Funnel vision

The fixed link is back in the news again. And while it might be a fun idea, it’s not a real solution to any of the problems it purports to address.

On March 20 @YvonneJJones tweeted the following:

“DawnChafe, Atlantic Bus writes: if Lab democratically decided to become a stand alone Prov, a $1.7B tunnel would be the least of NL(sic) problems”

Twitter can often be annoying for those trying to make complex points in a meager 140 characters; at other times it’s quite amazing how many complex ideas you can convey in one sentence. I realize that just because you tweet or retweet something doesn’t mean you support that point of view. Heck, I often retweet things I find appalling, ridiculous, or foolish, just to encourage others to have a gander or a poke at them too.

But in this case I would estimate the Member of Parliament for Labrador is, at once, tapping into the separatist, quasi-nationalist resurgence in Labrador, as well as expressing some frustration at the high cost of goods and poor transportation infrastructure which is impeding the future growth and sustainability of her constituent communities. Or perhaps she thinks the ideas are crazy and wants others to pile into them. Either way, the quote in question comes from an editorial in Atlantic Business magazine which has roiled the Straits funnel/fixed link idea once again into public discourse. The editorial was a precursor to another article published by Wade Kearley the following day in the same magazine.

All of this has raised a couple of issues worth discussing.

Issue #1: Separatism

Like I said in a previous column, separatist and nationalist sentiments in the province are complex things to unpack, and even more complex to bring to fruition. Wade Locke co-authored a book and paper on a similar issue for Cape Breton in 2003. I’ve been asked many times in the past, and quite a number of times again recently: how could Labrador and Newfoundland get a divorce (either from each other, or from Canada)? Well let’s consider.

Provinces can hold referenda to indicate the public’s willingness to negotiate the terms of secession from Canada. Simple enough.

Territories of Canada can also be broken up, divided, and merged by acts of legislation in Canada’s Parliament, a la Rupert’s Land, and later the Northwest Territories. Even easier.

New provinces can be made from loose territories (i.e. those not controlled by a province) by means of a constitutional change, which requires seven provinces with at least 50 per cent of their respective populations to agree. Not too difficult…for something like adding the Turks and Caicos, say.

But to get back to my point.

If Labrador democratically decided to become a stand-alone province

Can’t happen. Sorry. Thanks for the support but there’s only four ways a region of a province can become self governing:

  • Through an act of provincial legislation granting home rule. This comes into play with things like Aboriginal self government, or regional public government (think Nunavik, Quebec). But it still falls within provincial jurisdiction.
  • Following the first point, a province can kick out a region of that province, by an act of provincial legislation. Nova Scotia could get so sick of Cape Breton’s whining and complaining (that Cape Breton claims it gives too many resources with too little return) that it could decide to just throw them out of the province.
  • A province can separate from Canada, but thanks to the Clarity Act, some regions of the province could remain in Canada.
  • A challenge could be made by an Aboriginal group that they have no Treaty with Canada or Newfoundland, and thus the lands never legally passed into Crown control.

These are all pretty big stretches, and by no means can Labrador just vote and go. They could get intransigent for decades – block developments, shut down infrastructure projects, blow up pipelines, all that kind of stuff – until they get kicked out. But that would require a sacrifice of mortgage payments and all of that. I’m not being cynical when I say it, but I just can’t see people exerting that much willpower. I do believe in regional public governments and Aboriginal self government and inter-Aboriginal co-operation, however. But that’s another story.

Issue #2: “Fixed link will fix all” mentality

Yes b’ys. We’ve been sittin’ around the trappers’ tilts, igloos, and tents plotting our escape. All those years of neglect, giving more than we receive, the racism, the feeling of being owned can all be bought off. Well, I guess it’s partially true. When Labradorians feel their needs are partially taken care of, or there’s a promise of taking care of people’s needs, people hush up and hope for the best. But seriously? I’m not convinced a $2 billion tunnel is the solution to Labrador separatist sentiments.

Shipping Routes
Quebec to St. John’s shipping routes.

First off, Island politicians: please stop telling Labradorians a tunnel would be the best option for us. We have far greater infrastructure gaps that $2 billion could go towards. Back in 2003 when Danny Williams’ PCs were storming through the election the fixed link idea was being sold as a way to get cheaper goods to Labrador, and to increase infrastructure to support growing economies. I said it then and I’ll say it now: it’s not the cheapest or best solution for Labrador’s needs. And forgive our cynicism, but Labradorians were calling it the ‘straits funnel’ because it would be used primarily for trucking even more resources to the island for processing.

Yes, I realize the Labrador Straits area would have greater ability to get to and from the island for hospital and shopping trips. But overall, the completion of Route 138 – connecting Labrador to the west, not the south – is the key to cheaper goods and more reliable transportation to and from markets. Considering that 90 per cent of Labrador’s (and Newfoundland’s) goods come through Montreal or Quebec, shortening that route is the best option. Besides, the tunnel idea hinges on that highway being completed in the first place.

Second, Island politicians: please stop telling Newfoundlanders that a tunnel would be best for them. Shipping continues to be cheaper than trucking in any case. And with $2 billion you could build one helluva reliable ferry service – complete with provincially-owned ice breakers – on the same route the tunnel would go. Danny Williams’ own pre-feasibility study showed that while feasible, it’s not viable. As seen above, the existing system trucks goods from Montreal to St John’s along the most populous route already, meaning goods are shipped and warehoused along the cheapest corridor with the most people. Outbound transportation of goods to the US (fish products, etc.) is much faster through the Maritimes than through Quebec.

The tunnel route would be the same distance from Montreal to St. John’s – and no, ice won’t stop a tunnel. But then again $2 billion is a lot of icebreaker and ferry and increased Labrador and Northern peninsula infrastructure development money.

We are not talking about a drive-thru tunnel here

This is an electric rail line. So you would still have the same delays and backed up traffic issues that you currently have on the gulf ferries. It’s not a magic bullet. Furthermore, the cost of the tunnel, according to this report, was rough and included the savings of transporting ‘Lower Churchill’ power through the tunnel instead of a separate trench. Clearly that’s not happening.

Yes, Norway has tunnels. Good for them. They have more people and more money. And different bedrock. Yes, the Chunnel exists. It connects 130 million+ people. Yes, PEI has the Confederation Bridge. But this tunnel would have to be financed by the taxpayers, not private investors. There are all kinds of ways to improve transportation in this province. There are all kinds of ways to improve relationships between the island and the mainland too. Let’s work on our real needs before we toss money on our wants, please.

I think it’s a cool idea, but you don’t buy new furniture when your roof is leaking.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to an article on or address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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