The Labrador Problem

The recent provincial budget highlights structural issues with how services in Labrador are financed. Rather than assigning blame to various governments it is necessary that the provincial and federal governments re-evaluate how services are provided to isolated ‘territories’ lacking self-governance.

It’s time to admit we have a problem.

As a province, we are collectively beginning to understand the scope and magnitude of the 2016 provincial budget. On its whole, the budget is similar to what others have predicted in that there are major increases in revenue and some spending reductions, with additional changes—e.g. job cuts—expected during the fall update.

This type of budget is seen by some as regressive (harming the poor the most), and by others as unfortunate but necessary in some respects. We know what has caused this situation: poor fiscal planning, excessive spending and tax cuts which relied on the maintenance of unusually high oil prices. Basically, a textbook case of what not to do if you want to run a province successfully. The opposition parties were culpable too; instead of asking the tough questions on the economics or viability of policies, they largely avoided economic arguments for years despite the ample evidence of a problem coming. This all culminated in an election where all the main parties avoided discussing their plans in detail.

As is often the case, when tax increases or services tend to be cut they disproportionately impact the most vulnerable in our society, a fact that is amplified in Labrador. In coastal Labrador, where poverty is widespread, residents currently pay the highest gas prices in the province and are now being asked to pay substantially more for gasoline.

This, combined with other decisions and in addition to years of perceived injustice, has caused an increase in separatist sentiment in Labrador that has emerged over the past few days. The budget highlights some of the structural challenges facing Labradorians. 

Labrador underfunding systemic

Labrador’s place in the lexicon of people, journalists, policy-makers and academics in the province is often controversial. There are certainly areas of the province where people would argue that Labradorians get enough money and infrastructure investments from the provincial government. This view is chided by those living in the northern section of our province (including by yours truly at times). 

As a Labradorian, to me the way it seems to work is that when the finances are good in the province, that’s when money makes its way into Labrador. And when the finances are bad, then it doesn’t to the same degree. The 2016 budget follows this same pattern: Your community can get that airstrip it desperately needs or that road paved if the time is right, and if not you’ll just have to grin and bear it.

In this entire discussion it is important to remember that just because there are issues in Labrador doesn’t mean there aren’t sometimes similarly important issues on the Island, particularly in isolated and underserviced outport communities. When you think about the relatively large size of the island portion of the province and its small population, even providing adequate services across that region is challenging.

It has certainly become evident to me that for the above reasons the issue with funding in Labrador is systemic and unresolvable without the federal government at the table. Why the federal government? Well, it is important to remember that Labrador is effectively a territory being governed within a province. 

Labrador and the territories

If we look at the other territories, we can get some idea as to their social and physical ‘character’. First, territories are large land masses with a low-density population (less than 0.1 people per km2). Second, their populations typically have a larger share of Indigenous Peoples from multiple backgrounds (see Table 1 below). Third, they are isolated and northern and correspondingly have major costs associated with most activities for this region. 

Now let’s look at Labrador. 

The population density is pretty low (less than 0.1 people per km2). There’s a lot of people of Indigenous background (~37 percent inclusive, or ~51 percent excluding Labrador City and Wabush). 

Is Labrador isolated? Yes, exceedingly so. 

Is it ‘Northern’? Yes. 

Really Northern? Yes. Labrador is unique in terms of its climate, making it essentially more similar to places farther north thanks to our ‘friend’ the Labrador Current. This current carries cold Arctic waters along the Labrador coastline. 

Consdier another example. Labrador City (52.9°N), one of Labrador’s southern communities, has a climate which on average is more similar to Whitehorse (60.7°N) or Yellowknife (62.4°N) than it is to any community on the Island of Newfoundland. 

Labrador Problem Table 1
Table 1. General characteristics for three territories and Labrador. (Click to enlarge.)

By any reasonable metric, Labrador should be considered northern.

Assuming we can all agree that Labrador is a unique portion of the province of N.L., then the problem starts to come a little more into focus. 

Since joining Canada, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has essentially had to foot the bill for providing services for what amounts to a territory for more than 60 years. Sure, there are instances where the federal government has contributed funding for various projects—e.g. the Trans-Labrador Highway—but it certainly hasn’t been a long-term permanent funding structure in the way that is needed to give Labradorians a reasonable quality of life. 

Furthermore, the lack of some sort of a formal funding agreement has undoubtedly forced the island portion of the province to be neglected in areas as well, which undoubtedly fuels negativity between residents of Labrador and the Island of Newfoundland.

Overall, many Labradorians feel frustrated that there is so little investment which comes from the provincial government into Labrador unless it is related to natural resource projects. While this point may be true, the counter-argument that could be made is that even if we had absurdly high taxes and shifted huge chunks of the provincial budget towards Labrador, it is unlikely that there would be enough money to deal with all the issues in Labrador which are related to years of underinvestment and colonialism. 

This is where the problem really lies. Even if the provincial government had played more of an active role in investing in Labrador historically, it would not have had the capacity to deliver the services that most people today require. That this problem has been allowed to fester for more than 60 years shows that the federal government has to some degree abdicated its responsibility to the people of Labrador. 

Potential solutions

So how can this be resolved? 

Well, first we need to all be more active participants in the political process and particularly in lobbying our government representatives at the federal and provincial level for a new funding structure to support the people of Labrador. If we look at how much money the territories receive per person, we can see that generally the more isolated the territory the more money is made available (see Image 1). 

Graphic by Robert Way.
Image 1: Per person federal funding to the territories compared to population density. (Click to enlarge.)

Were Labrador under a similar funding regime to a territory—assuming this admittedly crude representation was even remotely realistic—we would be receiving about $600 million a year from the federal government. I’m not advocating that Labrador necessarily heads towards being a territory; this type of process takes years and undoubtedly would be very complicated with multiple land claims present from Indigenous groups. 

However, a consistent funding structure allocated to the provincial government that is earmarked directly for Labrador would allow for investment to occur without the problems of self-determination. Even half the amount above (around $600 million) would pay huge dividends for the people of Labrador. Without a coherent long-term funding strategy in Labrador, it seems likely that we are destined to continually repeat the same boom and bust cycle of investment that has promoted inequality and outmigration.

If we can’t have accessible communities with electricity, clean running water, internet and cellular services, then it will continue to be difficult to retain people in this portion of the province.

Labradorians are proud people, many of whom would love to spend their lives in the region. However, the reality of the modern world is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to do this. 

So yes, it is certainly time to admit that we have a problem. A solution would be the type of #realchange Labradorians and Indigenous People living there deserve.

Robert Way is a Labradorian of Inuit descent from Goose Bay. He’s spent most of his adult life studying Arctic (and Antarctic) environmental change. He is currently a PhD Candidate in Physical Geography at the University of Ottawa and can often be found deep in the wilderness of Labrador clinging to a mountainside.

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