We need a ‘bigger picture’ perspective if we’re to achieve the large scale change we desperately need. The Independent was there to cover the stories that mattered most in 2014. Help us do it again this year: #GoIndy2015!
Considering Newfoundland and Labrador’s economic outlook for 2015 is dismal, and that we’re months away from federal and provincial elections, there’s good reason to look back once more on the past year if a ‘bigger picture’ perspective is of any benefit to us in making informed decisions with an eye to the future and sense of direction as we wade into what could be one of the biggest storms ever to hit the province.
To mark the end of 2014, we asked our contributors to share their picks for the most important news story of the year, the most under-reported story of the year, and what they think Newfoundland and Labrador’s New Year’s resolution, or resolutions, should be for 2015. In the first of what we intend to make an annual tradition, we share some of their responses interspersed in a recap of The Independent’s news coverage and commentary throughout the year.
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We begin in Labrador, a region comprised of Innu, Inuit and Inuit-Metis lands and both Indigenous and settler peoples totalling about 26,000. Labrador holds the vast majority of the province’s mineral resources and was colonized through the same brutal means as other First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples and territories across North America.
In the 1960s the Upper Grand River (renamed after Winston Churchill by Joey Smallwood without the consent of Labradorians) was dammed for hydroelectic power. The dam flooded sacred Indigenous lands, including burial grounds, and devastated the region’s largest river, off which many other rivers flow, consequently disrupting caribou migration and laying ruin to the larger ecosystem on which Indigenous peoples depended for food and to sustain their way of life. Today a second dam is under construction down river at Muskrat Falls, which many see as the latest major development in Newfoundland and Canada’s ongoing colonization of Nitissinan, Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut.
Once the reservoir is flooded, opponents say, the dam will emit significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change, while the methylmercury the dam will produce is likely to poison the fish, seals, sea birds and other animals the Inuit residents living downstream in the Lake Melville settlement area have depended on for thousands of years. These and many other environmental consequences and human health risks associated with mega-dams contradict the narrative presented by former Premier Danny Williams, who sold the idea of another mega-dam to the people of the province on the premise of it being “clean, green” renewable energy. In his sales pitch he omitted the parts about methane, methylmercury and colonialism.
“As a general rule,” says Independent columnist Drew Brown of his pick for the province’s most under-reported story of the year, “no one is spending enough time looking at colonialism in Labrador.”
Last January Dennis Burden, a fisherman and land defender from Port Hope Simpson, was convicted of mischief over $5,000, ordered to pay Nalcor $8,000 restitution, and sentenced to 12 months parole for chopping a Nalcor power pole near the Muskrat Falls construction site in December 2012. Burden’s act of civil disobedience, he told The Independent, was intended to bring attention to a greater injustice: the destruction of the Grand River. Read the full story, which includes an interview with Burden’s daughter about what she thinks of her father’s actions: Damned if you do, dammed if you don’t, Jan. 21.
In February Innu elder and Indigenous rights activist Elizabeth Penashue embarked on her final annual trek into nutshimit—the Labrador wilderness—where her people have hunted and foraged for centuries. Their lands and traditional way of life have been threatened and assailed by Newfoundland and Canada’s colonial governments and their policies, and to many in Labrador the loss of Muskrat Falls and Mistashipu—the Innu name for the Grand River—is but the latest chapter in the provincial and federal governments’ ongoing colonization of Indigenous lands. “I want to say goodbye. This is my last walk and I want to see [Muskrat Falls one] last time,” Penashue told The Independent, recounting the trips she and her late husband Francis made to the river. Nalcor, the province’s Crown energy corporation, denied her request to walk to the falls prior to their destruction. Read the full story: Elizabeth Penashue prepares for final walk, denied visit to Muskrat Falls, Feb. 12.
“For me, stories regarding local people’s concerns around industrial development have been among the most important — the Muskrat Falls dam threatening the traditional lifestyles and practices of Labrador’s Inuit and Innu people and the threat fracking poses to local west coast Newfoundland residents,” says Independent columnist Paula Graham. “These stories are important because they highlight how our society and our government marginalize people who don’t mindlessly accept the dominant worldview that values monetary profit above all else — above human health, culture, and ethics.”
2014 also marked the 40th anniversary of the Labrador flag (How Labrador got its colours, Jan. 20). To celebrate, people across Labrador flew the blue, white and green in their yards and on their cars and trucks. But many wanted more than that. They wanted the provincial government to acknowledge the Labrador flag, which is older than the current provincial flag, by raising it alongside the flags of NL, Canada and Britain at the two border crossings from Quebec. An unknown person scotch-taped a mini souvenir Labrador flag to a “Welcome to the Big Land” sign at the Labrador Straits entry point. Labrador West MHA and former Minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Nick McGrath told The Independent in August the government removed the Labrador flag because it had been put there “illegally”. The decision prompted dozens of Labradorians to hold flag raising ceremonies at the two entry points by the road in defiance of the province’s refusal to let them fly their flag. Having precipitated public discussion of Labrador independence with its attempt to suppress symbolic identity expression, the government decided to leave the Labrador flags alone this time.
“Every time the government denies Labradorians their just right, they get angrier and angrier…and one of these days it’s going to come to a breaking point and they’re gonna do something about it,” Mike Martin, the flag’s creator and former New Labrador Party MHA, told The Independent.
“From British colonial times they have let other people decide what’s good for them, and it’s never been good for them. So I’m happy as hell that everybody’s getting angry,” he said. “And the more the government refuses to do what Labradorians want, that’s great, because Labradorians have to stand up and take matters into their own hands.”
“Every time the government denies Labradorians their just right, they get angrier and angrier…and one of these days it’s going to come to a breaking point and they’re gonna do something about it,” he said.
