March 31, 2014 – 65th anniversary of Labrador’s confederation with Canada also marked 40 years of the Labrador flag. At an event advertised under the banner Re-evaluating Governance in Labrador, nearly 40 Labradorians gathered in Goose Bay to discuss their growing discontent with how Labrador is governed in the 21st century. To some this might sound like a low number, but to those running district associations or volunteer boards, well, it’s quite surprising – especially for a first meeting. Why did they come?
This has always been a contentious issue in Labrador and was raised in the two interviews above. Resource extraction and the issue of who benefits from it tends to act as a catalyst that brings an underlying separatist sentiment to the surface. At the very least, it leads one to contrast the vast wealth that leaves Labrador (particularly from mega developments like Labrador West Iron Ore, Churchill Falls, Voisey’s Bay, Muskrat Falls) with the vastly inferior infrastructure left in its wake (compared to that of the island). Each of these major developments brought with it a political backlash movement (think Labrador Party and United Labrador Movement) because of this disparity.
I was curious about the dollars and cents of it all and so two years ago I wrote a column on Labrador’s fiscal imbalance. At the time, the provincial government bragged it had “invested” $3.5 billion in Labrador since taking office in 2003. What wasn’t clear was how much of that was Muskrat Falls money, and how much of that was federal transfer money. Up to that point, the provincial coffers had received over $4.8 billion from Labrador resource revenues (today it’s well over $5 billion). To highlight that the “investments” in Labrador are essentially a “catch all” for all money (courts, cops, health care, education) spent around and about Labrador, the current brag is $4.9 billion. I don’t see any big new shiny things in Labrador that cost $1.4 billion in the last two years except Muskrat Falls, so… yeah. $4.9 billion is 6.23 per cent of the $78.64 billion spent since the PCs took office. Labrador is about 5 per cent of the population, so pull the Muskrat Falls money out of “investments” in Labrador since very little of it washes ashore here.
But it does answer one question
Someone recently asked a legitimate question on Open Line: Can Labrador be self-sufficient? Clearly, if more money leaves than comes in, then yes. In a cold, hard facts evaluation of the issue, yes, Labrador could survive and be master of its own misery. Yep – small population. There’s a host of policy and law enforcement issues associated with small populations. Clearly, Prince Edward Island does not have the same capacity to govern on the same level as Ontario. But just for giggles, let me point out that Nunavut and the Yukon manage just fine with similar populations. Ditto for Greenland, St-Pierre and Miquelon, Monaco, Liechtenstein and several dozen other self-governing regions of the world with similarly small populations.
Anyway, it’s clear more revenue is made off of Labrador than comes in. I kind of despise the argument that it should be about money. As was raised in the “re-evaluating governance” meeting, as soon as we make it about money and jobs, well, they’ll just pay us off with money and jobs (or promises thereof, as has been the case). Besides, what is a country, or a province, if we don’t share (share being a super operative word) resources from producing areas to (at present) lesser producing areas? Mind you, Black Tickle and other communities without clean drinking water, affordable food, roads, et cetera, certainly don’t feel that Labrador’s wealth—let alone the province’s supposed oil riches—is benefiting them.
Like it or not, understand it or not, Labradorians come from a completely different cultural experience. We’re not just baymen that happen to exist in a different geographical region of the province. Yes, we share a maritime, fishing cultural background with Newfoundlanders. Some of our communities share similar accents and word usage. In that regard, Labradorians are culturally more similar to Nova Scotians and the people of the Lower North Shore of Quebec than we are to the South Shore of Newfoundland. That’s not being divisive — that’s just how it is.
Add to that the fact that over half of Labrador’s population are Aboriginal. As John Ralston Saul pointed out, Aboriginal influence on immigrant culture is completely pervasive. It changes how people think and view the world. It creates a different feeling of connection to the land, and it creates a different but similar kind of independent spirit that comes from forging your own place (as Newfoundlanders have). For some reason this concept is lost on the rest of the population. It doesn’t mean Labradorians are opposed to development in Labrador, but it certainly adds to the demand that we develop resources for the right reasons. As always, people want to have their say, and to benefit from the damage done in their back yard.
One thing I can attest to from my years of listening and talking to other Labradorians is that whether or not you’re a separatist, a patriot, or just proud of where you come from, we want our voices heard. Yes, I get that Labrador has 27,000 people and Newfoundland has 500,000. So democratically, the ‘greater good’ is always going to create a compromise situation on Labrador’s part. Aware of this situation, Labrador expects much more from its leadership.
Take this to the next step. When Labradorians attend public engagements and hearings and provide input, or when Labradorians elect representatives to the provincial legislature, they expect their leaders to stand up for them. The problem is, caucus or cabinet demands these representatives toe the party line, which compromises what they can do for their people. This happened in the case of Muskrat Falls. The population was opposed to the development (as it stood — without local benefit at the very least) and the guy they elected was originally opposed to it too. Flip-flop and voila! One pissed-off public. Some were angry because they didn’t get the promised “primary beneficiaries”, but most were angry because they were lied to, and lost their voice.
All this said, the meeting on “re-evaluating governance in Labrador” had its share of separatists attending. It also had people who just wanted Labrador unity. It had academics. It had skeptics. But every single person there believed in greater self-determination for Labrador.
What does that look like? Well, taken to the full extent it means Labrador autonomy. But self-determination doesn’t have to mean separating. To me, self-determination means you have an engaged public, and a public that is listened to. It means that when decisions are made about the land people live on, those people are at the table making them. It means people benefit to the extent that they feel their needs and wants have been met, if they are to give their blessing.
Newfoundland has self-determination within the country of Canada. Northern Quebec has self-government, within that province. I refuse to subscribe to the thinking that both parts of the province benefit from this union equally, simply because one side says so. If Labrador were an incredible drain on the provincial coffers we wouldn’t be having this discussion: we’d successfully be sold off by now.
If this country needs to break up into 4,000 pieces in order to have everyone’s voice heard, so be it. If we’re going by the logic that bigger is better, that greater unity is better, that governing from larger centres is better for everyone — then by gar, why not just merge Atlantic Canada? Lard liftin’, why not just merge all of Canada under one giant benevolent dictatorship and rid the entire country of its silly regionalism? The attitude that Labrador, or any region of the country, needs an outside people to govern them, or even own them, for their own good (while at the same time reaping the majority of the resource revenues) is by definition ‘Colonialism’.
Newfoundland (and Labrador) can’t demand recognition of its distinctiveness, or of its adjacency fishing/oil principals, if it refuses to do the same for Labrador.
Want to just shut Labradorians up? Give them their regional government, and let them give their own regional government hell for failing them, instead of being mad at Newfoundland. And you’ll still get some resource dollars (and cool tourism ads too).