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Churchill, Manitoba

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Churchill, Manitoba

Welcome to Churchill sign
Welcome to Churchill sign
Nickname(s): "Polar Bear Capital of the World", "Beluga Capital of the World", "C-Town"[1]
Churchill is located in Manitoba
Churchill in Manitoba
Country Canada
Province Manitoba
Region Northern
Census division 23
 • Type Town Council
 • Mayor Michael Spence
 • MP Niki Ashton
 • MLA Eric Robinson
 • Total 53.96 km2 (20.83 sq mi)
Elevation[3] 0 m (0 ft)
Highest elevation 29 m (94 ft)
Lowest elevation 0 m (0 ft)
Population (2011)[2]
 • Total 813
 • Density 15.1/km2 (39/sq mi)
Time zone CST (UTC−6)
 • Summer (DST) DST (UTC−5)
Postal code R0B
Area code(s) 204
Website Town of Churchill home page

Churchill (Inuit: Kuugjuaq)[4] is a town in northern Manitoba, Canada on the west shore of Hudson Bay, roughly 110 kilometres from the Manitoba/Nunavut border. It is most famous for the many polar bears that move toward the shore from inland in the autumn, leading to the nickname "Polar Bear Capital of the World" that has helped its growing tourism industry.


  • Geography 1
  • History 2
  • Environment 3
    • Aurora Borealis 3.1
    • Climate 3.2
  • Economy 4
    • Ecotourism 4.1
      • Polar bears 4.1.1
      • Beluga whales 4.1.2
      • Birds 4.1.3
    • Health care 4.2
    • Arctic research 4.3
  • Transportation 5
  • Demographics and culture 6
  • Local media 7
    • Radio 7.1
    • Newspapers 7.2
  • Notable people associated with Churchill 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12


Churchill is located along the Hudson Bay at the 58th parallel north far above where most Canadian populated areas are located. It is located at the exact parallel 58° 46 N' as Swedish east coast town Nyköping that has a distinctly warmer climate as well as just above the northern tip of the Scottish mainland at Thurso, that has a very marine climate in comparison. Churchill is located far from any other towns or cities, with Thompson a good bit further south being the closest larger settlement. Province capital Winnipeg is distant even by airplane at nine degrees further south and a bit west.


A variety of nomadic Arctic people lived and hunted in this region. The Thule people arrived around AD 1000 from the west, and later evolved into the present-day Inuit culture. The Dene people arrived around 500 from farther north. Since before the time of European contact, the region around Churchill has been predominantly inhabited by the Chipewyan and Cree natives.

Europeans first arrived in the area in 1619 when a Danish expedition led by Jens Munk wintered near where Churchill would later stand. Only 3 of 64 expedition members survived the winter and sailed one of the expedition's two ships, the sloop Lamprey, back to Denmark.[5] Danish archaeologists in 1964 discovered remains of the abandoned ship, the Unicorn (a frigate), in the tidal flats some miles from the mouth of the river. The discoveries were all taken to Denmark; some are on display at the National Museum in Copenhagen.

After an abortive attempt in 1688-89, in 1717 the Hudson's Bay Company built the first permanent settlement, Churchill River Post, a log fort a few miles upstream from the mouth of the Churchill River. The trading post and river were named after John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Winston Churchill), who was governor of the Hudson's Bay Company in the late seventeenth century. The fort was built mostly to capitalize on the North American fur trade, out of the reach of York Factory. It dealt mainly with the Chipewyan natives living north of the boreal forest. Much of the fur came from as far away as Lake Athabasca and the Rocky Mountains.