“From British colonial times they have let other people decide what’s good for them, and it’s never been good for them. So I’m happy as hell that everybody’s getting angry. And the more the government refuses to do what Labradorians want, that’s great, because Labradorians have to stand up and take matters into their own hands.”
– See more at: http://theindependent.ca/2014/08/26/dissidence-grows-over-provinces-refusal-to-fly-labrador-flag/#sthash.e8NEawIJ.dpuf
More on Labrador, Muskrat Falls and Colonialism:
It’s possible that in announcing an internal review on hydraulic fracturing the provincial government thought it had appeased the anti-fracking movement that sprang to life on the Island’s west coast in 2013 when people learned junior oil exploration companies were interested in using the controversial method of oil and gas extraction to access fossil fuel reserves in the Green Point shale, which extends from Gros Morne down under the Port au Port Peninsula to Bay St. George. In a display of what’s possible when people stand together in protest, however, the movement grew and organized itself in 2014 (Residents, groups call for independent external review of fracking, May 16) and was likely a factor in the province’s decision last August to commission an “independent” external review (Government promises external review of fracking, Aug. 15).
In October Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley announced the names of the five men who would sit on the panel to review the hypothetical use of fracking in Newfoundland, but the anti-fracking movement grew even louder over concerns the panel was not in fact independent (Fracking review panel: independent of what, exactly? Nov. 19). An announcement on how the review process will proceed is expected any day now, but just last month Quebec, New Brunswick and New York all banned fracking following much more extensive reviews than our province will undertake. The decisions, some say, will reverberate throughout North America as other states and provinces consider whether or not the economic benefits are worth the risks fracking poses to human health and the environment (Fracking moratoria could cause domino effect in North America, including NL, Dec. 20).
More on fracking:
Mounting resistance to mega-projects and oil and gas development in the province is due in large part, many say, to a fundamental understanding by residents of both Newfoundland and Labrador that if we sacrifice the well-being of our environment today for short-term economic gains, we’re effectively leaving our children and future generations with little to work with as they too will inevitably be forced to try and develop a sustainable economy in order to make a life for themselves here.
Independent columnist Doug Ballam has written extensively about environmental issues. His pick for the most under-reported story of 2014? “Anything dealing with conservation of our environment” has evaded the provincial media’s gaze too much, he says. “As a society we have absolutely no appetite for this topic, to our long-term detriment.”
From the province’s refusal to develop a sustainable ecotourism industry (Neglecting ecotourism means neglecting rural NL, Oct. 28) to calls for a performance audit of the wilderness and ecological reserves program (A performance audit of the wilderness and ecological reserves program is needed, May 13), and from an analysis of the provincial parks system on its 60th anniversary (Our battered provincial parks system turns 60, Aug. 5) to an optimistic review of the province’s new forest strategy (New forest strategy is an honest attempt to change direction, Nov. 25) — as Independent Opinion Editor Hans Rollmann recently noted, Doug Ballam’s The Green Space column has become the go-to place for a highly informed and critical perspective of the province’s understanding and handling of environment and conservation issues.
In June residents of various communities organized a province-wide day of action to protest the government’s decision to continue using the toxic herbicide Tordon 101—also known as ‘Agent White’—alongside the Trans Canada Highway and other roads around the province, where to this day many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians forage for berries and other edible plants in the summer months (Province-wide day of action Saturday to call for ban on Agent White, June 6). Also being used to keep the 1,100 km transmission line route for Muskrat Falls clear of vegetation—all the way from the site of the dam to the Avalon Peninsula—concerned residents, researchers and some politicians say Tordon 101 poses unacceptable risks to people, wildlife and the environment. The picloram-based chemical has been banned from public use in this province, while other provinces have moved to ban its use altogether. However, though “Health Canada and the provincial Department of Environment and Conservation are aware of the various risks to public health inherent in the use of picloram-based chemicals like Tordon 101, [they] take the position that such risks are within acceptable limits,” Jon Parsons wrote last May (The 101 on Tordon 101, May 19).
As Doug Ballam wrote on Nov. 11, “conservation of our environment needs to be an election issue” in 2015, and no doubt his column will help make that a reality with provincial and federal elections on the horizon.
In September renowned scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki visited St. John’s to kick off what he said could be his final cross-Canada tour and the most important thing he has ever done. The Blue Dot Tour aimed to initiate a grassroots movement in Canada to pressure municipal, provincial and eventually the federal government to enshrine Canadians’ right to a clean environment in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Suzuki’s message is a clear example of how environmental protection and human rights are inextricable. Read Independent Editor Justin Brake’s full interview with Suzuki: Constitutionalize our right to a clean environment: David Suzuki, Sept. 24.
From gender equality and violence against women to the failures of our mental health care system, and from reproductive rights to workers’ rights, The Independent made coverage of human rights issues a priority in 2014.
“I remember during the Sochi Olympics, Pride flags were raised all over the world, and communities in Newfoundland and Labrador were some of the first to do so,” recalls columnist Tessa Dubeau, naming her pick for most important story of the year. “This shows that the people of this province support gender and sexual equality, and that we can respond to hate with education and celebration of human diversity.”
Russia’s anti-gay laws were front and centre in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics last February, and municipalities across the province began hoisting their Pride flags in a show of solidarity with LGBTQ people in their own communities and around the world. LGBTQ rights activists Robyn Noseworthy and Josh Eddy asked the province to do the same, and on Feb. 7 the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador raised the Pride flag on Confederation Hill for the first time ever. The flag raisings in this province prompted municipalities and other provinces across the country to follow suit, together making a strong statement in advocating for global gender equality.
