Letters from Churchill, MB: Adjusting to the dangers of nature

By Brennan McCurry

Recently I was planning on visiting the polar bear holding facility in town, which is commonly known as the “polar bear jail,” as it houses bears that are caught in bear traps or found in town. However, the day I was scheduled to visit, a man in Arviat, Nunavut (north of Churchill, approximately 45 minutes away by plane), was attacked by a polar bear and lost his life defending his children.

This tragedy has made me re-examine the way living in northern Canada alters one’s own lifestyle. Churchill is known by many as the polar bear capital of the world, as it is situated on a natural migration pattern of the bears. The part of the Hudson Bay that Churchill sits on is the first to freeze in the fall. As such, it allows the bears access to food sources earliest in the year.

Photo by Alex Berger [CC BY-NC 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/), modified under terms of license, via Flickr].

I have found that the town itself works very hard to strike a balance between safety and accessibility for tourists. Coming into town by plane, the first thing that I noticed was a large sign in the terminal of safety precautions to take. Churchill is a small town and bears are found throughout the town and in the areas around it.

Having worked in Riding Mountain National Park around black bears, many of the warnings listed were similar — make noise and travel in groups. However, a major difference is the nightly alarm that sounds through the town. A siren sounds at 10pm every night, informing everyone that evening has arrived and with it an increased amount of animal activity. This alarm paired with a polar bear skin in the airport terminal is an abrupt reminder that polar and black bears are distinctly different animals.

These safety measures are not to say that people cannot go outside at night or during the day. Churchill is a very active community with trivia nights and community events at different venues. What does change is the security of the events. After services in St Paul’s Anglican Church, parishioners always glance outside the window by the church door before going outside. This has become the habit of the parishioners, ever since a group was leaving and ended up being split apart by a bear coming through the parking lot. The first group of parishioners made it to their car while the rest waited inside for the bear to leave.

I have found outdoor events to require more changes than what I am used to. During recent National Indigenous Day celebrations, Churchill held cooking and traditional celebrations of local Indigenous nations on the beach of the Hudson Bay. All the while, security for the event was a gentleman on a quad with a firearm watching in case a bear decided that the fish and stews smelled good enough to taste.

Just as with any kind of wildlife, there are dangers present. Churchill and other parts of northern Canada work every day to keep balance between the wilds in our country and the safety and comfort of people living here.

Brennan McCurry is a second-year MDiv student at Huron University College. This summer, he is a Lay Pastor at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Churchill, Manitoba, where he also writes about his northern ministry experiences.

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