As part of the Anglo-French dispute for North America, in 1731–1741 the original fort was replaced with Prince of Wales Fort, a large stone fort on the western peninsula at the mouth of the river. In 1782 the fort was captured by the French, led by La Pérouse. Since the British, under Samuel Hearne, were greatly outnumbered and in any event were not soliders, they surrendered without firing a shot. The leaders agreed that Hearne would be released and given safe passage to England, along with 31 British civilians, in the sloop Severn, on condition that he immediately publish his story "A Journey to the Northern Ocean". In return, the British promised that the same number of French prisoners would be released and a British navigator familiar with the waters safely conduct the French from Hudson's Bay at a time of year when the French risked becoming trapped in winter ice.[6] The French made an unsuccessful attempt to demolish the fort. The worst effect was on the natives, who had become dependent on trade goods from the fort, and many of them starved. Extensive reconstruction and stabilization of the fort's remains have taken place since the 1950s.

In 1783, Hearne returned to build a new fort, a short distance upriver. Due to its distance from areas of heavy competition between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, it remained a stable, if not profitable, source of furs.

Between the years of decline in the fur trade and surfacing of western agricultural success, Churchill phased into and then back out of obsolescence. After decades of frustration over the monopoly and domination of the Canadian Pacific Railway, western Canadian governments banded together and argued for the creation of a major new northern shipping harbour on Hudson Bay, linked by rail from Winnipeg. Initially Port Nelson was selected for this purpose in 1912. After several years of effort and millions of dollars, this project was abandoned and Churchill was selected as the alternative after World War One. Surveys by the Canadian Hydrographic Service ship CSS Acadia opened the way for safe navigation. However, construction and use of the railroad was extremely slow and the rail line itself did not come to Churchill until 1929.

Even once the link from farm to port was completed, commercial shipping took many more years to pick up. In 1932 Grant MacEwan was the first person to cross through Churchill customs as a passenger. This was purely due to his determination in taking the Hudson Bay route to Saskatchewan from Britain—most passengers returned via the Saint Lawrence River.

In 1942, the United States Army Air Corps established a base called Fort Churchill, located five miles east of the town. After World War II, this base was jointly operated by Canada and the United States for experimental and training purposes and was in operation until the mid-1960s.

Naval Radio Station Churchill, callsign CFL, was activated as an ionospheric study station by the RCN in support of the U-boat HFDF net and became operational on August 1, 1943. Around 1949, Churchill became part of the Canadian SUPRAD (signals intelligence) network and remained in that role until it closed its doors in 1968. The Operations and Accommodations building still remains today but is abandoned.

This area was also the site of the Churchill Rocket Research Range, part of Canadian-American atmospheric research. Its first rocket was launched in 1956, and it continued to host launches for research until closing in 1984. The site of the former rocket range now hosts the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a facility for Arctic research. Churchill still hosts a rocket range and subsequent Spaceport Canada effort; currently located at Fort Churchill.

In the 1950s, the British government considered establishing a site near Churchill for testing their early nuclear weapons, before choosing Australia instead.[7]


Polar bears on the ice

Churchill is situated at the estuary of the Churchill River at Hudson Bay. The small community stands at an ecotone, on the Hudson Plains, at the juncture of three ecoregions: the boreal forest to the south, the Arctic tundra to the northwest, and the Hudson Bay to the north. Wapusk National Park is located to the south of the town.

The landscape around Churchill is influenced by shallow soils caused by a combination of subsurface permafrost and Canadian Shield rock formation. The black spruce dominant tree cover is sparse and stunted from these environmental constraints. There is also a noticeable ice pruning effect to the trees.[8] The area also offers sport fishing. Several tour operators offer expeditions on land, sea and air, using all terrain vehicles, tundra buggies, boats, canoes, helicopters and even ultralight aircraft.

Aurora Borealis

Like all northern communities in Canada, Churchill can sometimes see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) when there is a high amount of solar activity. Visibility also depends on the sky being dark enough to see them, which usually precludes their visibility in the summer due to twilight all night long.