While government officials downplayed the protest nature of the flag raising and said they would fly the rainbow colours for one day only, they left the flag at full mast throughout the Olympics. Gerry Rogers, the province’s first openly gay Member of the House of Assembly, was on hand for the flag raising, which she said was a result “of the incredible work that activists have done for years.” She continued: “Governments are never leaders in the areas of human rights; our human rights are hard won, they’re not given to us.”
Read the full story: Province marks historical first, at fore of Canada’s message to Russia, Feb. 8.
More on LGBTQ rights and Gender Equality:
The murder of Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old Labrador Inuk who was studying at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, last February prompted renewed calls for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, which Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives have continually denied. Read the full story: Loretta Saunders’ death latest in growing epidemic, March 1.
More on Loretta Saunders and Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women:
In February local One Billion Rising V-Day organizers protested the closure of the province’s Family Violence Intervention Court (FVIC), a progressive initiative developed and introduced by the PC government that former FVIC Crown attorney Lynn Moore said addressed the roots of domestic violence in a way other programs and services could not. In 2013, the same year the government announced the court’s closure in its austerity budget, four women in the province were murdered in cases of domestic violence. But domestic violence can often be prevented if families and spouses are given the proper support and resources, Moore argued. “So you have a group of people who are motivated to change and a system that was helping them change, at a cost that was a lot less than the cost of a murder prosecution,” she said, commenting on the court’s closure. Read the full story: V-Day flash mob targets controversial Court closure, Feb. 14.
In a report released last April the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) named St. John’s as the third best city in Canada to be a woman. The national think tank ranked the country’s 20 biggest cities according to the degree of gender inequality among its male and female population, specifically in the areas of economic security, leadership, health and well-being, personal security and education. Though the inequality gap in St. John’s may not be as wide as in other Canadian cities, we still have a long way to go, prominent leaders in the provincial women’s rights movement told The Independent following the release of the CCPA report (St. John’s 3rd best city in Canada to be a woman, April 25).
“[W]e’re still facing a culture of violence against women and girls in this province, there’s no doubt about it,” said former St. John’s Women’s Centre Executive Director Leslie MacLeod. “We still have to do some real education shifts as well as prevention and intervention measures, as well as counseling and education. So we need lots more done around that. And the sexual violence is hand in hand with that.”
In October the St. John’s Status of Women’s Safe Harbour Outreach Program (SHOP) issued a “Red Alert Bulletin” via Twitter that vulnerable women and men in St. John’s had reported being gang raped by men in hotel rooms. The story was covered by local media for a short time, but the overall response from media, police and the general public revealed the prevalence of rape culture in St. John’s, Paula Graham wrote on Oct. 10 (Rape culture in our city: An open letter to St. John’s). The alleged victims were sex workers and, according to SHOP, chose not to report the crimes to the police. At the time the Harper government was racing to pass Bill C-36, legislation that would criminalize elements of sex work that would make it much more dangerous for workers, effectively turning Canada’s prostitution laws against the workers themselves. The new laws came into effect on Dec. 6 and coalitions of sex workers and their allies, who argue the new law is unconstitutional, are lobbying Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to challenge it in Ontario’s Court of Appeal.
The discussion of sexual violence and violence against women more broadly exploded nation-wide in October when news broke of allegations that CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi had sexually harassed and sexually assaulted women who worked under him at the national broadcaster. Again, women were afraid to report their victimization to police, but after one courageous woman went public with new allegations, other victims followed suit. A productive public discussion ensued about misogyny, sexual harassment and power dynamics between men and women in the workplace, the duty of employers to ensure the safety of their workers, and the culture of silence among female sexual assault victims due to the stigma attached to survivors of sexual violence. Read the full story: This is the real story we need to be talking about, Oct. 28.
More on violence against women:
In April it came to light that premier-in-waiting Frank Coleman and his wife participate in an annual right-to-life protest in Corner Brook. The news brought a renewed call for improved abortion services in the province (“There aren’t women who have children and women who have abortions”, April 24). Though abortion services are offered at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, Athena, the province’s only private abortion clinic, also located in St. John’s, performs 70 to 80 per cent of the roughly 1,000 procedures done in the province each year. Accessing abortion services is difficult to impossible for women living in rural parts of the province, particularly the Northern Peninsula and Labrador. More can be done to improve women’s reproductive rights in Newfoundland and Labrador, many argue.
More on abortion and reproductive rights:
In November New Brunswick’s newly elected Liberal government removed barriers to accessing abortion services in their province. Health minister and Deputy Premier Steve Kent subsequently indicated the NL government is open to hearing the concerns and requests of physicians working in rural parts of the province. “This is a good sign, but it’s not enough for the province to sit back and wait for physicians to make proposals on how to make reproductive health accessible throughout the province,” Hans Rollmann wrote in his Dec. 2 column Abortion access on the agenda. “Health care is a provincial jurisdiction and abortion is a key and central plank of reproductive health. The province needs to be taking a proactive approach to education, access and provision of abortion (and other reproductive health) services in all major regions of the province (including, particularly, Labrador).”
When news broke that 11-year-old Westport resident Torrence Collier was being subjected to extreme bullying because of the colour of his skin, there was an outpouring of support for the young boy, who is said to be the only black person in the tiny Central town of 220. But the incident, largely reported on as an isolated event, prompted discussion about the prevalence of racism in Newfoundland and Labrador, and in a white settler society more generally.
“On the one hand, it is heartening that so many people are upset about this incident, and it is commendable that so many spoke out and demanded some sort of change,” Jon Parsons wrote in his June 12 article #notallwhitepeople. “However, on the other hand, if racism is understood only as a once-off aberration that occasionally rears its ugly head or as something that ‘a few bad apples’ did, the underlying structures of a fundamentally racist white society cannot be addressed.”
