extra money for services such as home care and mental health.

Trudeau said he is confident he and Pallister will reach an agreement soon.

“I’m very optimistic we’re going to get to a positive resolution on the health care issue in short order,” the prime minister said.

Pallister said he remains opposed to the federal offer because it raises federal health care payments to the provinces by only three per cent a year. Under a previous accord struck a decade ago, the payments went up six per cent a year.

Still, he said, an agreement could soon be reached that would allow Manitoba to access the extra money for home care and mental health services without giving its nod of approval to the three per cent increases.

“We’re not going to likely ever agree to that. But on the separate deal, in terms of … mental health support, home care, we’ve been in negotiation on that for some time, as you know. And, further discussion today, and we’re both optimistic that our officials can arrive at an amicable resolution of the issues there,” the premier said.

Manitoba received the three per cent increase automatically this year despite its lack of an agreement with Ottawa.

Trudeau attended a community event Saturday where he announced $35 million — just under half the total cost — for a horticultural attraction called Canada’s Diversity Gardens at Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg.

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