Churchill has a borderline subarctic climate (Köppen climate classification: Dfc) due to its location above the tree line with long very cold winters, and short, cool to mild summers.[9] Churchill's winters are colder than a location at a latitude of 58 degrees north should warrant, given its coastal location. The shallow Hudson Bay freezes, eliminating any maritime moderation. Prevailing northerly winds from the North Pole jet across the frozen bay and chill it to a −26.0 °C (−14.8 °F)[10] January average. Juneau, Alaska, by contrast, is also located at 58 degrees north but is moderated by the warmer and deeper Pacific Ocean. Juneau's −3.5 °C (25.7 °F)[11] January average temperature is a full 22.5 °C (40.5 °F) warmer than Churchill's. Yet in summer, when the Hudson Bay thaws, Churchill's summer is moderated. Churchill's 12.7 °C (54.9 °F)[10] July average temperature is almost the same as Juneau's 13.8 °C (56.8 °F)[11] July average. Churchill lies just south of the parallel of Swedish capital Stockholm, which has a significantly milder climate, with all months being significantly warmer than that of coastal Northern Manitoba. This is due to the lack of influence of the Gulf Stream on the Hudson Bay climate.


Tourism and ecotourism are major contributors to the local economy, with the polar bear season (October/November) being the largest. Tourists also visit to watch beluga whales in the Churchill River in June/July. The area is also popular for birdwatchers and to view the aurora borealis. The Port of Churchill is the terminus for the Hudson Bay Railroad operated by Omnitrax. The port facilities handle shipments of grain and other commodities around the world. The Northern Studies Centre also attracts visitors and academics from around the world interested in sub-Arctic and Arctic research. The town also has a health centre, several hotels, tour operators, and restaurants, to serve locals and visitors.


Churchill is situated along Manitoba's 1,400 km (870 mi) coastline, on Hudson Bay at the meeting of three major biomes: marine, boreal forest and tundra,[12][13][14][15] each supporting a variety of flora and fauna. Each year, 10,000–12,000 eco-tourists visit, about 400-500 of whom are birders.

Polar bears

Starting in the 1980s, the town developed a sizable tourism industry focused on the migration habits of the polar bear. Tourists can safely view polar bears from specially modified buses known as tundra buggies. Use of the buggies helps sustain local tourism, but can also cause damage to the local ecosystem when driven outside the established trails. October and early November are the most feasible times to see polar bears, thousands of which wait on the vast peninsula until the water freezes on Hudson Bay so that they can return to hunt their primary food source, ringed seals. There are also opportunities to see polar bears in the non-winter months, with tours via boat visiting the coastal areas where polar bears can be found both on land and swimming in the sea.

Many locals even leave their cars unlocked in case someone needs to make a quick escape from the polar bears in the area.[16] Local authorities maintain a so-called "polar bear jail" where bears (mostly adolescents) who persistently loiter in or close to town, are held after being tranquilised, pending release back into the wild when the bay freezes over. It is the subject of a poem, Churchill Bear Jail, by Salish Chief Victor A. Charlo.[17] Polar bears were once thought to be solitary animals that would avoid contact with other bears except for mating. In the Churchill region, however, many alliances between bears are made in the fall. These friendships last only until the ice forms, then it is every bear for himself to hunt ringed seals.

Beluga whales

Thousands of beluga whales, which move into the warmer waters of the Churchill River estuary during July and August to calf, are a major summer attraction. Polar bears are present as well, but can only be seen via helicopter tours at this time of year.


Churchill is also a destination for bird watchers from late May until August.[18] Birders have recorded more than 270 species within a 25 mi (40 km) radius of Churchill, including snowy owl, tundra swan, American golden plover and gyrfalcon. Plus, more than 100 birds, including parasitic jaeger, Smith's longspur, stilt sandpiper, and Harris's sparrow, nest there.[19]

Health care

The town has a modern health centre, the Churchill Regional Health Authority, which employs about 100 people. It provides 44 beds, dental care and diagnostic laboratories to service the residents of Churchill and the communities of the Kivalliq Region (Keewatin) of Nunavut.[20]

Arctic research

The Northern Studies Centre is a non-profit research and education facility located 23 km (14 mi) east of the town of Churchill. They provide accommodations, meals, equipment rentals, and logistical support to scientific researchers working on a diverse range of topics of interest to northern science.[21]