The following week, in his article Provincial government must take action on racism (June 17) Hans Rollmann proposed the province establish an anti-racism task force. “This is not a problem the school board can solve with a few expulsions,” he wrote. “It’s a systemic problem and needs systemic solutions. And without a concerted, focused effort in the immediate future, it’s only going to get worse.”
In late July hundreds of people gathered for a peace rally at Harbourside Park (Gaza peace rally Thursday in St. John’s, July 23) then marched through the streets of St. John’s to protest Israel’s latest military offensive in Gaza, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, more than 500 of them children. While most of the province’s mainstream media did not cover what is believed by some to be the biggest protest march in the capital city in recent years, Palestinians living in St. John’s and their supporters held signs demanding an end to the violence in Gaza and an end to Canada’s unwavering support for Israel.
“Canada has to say this has to stop, from both sides. I’m not justifying [violence] for anyone. People want to live in peace, they just want to live,” Mohammed Bakri, a Palestinian refugee who now lives in St. John’s, told The Independent prior to the march. “Here we’re fighting for free education. [Palestinians] are fighting for just a chance to breathe air and say, I’m alive. You have kids being born and killed the next day. So we want the government to stop its biased stance [and] we want to override the media in a way that they can’t get away with it … The media have to know that they can’t get away with it now — we have social media.”
One week later federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair visited St. John’s. Party members and others protested outside an NDP meet-and-greet at a cafe downtown St. John’s, demanding Mulcair take a firmer stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict and strongly condemn Israel’s attack on civilians in Gaza. The Independent questioned Mulcair on the apparent contradiction between his stance and the party’s official position on Israel and Palestine as noted in the NDP’s policy book. Watch the video here.
More on the Israel-Palestine conflict:
In June, following the death of Louis Bernard, son of St. John’s actors Andy Jones and Mary-Lynn Bernard, and continued calls to her office from families dealing with mental health crises, St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers held a town hall on mental health to hear people’s stories and gauge the severity of the problem. Around 300 people packed into St. Teresa’s Parish Hall in St. John’s, and one after another individuals stood to share their stories of poor access to inadequate health care services, the problem of stigma, and ideas for solutions (“The silence is killing us”, June 6). If it wasn’t clear before that evening, it is now: the province is in the midst of a mental health care crisis.
The result of that initial town hall has been an unprecedented community initiative in this province. In October, Rogers and dozens of mental health advocates launched the Community Coalition for Mental Health NL in front of a packed Holy Heart Auditorium in St. John’s. The coalition is calling on the government to, among other things, develop an all-party committee to address the province’s mental health crisis. Read the full story: Fixing NL’s “broken” mental healthcare system, Oct. 18.
In September, Mark Gruchy, President of the Canadian Mental Health Association – NL, joined The Independent‘s roster of columnists to write about the “challenges, complexities and proper conceptualization of mental health and mental illness in Newfoundland and Labrador today.” Read his powerful first article, It Takes All Kinds, Sept. 20.
From the Labatt strike (Of beer and bravery, Feb. 25) and precarious labour (Snowclearing, greed and precarious labour, March 25), to the province’s regressive amendment to the Labour Relations Act. And from minimum wage, poverty, and job automation (Automation nation, Oct. 30) to CETA (The threat of CETA: trade, investment and workers’ rights, Oct. 3) and the labour movement’s pledge to defeat Stephen Harper in the 2015 federal election (NL unions vow “fairness for all” fight in lead up to 2015 elections, Nov. 30) — The Independent covered a swath of issues related to labour and workers’ rights in 2014.
Last summer, in one fell swoop the provincial Tories announced they were revoking a labour law they had previously legislated to allow workers to unionize if a clear majority (65 per cent) in a given workplace signed a card in favour of forming a union. In a province and business climate where profit-driven interests, from small family firms to large multinational corporations, commonly exploit workers—entrenching them in a cycle of systemic poverty—taking away workers’ right to unionize and negotiate fair working conditions indicated two things, Hans Rollmann wrote in his June 4 article Tories set to revoke labour law, workers’ rights: “First, that this provincial government is dangerously under the influence of corporate cronyism; second, that all its recent commitments to ‘open government’ and public accountability were hollow words.”
Independent columnist and Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour President Mary Shortall also chimed in on the matter in her June 9 Holding The Line column: Bill 22 signals setback in labour relations in province.
In the spring, ignoring the December 2012 recommendation by its own special committee that government raise the minimum wage to compensate for workers’ lost purchasing power, the Tories announced a 25 cent per hour minimum wage increase that would take effect in October, with another quarter-per-hour increase slated for October 2015. Despite the enormous spike in the cost of living, particularly in St. John’s and Happy Valley Goose-Bay, the increase will give full-time minimum wage earners an extra $10 per week, enough money to buy four litres of milk or two and a half loaves of bread, but not both.
We’re a ‘have’ province, but there’s a lot of ‘have not’ people. —St. John’s resident Edward Sawdon
“In the fall, the NDP-organized town hall to discuss minimum wage—in addition to the countless calls to Open Line and such—revealed a lot of harsh truths,” said Tessa Dubeau, sharing her pick for most under-reported story of the year. “A lack of good jobs and a minimum wage that doesn’t support workers is proving to be a recipe for widespread poverty.”
At that same town hall event, St. John’s resident Edward Sawdon contextualized the absurdity of full-time minimum and low wage earners living in poverty while Newfoundland and Labrador’s upper classes experience unprecedented prosperity: “We’re a ‘have’ province, but there’s a lot of ‘have not’ people,” he said. Read the full story: Minimum wage town hall spawns stories of poverty, Sept. 10.
In December the provincial media finally put their collective spotlight on CETA, the impending Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union, though only one small part of it — the federal-provincial deal on compensation for lost jobs due to the province’s relinquishing of its minimum processing requirements. Independent columnist Marilyn Reid has been writing about CETA since early 2013, however, and in 2014 authored a seven-part series for The Independent exploring the nature of the so-called “free trade” deal. Read the entire series: Cutting through the spin on CETA.
