All Labradorians ever wanted was a voice, but they are always asked to listen. All Newfoundland’s government had to do was respect what Labradorians said, but governments will always rather talk.
History shows that the audience governments give to Labrador’s concerns tends at best to be perfunctory and at worst selective. In the first instance Labradorians are at least all dismissed equally, but in the second Labrador’s diverse peoples have their interests set in opposition to each other. Governments of all kinds everywhere have employed similar divide-and-conquer strategies throughout history to exert control over an unruly populace — sometimes the ruler’s own, but often one of a conquered territory. In either case, the strategy is most useful when authorities can discourage the formation of a unified opposition by winning the support of at least one faction. If the faction is powerful enough, like for example if it’s as influential as Labrador’s Innu Nation, the remaining opposition can become crippled. The government is then able to implement whatever policies it wants without any great regard for the opinions and desires of anyone else. Once it has the support of one faction it needn’t pay attention to the others.
However, that doesn’t always stop the unco-opted opposition from using their voices and if there is any wisdom in government these voices should still be heard. In Labrador, those diametrically opposed to the destruction of Muskrat Falls have almost given up on trying to stop the unwanted project and now their talk is moving to the next step. Since Newfoundland governments persistently ignore the legitimate demands of Labradorians, many say, then a change is needed — but not a change in government, a change in the system of government. A recent meeting in Happy Valley-Goose Bay illustrates that Labradorians are again looking for a new way for the region to be governed. They’re fed up with the age-old system that extracts resources like lumber, minerals and hydroelectricity wholesale from Labrador in exchange for token compensation, if any — the “crumbs,” as one man said at the meeting.
A spokesman for Nalcor, the province’s ruling energy corporation, had already proclaimed that the so-called crumbs from Muskrat Falls add up to $150-million, almost $30-million of which was paid as wages to Labradorians. The spokesman suggested the rest represents payments to businesses as well as some trickle-down through the economy, including $44-million the province provided to an aboriginal training program.
Those are not the only benefits used to justify the expenditure of $10-billion to destroy one of Labrador’s natural treasures. The latest premier recently claimed the government coffers will rake in half-a-billion dollars a year after the dam is finished, although he did not explain how — except off the backs of local ratepayers, given that no other paying markets have been discovered.
Anyone who lands a job at Muskrat Falls will certainly benefit from the bloated wages being paid to anyone involved, so a few of those short-term positions should go to local people. But as for how Nalcor takes credit for helping to train future workers: perhaps if the taxpayer’s money had not first been cut from the college system to pay Nalcor’s costs, the energy company wouldn’t now be scrambling to find qualified local employees.
Official Muskrat Falls updates usually inflate benefits while they never mention any drawbacks. Maybe that’s because drawbacks can’t easily be expressed in terms of millions of dollars lost or won and so they don’t effect the primary goal of the dam proponents: to disburse $10-billion of public money through various construction and management contracts.
However, for its own sake the provincial government should become aware of one large drawback: the project is undercutting the government’s legitimacy in Labrador. Witness the recent meeting of about 40 people to discuss new ways for Labrador to be governed. This question has been on many minds for many years, but the government’s overbearing decision to destroy Muskrat Falls has brought it once again to the fore. The government should listen to the voices asking it and try to answer it first. If the question forces a Constitutional crisis that lessens Newfoundland’s hold over Labrador, will that be a drawback or a benefit?
Michael Johansen is a resident of North West River, Labrador