The town is the northern terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway owned by railroad holding company, OmniTRAX. It is a useful link in the export of Canadian grain to European markets, with rail-sea connections made at Churchill.[22] The Port of Churchill is also owned by OmniTRAX. It is Canada's principal seaport on the Arctic Ocean. The Winnipeg – Churchill train, a passenger train operated by Via Rail provides service between the Churchill railway station and Union Station in Winnipeg 3 times per week, a 1,700 km (1,100 mi) journey that takes about 40 hours.[23][24]

Via Rail train in Churchill station

Churchill is the only Arctic Ocean seaport connected to the North American railroad grid. It is capable of servicing panamax vessels.[25] Ice restricts navigation from mid-autumn to mid-summer.[26][27] Marine transportation companies, Northern Transportation Company Limited[28] (NTCL), headquartered in Hay River, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut Sealink and Supply (NSSI),[29] both have bases in Churchill and provide sealift to the Eastern Arctic and to a few Central Arctic communities.

There are no roads from Churchill leading to the rest of Canada.[22] Aside from the aforementioned Via Rail service, Churchill is serviced by two scheduled airlines offering flights to and from Winnipeg and to points north of Churchill in Nunavut. Calm Air offers service from Churchill Airport with daily flights to Winnipeg and the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut.

The government of Manitoba has proposed that the Port of Churchill could serve as an "Arctic gateway", accepting container ships from Asia whose containers would then be transported south by rail to major destinations in North America.[30] Churchill has been used to transship grain since 1929.[25]

On October 31, 2012, the Financial Post reported that due to delays in the approval of several new pipelines from Alberta's oil fields, oil industry planners were considering shipping oil, by rail, to Churchill, for loading on panamax oil tankers.[25] Under this plan icebreakers would extend the shipping season.

Demographics and culture

As of the 2006 Canada Census, just under half (44.10%) of the population was non-native and the rest (56.41%) were Aboriginal, mostly Chipewyan and Swampy Cree (33.85%), with some Métis (16.41%) and a small number of Inuit (5.64%).[31]

Hunting, trapping and fishing is still an important activity to most of these residents; although there are some summer trails, snowmobiles are their main way of transport. The main language is English and several residents also speak Cree language.[31]

The town has a modern multiplex centre housing a public library, hospital, health centre, day care, swimming pool, ice hockey rink, curling rinks, gym, basketball courts, indoor playground, one cinema and a cafeteria. Nearby is the "Eskimo Museum", operated by the Diocese of Churchill-Baie d'Hudson, with over 850 high quality Inuit carvings on permanent display. The exhibits include historic and contemporary sculptures of stone, bone, and ivory, as well as archaeological and wildlife specimens.[32] Parks Canada visitor centre also has artifacts on display and makes use of audiovisual presentations of various topics involving the region's natural and archaeological history.

By the late 1980s, both the local government and Parks Canada had successfully educated its population on polar bear safety, significantly reducing lethal confrontations and fuelling ecotourism in such a way that the community and the polar bears have benefited.

Local media



Churchill has one newspaper called The Hudson Bay Post. It is a monthly newspaper, 'published occasionally', according to the front page. In the late 1950s the first local paper, the weekly Churchill Observer, was produced by an avocational journalist, Jack Rogers, at DRNL (Defence Research Northern Laboratories) and continued for some years even after his departure. Later another small paper, the Taiga Times, was published for a few years.