On the issue of labour and workers’ rights, CETA threatens more than just the jobs formerly protected by the province’s minimum processing requirements. “Trading away the democratic rights of future governments to act in the interest of local economies, workers and communities was an enormous concession to make,” Reid wrote in her Dec. 15 article CETA: Time to admit it’s an oversold, underhanded deal.
But it’s not all bad news. Amid the troubling trends are also indications of what worker organizing and solidarity can accomplish in this province. Unions and the provincial government were able to collectively negotiate a revised pension plan that preserves defined benefits, an important mechanism that protects retirees in their old age and helps to combat income inequality and seniors’ poverty. Read the full story: How the government and unions solved their pension problem, Oct. 26.
More on labour and workers’ rights:
As Edward Sawdon noted at that minimum wage town hall, just because Newfoundland and Labrador is enjoying the so-called ‘have’ status as a province, there are many people who are working hard and still struggling every day to make ends meet.
“We have the highest rate of food bank usage in the country and the highest unemployment rate, last month registering at 11.3 per cent,” said columnist Maura Hanrahan, naming poverty as her pick for the most under-reported story. “Youth unemployment is higher and I suspect that underemployment, especially among youth, is very high.”
If as much effort was directed toward adequately addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality in Newfoundland and Labrador as is given to charity, we might be well on our way to achieving a more just society, a number of Independent columnists wrote in 2014. From the good intentions and deeds of new charitable community groups (The trouble with charity, July 18) and reports of a man who stole from a grocery store because he was hungry (The myopia of charitable giving, Aug. 20) to the CBC’s annual turkey drive (Talking turkeys, Dec. 5), Indy columnists had a lot to say in critiquing our simultaneous alacrity toward charity and our collective unwillingness to prevent or reduce poverty and inequality in the first place.
“Instead of poverty being a top priority in terms of reporting, it is usually reported in one-off pieces or occasional stories or features,” Hanrahan continued. “Related to poverty we have the broader issues of food security and water security (some communities, such as Black Tickle, Labrador, do not have piped water) and the pressing issue of mental health. Poverty and the stress of unemployment are huge threats to mental health. For our young people, there is the anticipatory stress of their economic futures.”
Many economists and other observers say the worst of the global economic crisis is yet to come, and that its severity may become unprecedentedly apparent in 2015. More and more are arguing that decades old warnings that capitalism—an economic system built on exploitation and the presupposition and necessity of endless growth—is neither ethical nor sustainable are no longer deniable, and that this is evidenced by the ecological and climate crises. Yet, in response to the growing global movement against capitalism and austerity, the pushback from those who benefit most from the current economic system is enormous, most notably the political and economic elite who run our province.
North American oil prices dropped 46 per cent in 2014, the largest single year plunge since the 2008 financial crisis. Whether or not they rise again and stabilize for any relevant amount of time is speculative. The province’s forecasted deficit for the 2014-15 fiscal year has soared to over $900 million, and in December Premier Paul Davis said the government wasn’t ruling out tax increases and service cuts.
“The falling oil prices and consequential hit on the provincial treasury is the biggest news event of the year,” says Doug Ballam, “because we might see another disastrous budget like we did in 2013, when reducing the civil service was used as an excuse to implement ideological cuts (e.g. attack on the Department of Environment and Conservation).”
Together, well-funded and effective social services create a safety net for all the people of the province. But when the economy is bad, and when the price of the commodity our government wagered so heavily on threatens our single most important revenue stream, how can we collect enough money to prevent that safety net from developing holes through which people can and do fall—most often the most vulnerable among us—and how should we spend the money we do have?
More on oil and the economy:
With some of the lowest corporate tax rates in Canada and the ability to raise them, Newfoundland and Labrador does not have to cut social spending, Mary Shortall wrote in her Dec. 3 column A strong economy for all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. “We need to have a balanced debate about options for a strong economy,” she said. “Newfoundland and Labrador is capturing a smaller share of GDP in revenues than other provinces, with a disproportionate and larger share of growth going to corporate profits — profits that do not stay in the economy.”
Shortall also argued investing in public sector jobs will help, not hinder, the provincial economy and position us to better deal with economic downfalls.
“A strong public sector helps the economy weather the volatility of resource fluctuations. In fact, that was a factor in how we weathered the 2009 recession,” she said. “Cuts in the public sector means the loss of jobs that support local economies all throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. Resource booms are expensive and inflationary. Resource revenues are volatile and oil and gas creates relatively few jobs. In fact, public sector spending can create up to 20 times the jobs per dollar invested compared to oil and gas.”
In November Independent columnist Tom Baird crunched some numbers and broke the story that the province’s public sector workforce had fallen an astounding 20 per cent since 2012, which at 15,000 lost jobs is 13 times greater than the 1,200 job cuts the government announced in its 2013 austerity budget.
“The bulge in public sector employment between 2009 and 2013 was driven by delayed departures rather than by increased hiring,” Tom posited in his Nov. 8 article Public sector jobs down 20 per cent over last two years. “There is strong evidence that many public sector workers have moved into the private sector. There is also evidence that people have been leaving the labour force faster than can be explained by demographics, which is consistent with my theory of people timing their departure to maximize pension benefits.”
Falling oil prices threaten the jobs of both Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore workers and those who commute to western Canada for work, but the oil and gas industry isn’t the only one bracing for significant job losses.
“The most under-reported story of the year is the rapid decline of the crab and shrimp fisheries,” said John Matchim. “The shellfish industry is an extremely lucrative and capital-intensive fishery that has propped up the marine sector since the collapse of cod. Places like Bay de Verde and Port de Grave depend on it, and owners have made large investments in new ocean-going boats. Plants are geared for crab/shrimp processing and are not equipped for a sudden change of product.
