In St. John’s, people get upset over all manner of things. Not so long ago it was the harbour fence, which even elicited comments from the usually apolitical Allan Hawco. This past week the big concern has been noisy motorcycles, while some recurrent points of contention for townies have been bike lanes, snow clearing, and condo developments.
Now, I am not suggesting these concerns are frivolous or without merit. In this rapidly growing metropolis, where tall glass buildings are springing up faster than rhubarb, issues of urban development immediately impact people and, therefore, constitute legitimate grievances. I went to protests and public meetings about snow clearing, condo development, and even the harbour fence, partly because I like seeing typically complacent people riled up about something but also because I agree in principle with many of the concerns about urban development.
Meanwhile in Labrador
Revelations this week of northern Labrador communities without food on store shelves, communities where shipments of basic food stuffs have not arrived since last November, put some of the townie problems in perspective for me. For the people of Makkovik, Hopedale, Postville, and other coastal Labrador communities, food shortages like this are par for the course, part of a pattern of neglect. These communities are also not hooked up to an integrated energy grid and rely on local diesel generation plants, which if they break down can take some time to repair.
Some will say that it would be prohibitively expensive for there to be reliable delivery of services like electricity and shipments of food to northern communities. Though it should be pointed out that many of these communities of between 300 or 1,000 people have been resettled from even smaller communities long since abandoned, and so they are actually centers in their own right. It is also difficult to imagine how these centers can develop or attract any sort of industry without an ample supply of electricity and reliable delivery of basic food stuffs, so saying costs to deliver services are prohibitive is simply shifting the blame.
The good people of Labrador have endured this systemic neglect and seldom complained. But when they see the billions of dollars that are being poured into projects like Muskrat Falls and the hundreds of millions proffered to corporations like Alderon to construct a transmission line to the Kami mining project it becomes too much to bear. Randy Edmunds, the MHA for Torngat Mountains and one of the few forthright politicians in the province today, has done excellent work to bring the issue of food shortages to public attention, and as a result the provincial government has hastily arranged to fly in supplies over the next few days. But really, this is a Band-Aid solution when what is required is a complete re-evaluation of how services are delivered and managed in Labrador.
Fueling the fire of Labrador independence
A pattern of neglect of Labrador communities on the part of the provincial government and its agencies has the potential to precipitate a new Labrador territory being formed in the Canadian federation. With regard to the issue at hand, it seems clear that a Labrador-based legislature would be better equipped to ensure delivery of services and supplies, since its focus would be exclusively the concerns of the people of Labrador.
And of course this possible territory, rich in mineral and natural resources, would have little difficulty finding revenues to provide services to communities; whereas in the current arrangement (or at least as it must look to the people of Labrador) the NL government uses Labrador resource wealth for the benefit of Newfoundland communities first. If you are in favor of Newfoundland and Labrador unity, this is not a good scenario, and the longer the status quo continues the more real becomes the possibility of a split.
In some sense, what needs to be talked about is priorities. It must be a priority that coastal Labrador communities have reliable food shipments and services even if there are costs. In more general terms, it must be a priority that the many legitimate grievances of the people of Labrador are addressed: pave and maintain the Trans-Labrador Highway; deal with the housing crisis in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Labrador City-Wabush; create programs to offset the outrageous cost of food in Labrador; provide adequate mental health and addiction services; etc.
Certainly there are many similar sorts of problems in Newfoundland and also in metropolitan St. John’s (the harbour fence isn’t really the biggest issue in town). But the pattern of neglect in Labrador has created a growing crisis, and I imagine if a similar crisis existed in St. John’s there would be major rioting. Labrador’s problems need to be addressed now, and in a meaningful way, or the province’s very existence as Newfoundland and Labrador is increasingly under threat.
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