Notable people associated with Churchill

See also


  1. ^ Brian Vinh Tien Trinh (2014-02-27). "Churchill, Manitoba, Canada's Polar Bear Capital, As Seen From Google Streetview". The Huffington Post Canada. Retrieved 2015-01-02. 
  2. ^ a b "Census Profile". Statistics Canada. Retrieved 29 October 2012. 
  3. ^ Maximum elevation at the airport as Canada Flight Supplement. Effective 0901Z 24 July 2014 to 0901Z 18 September 2014
  4. ^ Issenman, Betty. Sinews of Survival: The living legacy of Inuit clothing. UBC Press, 1997. pp. 252–254
  5. ^ Mowat, Farley (1973). Ordeal by ice; the search for the Northwest Passage. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd.  
  6. ^ McGoogan, Ken (2004). Ancient Mariner. Bantam Press. pp. 299–307.  
  7. ^ O'Brien, John Clearwater and David O'Brien; Clearwater, John (July–August 2003). "O Lucky Canada – Britain considered testing nuclear weapons in northern Manitoba but found the climate in Australia much more agreeable" (PDF). Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 59 (4): 60–65.  
  8. ^ C. Michael Hogan, ,, ed. Nicklas Stromberg, November 2008Black Spruce: Picea mariana
  9. ^ "Strategies for revegetation of disturbed gravel areas in climate stressed subarctic environments with special reference to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada: a literature review" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  10. ^ a b c "Churchill A". Canadian Climate Normals 1981–2010.  
  11. ^ a b NOAA weather. Temperature averages for Juneau International Airport 1971-2000
  12. ^ "Churchill, tundra biome". Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  13. ^ "Churchill, boreal forest biome". Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  14. ^ "Chrurchill, Marine, Tundra, and Boreal Forest". Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  15. ^ "Integrated Management Planning in Canada's Northern Marine Environment: Engaging Coastal Communities" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  16. ^ Smith, John. "Churchill offers best glimpse of polar bears". Toronto Sun. Retrieved 10 February 2014. 
  17. ^ Charlo, Victor A (2008). Put Seý (Good Enough), Poems. Kalispell, Montana: Many Voices Press,  
  18. ^ Bird watching
  19. ^ Kramer, Gary. "Where to Go Birdwatching at Churchill on Hudson Bay, Manitoba, Canada". Worl Birder's Magazine. Retrieved 2008-10-13. 
  20. ^ Churchill Regional Health Authority
  21. ^ "Northern Studies Centre". 2007-01-05. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  22. ^ a b Howard Witt (1987-11-08). "Feed This Town's Kitty, But Not The Bears".  
  23. ^ "Winnipeg-Churchill train". Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  24. ^ "Winnipeg – Churchill train timetable, northbound" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  25. ^ a b c Claudia Cattaneo (2012-10-31). "Oil producers eye Arctic backup plan as pipelines face uncertain future".  
  26. ^ "Navigation Ends At Churchill, Thursday".  
  27. ^ "Shipping Report for Churchill, Manitoba for the 2000 navigation season".  
  28. ^ "NTCL". NTCL. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  29. ^ "Desgagnés Transarctik". Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  30. ^ "New Arctic gateway". November 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  31. ^ a b "2006 Aboriginal Population Profile". Retrieved 2009-04-26. 
  32. ^ "Eskimo Museum". 1960-09-14. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  33. ^ Scott, Maureen. "Peter Mansbridge One on One". Good Life Mississauga (Metroland Media Group) (May/June 2010). Retrieved June 24, 2014. 

Further reading

  • Bussidor, Ida and Bilgen-Reinart, Űstűn. "Night Spirits - The Story of the Relocation of the Sayisi Dene" The University of Manitoba Press ISBN 0-88755-643-4
  • Dredge, L. A. Field guide to the Churchill region, Manitoba glaciations, sea level changes, permafrost landforms, and archaeology of the Churchill and Gillam areas. Ottawa, Canada: Geological Survey of Canada, 1992. ISBN 0-660-14565-0
  • Eliasson, Kelsey. Polar Bears of Churchill (Munck's Cafe, 2005). ISBN 0-9780757-0-6
  • MacEwan, Grant. The Battle for the Bay (Prairie Books, 1975). ISBN 0-919306-51-9
  • Will Ferguson. Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Excursions in the Great Weird North (Canongate Books Ltd, 2006). ISBN 1-84195-690-2
  • Mac Iver, Angus & Bernice, Churchill on Hudson Bay, revised edition,2006, ISBN 0-9780757-3-0.

External links

  • Town of Churchill home page
  • Town of Churchill Community Profile
  • Churchill Northern Studies Centre
  • Map of Churchill at Statcan
  • Churchill travel guide from Wikivoyage
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