“There is talk of returning to the groundfish fishery, but prices for groundfish are low and despite evidence of a rebound cod stocks have likely not recovered sufficiently to support it,” he continued. “To make things worse, the fisheries research fund promised by the federal government in exchange for CETA processing rights has been withdrawn. Another under-reported facet of the shellfish collapse is the possible effect of climate change and increasing ocean acidity on shellfish populations. How much of the collapse is a result of over fishing; how much is climate induced?”
Brandon Pardy predicts “regional fighting over fishing and local processing” could erupt in the near future. “Think not just minimum processing requirements linked to CETA,” he said, “but Labrador plants enjoy a process local clause — an issue that will get hotter as plants close and fishers stray farther to catch enough to make it worth their while. The fishery is still a major industry in this province, so keep an eye out for unrest related to this underreported story, especially with the old time Newfoundland fisher vs. Labrador fisher and the adjacent plants vying to stay alive.”
The bottom line is the more dependent Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy is on natural resources—particularly non-renewables like oil and minerals, but also the unstable and unpredictable fisheries—the harder it will be to weather any economic storm. And with the debate now settled regarding the direct and immense impact fossil fuels are having on global warming, the province no longer has the convenience of ignoring its responsibility in curbing greenhouse gas emissions in order to avert catastrophic, irreversible climate change.
Several Independent columnists offered up sound financial advice for the provincial government if it is to adopt a New Year’s resolution for 2015.
“Think before you act [and] pay off our collective debts (preferably by raising taxes),” said Ray Critch.
“Open a savings account and put a little away each month,” Doug Ballam recommended. “I believe the ‘we had to spend on infrastructure’ line is a paper-thin excuse. If they were serious about it, they would have raised the standards on road construction so that they don’t need to be repaired every other year (to the benefit of some of the biggest campaign donors for all parties).”
Meanwhile, Nancy Cater, whose column Home and Away explores the idea of ‘home’—particularly for Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians) like her, who live and work abroad—suggests the government “be more … pensive and less reactionary. When I come back to visit I see a lot of changes, but those changes are always reminiscent of boomtowns to me,” she said. “Cities that have recently come into wealth tend to build up the skyscrapers and the malls. Like a teenager with a trust fund, the shiny and the immediate can sometimes cloud better judgement. I often wish NL would adopt it’s own systems beyond what Canada offers — particularly in the areas of healthcare and education. New money from unsustainable sources (i.e. oil) will fade. I’d love to see the province invest in the education and health of it’s citizens, and not just focus on bricks and mortar.”
The contradiction between the province’s contribution to global climate change via its extractive industries and our dependency on a healthy ocean to sustain fish stocks doesn’t seem to have been reported anywhere in the province’s media.
“It’s not so much that climate change has been under-reported as that it has been under-reported in the context of Newfoundland and Labrador, and certainly under-analyzed in that context,” said Robin Whitaker, naming her pick for both most important and most under-reported story of the year.
“The direct and current impacts of climate change have been largely under-reported,” Paula Graham concurred, “even though NL is experiencing the consequences of climate change right now. Life for Labrador’s Indigenous people has changed drastically in just a single generation; melting ice is restricting their ability to gather fire wood, food, etc. This is nothing short of apocalyptic.”
Recent reports by the province’s mainstream press on the devastating effects “warming oceans” are having on shellfish populations, and reports on record high bids for offshore oil exploration licenses, neglect to mention climate change. The media’s failure to link both the causes and consequences of climate change to climate change itself is perhaps one of the biggest impediments to our collective potential to address the problem, many independent media critics say of the wider phenomenon.
“Newfoundland and Labrador’s New Year’s Resolution should be to take a long hard look at its dependency on fossil fuels and to make a plan to kick that counter-productive, unhealthy, destructive habit,” added Tessa Dubeau.
If the government won’t, some of the province’s brightest, forward-thinking students will. In DecemberThe Independent reported that a group of Grenfell students, after more than a year of researching and planning, were gearing up to bring the growing global fossil fuel divestment campaign to the province. They are asking Memorial University to divest from fossil fuel companies as a way to put pressure on the fossil fuel industry to leave remaining oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground to avert catastrophic climate change. Read the full story here: Students set to bring fossil fuel divestment to province, Dec. 12.
In 2014 Newfoundland and Labrador had three, almost four, Progressive Conservative premiers, only one of them directly chosen by the province’s electorate. Having polled as the least popular premier in Canada the year prior, after overseeing a series of controversial—many say ‘anti-democratic’—decisions, such as forcing government secrecy laws in Bill 29 through the legislature in 2012 and ignoring two separate independent bodies’ warnings that developing Muskrat Falls according to plan would pose significant environmental and human health risks, not to mention the untenable economic argument for the mega-dam, Kathy Dunderdale bid adieu to life in public office last January (All spectacle and no substance, Jan. 27).
Finance minister Tom Marshall took her seat in the Premier’s Office, but only to buy the party time to vote in a new leader from outside the caucus. They picked Frank Coleman, whose tenure as the province’s top politician ended before it even began. News broke that the west coast grocery store tycoon and his wife participate in an annual pro-life rally in Corner Brook, which, coupled with his suggestion that the province’s liquor stores be privatized and the subsequent Humber Valley Paving scandal (Nothing to see here, Oct. 2), led Hans Rollmann to surmise that Coleman’s incomplete run for office must be one of the Top 5 psyche-outs in Newfoundland political history (June 21).
