“Not in the mood to beg”

Posted on September 04, 2013 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

Labrador’s economic contribution to the province grows every year. But are the benefits flowing back?

Newly minted Liberal Labrador MP Yvonne Jones is full of fire. And she’s not afraid to throw around words like “territorial status” when it comes to discussing the future of her vast, natural resource- rich district.

The economy of Labrador is, as she says, “absolutely sizzling” in terms of resource development and its spin-offs: Muskrat Falls, mining and mineral exploration, retail businesses, fishing, tourism, and so on.

“The strategic importance of Labrador will get higher in terms of financial power,” she says. “Does that mean more power for Labrador? It does not.”

Jones is indisputably right on at least one point: the value of Labrador is growing in relation to the provincial agenda. About 90 per cent of all the mining activity in the province is happening in Labrador West. By 2020, she says, Labrador will be the largest contributor to the province’s economy. Even as offshore oil developments are expected to calm down, mining is projected to continue to ramp up. It’s a lot of money that the provincial government has already come to depend on.

“It’s gone along this way since Confederation and that has to change. Labrador pays for every road in the province, keeps every ferry in the province going, and keeps a lot of the lights on. But in our own area, there is a chronic lack of services. We can’t even get the roads paved.”

Case in point: the Trans-Labrador Highway, a road system that connects major towns and communities in Labrador, opening up the Big Land and reducing the need to depend on expensive plane rides. The various stages of the Trans-Labrador Highway have been under construction for decades. Gradually, it is being paved.

In a climate of such economic excitement, Jones says she should not be handling daily phone calls from people who cannot get a job, can’t afford housing.

“Labrador is progressing. Why are Labradorians not progressing at the same rate? It’s not balancing out for us – how can we feel connected to the prosperity?”

Jones is realistic about the relative political influence of Labrador. The population of Labrador, 28,000 individuals in a land area of 300,000 square kilometres, is sparse. She holds the only Labrador-based seat in the House of Commons. There are just four in the provincial legislature. It doesn’t add up to a lot of votes on matters of policy.

“We do not have the power base to form a government … We don’t determine who runs the government. But we can determine if we want to be part of the government at all.”

And there it is. The big play.

“We could look for territorial status. I’m not advocating that … but it is an option.”

JONES IS TAKING ACTION, starting with the natural resources companies that are setting up shop in her district. She met with Nalcor early in the summer to air concerns that Labradorians and Labrador companies were not being given a fair opportunity to participate in the mega- project. Her questions for the Nalcor team cut straight to the chase: “Are you doing everything you can to hire Labradorians? Are you subcontracting to local companies?”

Her next meetings will be with mining companies operating in the district.

“My focus is to get through the door of every natural resources company and challenge them on their hiring practices,” she says. “I’m finding that a lot of the time [local companies] are not even having the chance … Out of fairness, local companies should be invited to bid on contracts. If they’re not competitive or don’t have the experience, that’s one thing. But give them the chance.

“We need a mindset change throughout Labrador.”

Part of that change would see government and industry pay more attention to the needs of the local communities and their residents. Jones says it’s not happening enough. “Public-private partnerships should be mandatory. Many communities have infrastructure deficiencies … Roads in Labrador City-Wabush are in deplorable condition. They were paved three decades ago, now there’s five times as much traffic.”

In Goose Bay, “the population is rising, the roads are old, there are no decent recreation facilities. Companies need to come together to address the needs.”

Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Leo Abbass agrees. “Traffic in town is congested,” he says. “And we don’t have the expertise to deal with it.”

The Town has hired a planner, which is a step in the right direction, but Abbass is well aware that additional capacity issues are hovering on the horizon: new water supply sources and a better waste management strategy will be required in short order. There are increasing demands on health care services. And the town’s budget is already “maxed out.”

“We are making demands,” he says. “We should have the same health care services as everywhere else in the province. We don’t expect a specialist in every community, but we’re looking for a similar type of lifestyle as that enjoyed by everyone else.”

Abass would like to see a new fiscal arrangement with the provincial government to bring in some money. “We have had the support from the Province to move things forward” – like opening Crown lands up for residential development – “just not at the pace I might like … but we push as hard as we can.” He admits a new level of confidence in the town’s prosperity is added motivation to push harder.

“There is lots of money coming out of Labrador and people want to see a return from it,” he says. “Maybe it’s because … things like the Trans-Labrador Highway have been so long coming.”

The provincial minister responsible for Labrador Affairs, Nick McGrath, points out that the Province has invested $4 billion in Labrador projects since 2004. “The provincial government is very well aware of the rights and needs of Labradorians,” he says. He’s long heard the talk amongst Labradorians about how much is coming out of Labrador – and that not enough is coming back.

He points out that wealth from Labrador, from any region of the province, benefits Newfoundlanders and Labradorians everywhere. It’s “boom, boom, boom, in all parts of the province,” he asserts.

JONES HAS A FRESH FRUSTRATION TO SHARE. “I was driving from Cartwright to Happy Valley-Goose Bay and I was driving near Muskrat Falls, just at the time everyone was getting off work. I was caught in a caravan of about eight vehicles, and I nearly had an accident! I couldn’t see for the dust.

“There are safety implications. They haven’t even paved the road to this major work site and they are putting people’s lives in danger.” That wouldn’t happen on the island, she maintains.

“We need to find a balance between resource development and standard of living. All my life I’ve been hearing this.” There’s always been a faction of the population, she says, that have mused about territorial status for Labrador. She asserts that it’s not idle barroom chat either, that it’s rooted in sincere “frustration, driven by a sense of unfairness.

“I’ve been in Labrador 45 years. It’s my home. Now I’m in a position to lead a movement – this situation can change. Government has an opportunity to strike that better balance, and I will work hard for it. But I’m not in the mood to beg for it.”

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