FANE: It’s time to talk about ecology in Newfoundland and Labrador

It might seem like a bizarre moment to be fighting to bring ecology to the fore in decision-making in Newfoundland and Labrador. But our decisions about how to proceed in the future depend largely on how we understand our past. Do we trust our politicians? Do we trust Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall and the appointed “expert panel” evaluating the North Spur? Have we been listening and attentive to how the Muskrat Falls project will forever change the lives of the Innu and Inuit in Labrador?

One not need look far into the past to see that ecological issues have in fact been included in the scope of considerations about the economic future of the province. For example, in 2010, the province’s Premier, Minister of Natural Resources, and Nalcor CEO Ed Martin all promised they would produce “clean energy” and “environmentally friendly” power.

Yet in times of strife, the province’s political leaders, along with Nalcor’s current CEO Stan Marshall, appear reticent to speak clearly and honestly about the ecological and life-threatening impacts of projects such as Muskrat Falls. In short, ecology matters when it can be used positively, but when it comes to evaluating the negative consequences of our projects and actions, it is conveniently ignored.

I speak of the ecological rather than the environmental because ecology emphasizes the relation of organisms to their environment, which also includes how they relate to each other. It seems to me that when we are speaking about a hydroelectric project that could result in poisoning the food sources of the Innu and Inuit, we are speaking about an ecological issue whose implications are far broader and more complex in scope than that which is typically associated with the “environmental.”

The threat posed by our projects and consumer practices—which are often masked under the false promise of an unprecedented generation of wealth and sustainability—to the lives and practices of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, along with the preservation of the land itself, is what motivates my commitment and work for the local not-for-profit organization For A New Earth (FANE), of which I am Co-Director (along with Dr. Sean McGrath and Dr. Barry Stephenson).

Founding For A New Earth

FANE’s founding session on the way to becoming a not-for-profit was a November 7 2017 public lecture at the Ship Pub that was attended by hundreds. On February 8 of this year, a packed house attended the follow-up General Meeting at the Cochrane Centre, which featured speeches from Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary, Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Ches Crosbie, NDP MHA Gerry Rogers, and several professors from Memorial University.

FANE’s objective is to push ecological discussions and action to the fore of public awareness and policy-making in Newfoundland and Labrador. Its primary goals include preserving and expanding protected areas in NL; assessing and shaping policy decisions; involving academics in public ecological discussions; promoting ecologically-minded political leadership and democratic decision-making in the province; promoting alternative energy sources in the province; and developing alternatives to local patterns of consumerism.

Both the public lecture and the Meeting served as a confirmation that FANE’s executive is not alone in its commitments to these goals. An implied unanimity resounded in the room on the issue of the “democratic deficit” in Newfoundland and Labrador at the moment. The sentiment was so strong that it promoted a debate about the possible restructuring of democracy in the province.

Typically, when Muskrat Falls is mentioned, many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians feel an outrage that cannot be reduced to the admittedly shocking projected cost of the project, which is now approximately double the initial estimates. Rather, there appears to be an ongoing distrust of the statements made by representatives of the government and Nalcor. These statements are often proclaimed with a confidence and authority that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians may have swallowed easily during the Danny Williams era, but will swallow no more.

Indeed, the word openly employed by some audience members in reaction to Marshall’s talk on February 15 2018 at Memorial University was “condescending.” Multiple times Marshall expressed an unfaltering confidence that no one will die or be poisoned by methylmercury due to the pursuit of the Muskrat Falls project. Furthermore, he unequivocally dismissed the critical work of Swedish Landslide Expert Dr. Stig Bernander on the North Spur (who he referred to as the “chap from Norway”), claiming that this engineer “doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

FANE Co-Director and Founder Dr. Sean McGrath addressed Marshall head-on at that talk, stating that Muskrat Falls was a “disaster for the democratic process in Newfoundland and Labrador.” He reminded the crowd of the hunger strikes and the forever-changed lives of the Innu and Inuit, and asked “how we will restore our faith in Newfoundland and Labrador?”

In short, Marshall refused to address any ecological concerns about Muskrat Falls, and the crowd wasn’t having it. One audience member—in reaction to Marshall’s deference to four unnamed geotechnical engineers on the issue of the North Spur— shouted back “they’re your PhD’s!”

This is a point that MUN Economist James Feehan, who has been publicly opposed to the project since before its inception, formulated at the FANE General Meeting. He underlined the need to elect leadership in Newfoundland and Labrador that is willing and wants to be informed. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians trust the reports, assessments and panels conducted and appointed by Nalcor less and less. Feehan prompted the crowd to be suspicious of the aforementioned environmental rhetoric from those in charge in 2010. If politicians during the inception of the Muskrat Falls project were truly environmentalists, Feehan says, they would have focused attention on the Holyrood Thermal Generating Station.

Although Muskrat Falls remains our largest provincial challenge to sustainability, trust, and our future, it is not the only ecological issue facing Newfoundland and Labrador. For example, at the meeting, Rogers emphasized the need to identify exactly what areas of land in the province Newfoundlanders and Labradorians want to protect. MUN anthropology professor Dr. Reade Davis also encouraged Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to slow down and reconsider their complex relationship to nature—which, although it may not be pristine and pure, indisputably necessitates a close acknowledgment of that which we value about the land we inhabit together.

O’Leary identified certain practical, hands-on, environmental issues, including protecting wetlands and regulations surrounding mandatory tree planting on new development lots. O’Leary’s proposal for a provincial ban on single-use plastic bags was the most prominent policy issue raised and discussed at the Meeting. There was a resonating echo of support and willingness to act on this issue from almost everyone in the room. Other alternatives to local patterns of consumption were also expressed at the meeting. For example, Phil Coates from Island Compost made members aware of his residential compost pick up service.

It seems that many people in the province are ready for policy change that incorporates ecological concerns, both on the large scale (Muskrat Falls) and on a lower scale (plastic bags). The size and population of Newfoundland and Labrador offers a unique possibility for critical voices to be heard and for people to come together to effect real change. Associate Professor of Geography Dr. Josh Lepawsky thus highlighted at the Meeting that it is collective action, rather than a constant focus on individual responsibility, that will be the key to changing the ecological scenario of the province together.

FANE’s next public event is a Public Symposium on the Muskrat Falls Project at the Lawrence O’Brien Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, on 21 and 22 February 2018, in collaboration with the Royal Society of Canada, the Labrador Institute and Memorial University’s Department of Philosophy. The goal of the Symposium is to give all voices a structured space to be heard and to tell the story of Muskrat Falls in all of its economic, social and political complexity. This will be an opportunity for researchers, Land Protectors, community members, industry representatives and the general public to hear each other, and for the active facilitation of a critical discussion. Please get in touch with For A New Earth at [email protected] if you are interested in this event.

Kyla Bruff is a PhD candidate in Philosophy whose research focuses primarily on political philosophy and ecology. She is Co-Director of For A New Earth as well as treasurer of the North American Schelling Society (NASS) and Managing Editor of Kabiri: The Journal of the North American Schelling Society. Her hobbies include learning languages and playing ice hockey. She can be contacted at kyla.bruff (at) mun (dot) ca.

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