The controversy forced Marshall to delay his retirement from politics so the PCs could hold another leadership convention. This time they elected former RNC officer and spokesman Paul Davis (Words matter, Sept. 20), who then hand-picked an unelected, obscure lawyer as his justice minister, one of the top positions in government. Judy Manning refused to adhere to political convention by running in any of the three by-elections that followed her appointment, which, had she won, would have given her a seat in the House of Assembly prior to this year’s provincial election (Don’t judge Judy, Oct. 7).
“It’s all well and good to build a political party and a government that’s held together by nothing but the sheer force of the Leader’s personal magnetism while you’re riding high in the polls. But once the king has left the building, it doesn’t take long for everything to start coming apart at the seams,” Drew Brown wrote in his June 19 article Cleanup in Aisle 12, chronicling the plight of the post-Danny Tories. “Strong leaders, by necessity, are surrounded by followers and, in the later stages, sycophants; in the wake of their departure, a power vacuum is unavoidable.
“Recent history bears this out,” he continued. “Kathy Dunderdale was swept into office in 2011 by the momentum the Tories carried over from the sheer gravitas of Williams’ political presence. But in a closed political system, entropy can only increase; contrary to their ‘New Energy’ slogan, the story of Dunderdale’s tenure is the story of the Tory political machine running out of steam. The pretenders to the throne that emerged in her wake are symptomatic of the democratic deficit not only at the heart of the PC Party, but of Newfoundland politics writ large – the pattern of Strong Man-then-collapse, after all, has been fairly consistent in the province at least since Smallwood stalked the earth. Once Williams resigned, it was only a matter of time before the PC party collapsed in on itself.”
“The implosions in the leadership of two of three of NL’s political parties” marked the biggest story of year for columnist Ray Critch, referring also to the NDP’s leadership misadventures in 2014.
Naming her pick for Newfoundland and Labrador’s New Year’s resolution, Maura Hanrahan said we need to “consider all options on all issues. We need to change our collective habit of seeking saviours, whether these are political heroes or economic developments, usually of the macro-variety.”
Brandon Pardy, who will return as an Indy columnist in 2015 after running for the Liberal nomination in his home riding in Labrador last year, anticipates voters in the provincial election “will probably dash out and vote out the old guard for a whole new slate — the polls indicate a massive sweep,” he said. “My hope for this province, as a New Year’s resolution, is to carefully consider what it would look like to have a miniscule opposition. Further to that, when you consider your ‘X’, look at the parties’ policies. Hell, demand to see some! Right now the Liberals are ascendant for no other apparent reason other than they’re ‘not the PCs’. Demand that your candidates and parties have published policies, and make an informed decision,” he continued. “Because, let’s be honest, are we sure any of those parties would have done things differently over the last 11 years? Would Labrador or Newfoundland be better off with Liberals, NDP, or PC? Only the public can hold their MHAs to account. Don’t get suckered into dollars and cents arguments. Sure, more has been spent in Labrador and other regions under the PCs. But guess what? More has come out too. Only a true public policy debate will change the course of the future.”
Brown had more to say about the state of provincial politics and democratic reform in his Oct. 9 article Irresponsible Government. “[W]hat happens in the House of Assembly is supposed to determine who and what makes up the government, and not the other way around. In this province, of course, that’s rarely the case,” he wrote, going on to critique our first past the post electoral system, voters’ inability to exercise direct recall should an MHA not live up to their promises or adequately represent their constituents, MHAs’ ability to cross the floor without having the decision democratically ratified by their constituents in a plebiscite, and of course, the ability for a Judy Manning scenario to unfold: an appointed, unelected cabinet minister who refuses to run in a byelection to earn their seat in the House.
Of course, the failure of Newfoundland and Labrador’s political system to render true democracy is hardly a new issue, as Jon Parsons wrote in his March 6 column Newfoundland revolution, then and now.
“It is not that life today is necessarily so bad for people in Newfoundland, and it does not seem as though we are likely to see significant unrest any time soon,” he wrote, comparing Newfoundland’s social unrest in the 1930s to today’s growing global unrest, noting the apparent apathy among Newfoundlanders and Labradorians today. “[W]hat is alarming is the level of skepticism and denial that fundamental problems even exist, specifically in terms of the ‘business as usual’ mentality of government and the moneyed class. What I see are vested interests that will fight against proactive steps to address the underlying conditions of crisis, and this leads down a path we have walked before. And so perhaps the sooner everyone gets a little bit alarmed the sooner we can have a discussion about how to avoid repeating the history of 1932.”
We do need more women in politics though, and in other decision-making roles more generally, said Paula Graham, with her wish for the province’s New Year’s resolution. “Involve women and minorities in public decision-making processes at every level,” she said. “Old white men have been screwing up the world for centuries. Let’s try something new.”
Mudder, we’re all stuck, but we can pry our own selves out if we’re not afraid of making a bit of a mess inside the front porch. —Drew Brown
Wearing his Freudian hat, Brown named the “Mudder, I’m Stuck” video as the most important story of the year.
“It really stands for 2014,” he said. “Battered by external forces and trapped inside a big dump of problems (power failures, northern starvation, climate change, exploding whales, shellfish decline, free trade fiascos, Stephen Harper), the authorities we look to for help (our metaphorical mudders) seem powerless to do anything except hold leadership contests and curse to the blessed jumping Jesus.
“Mudder, we’re all stuck,” he continued, “but we can pry our own selves out if we’re not afraid of making a bit of a mess inside the front porch.”
A growing number of people across the province are making a mess in the front porch, it seems. From St. John’s to Bay St. George and Corner Brook to Goose Bay, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are looking beyond the extractive industries’ immediate economic benefits and recognizing that the revenues from oil and minerals are benefitting some more than others, and certainly not being used to develop adequate, sustainable economies outside the Northeast Avalon.
