Churchill is located along the Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Churchill river on the 58th parallel north far above where most Canadian populated areas are located. Churchill is located far from any other towns or cities, with Thompson, approximately 400 km (250 mi) to the south, being the closest larger settlement. Manitoba's provincial capital, Winnipeg, is approximately 1,000 km (620 mi) south of Churchill.
A variety of nomadic Arctic people lived and hunted in this region. The Thule people arrived around the year 1000 from the west, and later evolved into the present-day Inuit culture. The Dene people arrived around the year 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. Danish archaeologists in 1964 discovered remains of the abandoned ship, the Unicorn (a frigate), in the tidal flats some kilometres 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 kilometres 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 soldiers, 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. 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.
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 8 km (5 mi) east of the town. After World War II, the base served several other purposes including as a Strategic Air Command facility. Following the demolition of the base it was repurposed into the town's airport.
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 multidisciplinary Arctic research.
In the 1950s, the British government considered establishing a site near Churchill for testing their early nuclear weapons, before choosing Australia instead.
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 east 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. 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.
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 subarctic climate (Köppen climate classification: Dfc) with long very cold winters, and short, cool to mild summers. 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) 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) 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) July average temperature is almost the same as Juneau's 13.8 °C (56.8 °F) July average. Churchill lies just south of the parallel of Stockholm, Sweden, and just north of that of Inverness, Scotland, both of which have a much milder climate, with all months being significantly warmer than that of coastal Northern Manitoba. This is in part 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 and November) being the largest. Tourists also visit to watch beluga whales in the Churchill River in June and 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 Churchill 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, each supporting a variety of flora and fauna. Each year, 10,000–12,000 eco-tourists visit, about 400–500 of whom are birders.
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. 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. 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.
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, and can sometimes be seen from boat tours at this time of year.
Churchill is also a destination for bird watchers from late May until August. 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.
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.
The Churchill 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.
The town is the northern terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway—owned by railway holding company, OmniTRAX since 1997. OmniTRAX announced the end of rail freight service to the port in July 2016. Weekly freight service to the town itself remained until May 2017, when floods washed out the track. During this time the port was used for the export of Canadian grain to European markets, with rail-sea connections made at Churchill. Through 2017, the Winnipeg–Churchill train, a passenger train operated by Via Rail provided service between the Churchill railway station and Union Station in Winnipeg 2 times per week, and from The Pas once per week. 1,700 km (1,100 mi) The journey from Winnipeg took about 40 hours.
The Port of Churchill—owned by OmniTRAX—was closed in 2016, leaving Canada with no Arctic ports. It was Canada's principal seaport on the Arctic Ocean since it opened circa 1930, although the idea of building such an Arctic deepwater port originated in the 19th Century.
Churchill was the only Arctic Ocean seaport connected to the North American railway grid during the years it operated. The port was capable of servicing panamax vessels. Ice restricted navigation from mid-autumn to mid-summer. Marine transportation companies, Northern Transportation Company Limited (NTCL), headquartered in Hay River, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut Sealink and Supply (NSSI), 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. 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 proposed in 2010 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. Churchill has been used to transship grain since 1929.
In October 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. Under this plan icebreakers would extend the shipping season.
Churchill experiences the highest tides in Hudson's Bay. The Churchill estuary has a narrow entrance, and ships planning to moor at the port had to execute a relatively tight 100 degree turn.
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%).
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 about one in five aboriginal residents also speak Cree.
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. 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.
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.