This paper explores changes in the transport infrastructure of the remote town of Churchill in northern Manitoba, Canada. The town of about 900 residents is located on the 58th parallel north at the Hudson Bay and has become known as the “polar bear capital of the world”. Churchill is unique in terms of transportation. Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean is located there. And this port is the only port in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway network. The town, which is inaccessible via roads, only exists because of these transport infrastructures.
In 2017, when a flood washed out railway tracks, this infrastructural entanglement once again became apparent. Suddenly, Churchill was without overland access and life changed drastically. Food and other items had to be flown in at high costs and residents utilized snowmobile trails to reduce transportation costs. The port had to close, people lost their jobs and families left. The town negotiated with the province, the state and the company which owned the railway to get the tracks fixed. After 18 months, they were finally repaired. In 2021, however, the port again was closed for grain shipping due to renovations.
By discussing results of a first ethnographic field trip to Churchill, this paper focuses on the failures and promises of transport infrastructures. Churchill is one of several field sites in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale through an anthropological lens.
I wake up because a bright light is shining directly in my face. For a second, I am not sure where I am. Then I remember: I am in Canada, in the province of Manitoba, on the train from the capital Winnipeg to the small northern town of Churchill at the Hudson Bay. I am in my cabin, in the sleeping car with the window blinds open so I can see the subarctic night sky. The train must have stopped at one of the small places along its way. I look at the clock, it’s 2:30 a.m. I am 40 hours on the train and there are only about eight hours to go.
Budka, P. (2021). Anthropological notes on digital and transport infrastructures in remote communities. Paper at Anthropology of Technology Conference, Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University, 4-5 November.
This paper explores the role of digital and transport infrastructures, as operational systems of technological objects (Larkin, 2013), in remote communities in Canada. In doing so, it considers anthropological insights into the relationship between “the technical”, “the infrastructural” and “the sociocultural”.
The development and maintenance of technological infrastructures, for instance, also include the creation of social relations and organisational partnerships. And a deeper understanding of related processes of socio-technical change and continuity requires anthropologically informed contextualisation and ethnographic engagement.
This paper discusses aspects of the similarities and differences of digital and transport infrastructures by building on fieldwork on the development and use of digital infrastructures and related services in remote First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario and by including preparatory work for a project on the affordances of transport infrastructures in the Canadian North.