“Both the most important, and the most underreported, story is the relationship between the various challenges facing Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Hans Rollmann. “They might seem like separate and distinct issues—and sadly, the media often treats them as such—but they’re not. They’re all interrelated and deeply entwined. We’ve got a government that has historically been dominated by the wealthy elites of this province — first the merchants, and now the natural resource industry (oil and gas, mining, hydro). We’re really not very different from other colonized and exploited parts of the world in that respect.
“The average people who have built this province—its Aboriginal and First Nations communities both in Labrador and the Island, and its settler population of small fishing communities—developed indigenous and sustainable forms of living here,” he continued. “These have been exploited and run roughshod over by first the fishing merchants, and then the industrial development fanatics, and now the large multinational corporations. Our beautiful communities around the province—which could and should have grown into prosperous, sustainable centres—have either been abandoned or are increasingly mired in poverty, crime and despair.
“After destroying our fisheries, these corporate elites pushed our government into an addiction to large-scale resource extraction and development projects, dangling the promise of even more wealth to those who already possessed a disproportionate share of it, and the prospect of jobs for the remaining workers and families that were struggling to survive. But the result, while improving the lives of a few, has been disastrous for us as a province and as a people. The influence and demands of corporate industry have resulted in a wholesale and ongoing destruction of our natural environment, coupled with immense pressures to privatize and sell out our resources and natural heritage for a pittance. This has been accompanied by a reduction in living standards for many, an undermining of labour standards and labour rights, greater precarity in employment and growing income inequality for the average Newfoundlander and Labradorian. It has also led to an increasingly secretive, repressive and unaccountable government and a sense of impunity in the ongoing colonialism waged by Island elites against Labrador and the province’s Indigenous peoples.
“One thing leads to another, as they say, and the road to where we’re at now was paved with a combination of naïve good intentions by some, manipulated by the greedy exploitation of others,” Rollmann continued. “Oil, hydropower, fracking and mining offer no viable, long-term sustainable future for our province beyond the continued theft of our resources and destruction of our communities. Nor does governance by an unaccountable and secretive elite who are more interested in what the Board of Trade has to say than the communities and workers who have built this province and made it what it is. But there is a light as we approach the end of the tunnel. The growing awareness and analysis of our present condition and its failed promises by growing numbers of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, the drawing together of more and more coalitions and movements to draw a line in the bog and refuse to allow our further exploitation by the elites of yesteryear or of the mainland multinationals, and our increasing faith and reliance in ourselves to develop sustainable alternatives to the lure of rapacious greed and quick money, all suggest that the present generation[s] who inhabit this province—in all their beautiful diversity and difference—are prepared to draw ranks to defend our collective future and to build an alternative one here in Newfoundland and Labrador with their own hands.”
Last January people gathered in St. John’s to form the Social Justice Co-operative of Newfoundland and Labrador (A co-operative path to social justice, Jan. 30), which has been active in raising awareness of poverty and inequality, progressive economics, fracking, women’s rights, and other important issues. The Independent has teamed up with the Co-op to produce a series of articles related to issues of social justice. Recent articles by Marilyn Porter and Bill Hynd are the early fruits of that partnership.
“The most important story of 2014 is the one that links the hundreds of people who marched in downtown St. John’s in July to demand justice for the people of Gaza, to the hundreds who supported the raising of the Labrador flag in early September, to the hundreds who joined the People’s Climate March in St. John’s in late September, to the hundreds who are resisting fracking on the Island’s west coast,” said Independent contributor and resource mobilizer Daniel Miller. “This is the story of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador increasingly taking independent action for social, environmental and economic justice. For me this is also the most underreported story of the year, because it deserves to be told every day, as people everywhere are fighting for justice every day.”
Daniel also picked three New Year’s resolutions for Newfoundland and Labrador that are inseparable from social justice: “Indigenous sovereignty, women’s liberation, abolish fossil fuels,” he said.
Jon Parsons’ first Power and Dissent article of 2014 celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and explored the nature of his teachings and support for non-violent civil disobedience, not unlike the kind undertaken by Dennis Burden in his effort to save Muskrat Falls.
“There are many parallels between the history of the civil rights movement and protest movements today. The same sorts of calls are made by moderate ‘allies’ for restraint whenever protest groups, for example, block roads or disrupt economic activity,” he wrote. “Those moderates who are apparently in favour of the goals of environmental or social justice movements are quick to decry the tactics employed and say things like, ‘well they just can’t go around breaking the law.’
“Leaving aside the question of violence (such as whether it is violent to disrupt traffic), it is the moral certitude of those who say wait and who urge restraint that sap the fighting spirit of those who desire change. In the face of an onslaught against the natural world and against civil society in Canada, it seems correct to say, as Howard Zinn put it, that ‘our problem is civil obedience.'” Read the full article: Dr. Martin Luther King: strategies and tactics of civil disobedience, Jan. 20.
This is a difficult, complicated and important time for Newfoundland and Labrador. But if we are to begin developing sustainable, collective solutions, we first have to be able to share the news, opinions, ideas and perspectives on which that future will be based. And that is why:
When our political institutions fail us.
When our economic system forces us to be something we are not.
When people respond to injustice by choosing to alleviate the pain of others rather than downplay their felt sense of accountability.
When we begin to see that our cynicism is both a cause and consequence of fear perpetuated by conventional narratives.
When Newfoundlanders and Labradorians take matters into their own hands and begin to shape the future they desire.
And when the mainstream media isn’t — The Independent will be there to hear and share the story.
When we give critical and compassionate voices a place to share their own stories and perspectives, we create a narrative that not only insightfully describes our greatest challenges but also keenly shines a light on the ideas being discussed to address them. There are people already hard at work with the goal of making Newfoundland and Labrador a better, healthier, sustainable place to live, and they deserve our attention.
We are making critical, thought-provoking, solutions-oriented journalism — because we want it, we need it, and because it’s the right thing to do.
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