Public engagement at heart of Cabot Martin’s efforts

Posted on December 13, 2022 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments


Cabot Martin (Submitted photo)


Cabot Martin liked to get people talking, engaged. He wanted watercooler chats and debates over family dinner about how to make Newfoundland and Labrador stronger, better. Really, he liked for people to talk about the details of ideas and how to bring them to fruition. He took firm positions on a long list of topics over the years, relevant to local business and politics. As friends would tell you, he was always prepared to argue his case.

“When he spoke, he had done his homework, he had engaged in considerable research,” Des Sullivan told Atlantic Business Magazine. One of Martin’s last pieces of work was a contribution for Sullivan’s Uncle Gnarley blog, while Sullivan later wrote his own reflections on Martin’s passing.

Martin was 78 years old when he died on Sept. 2. And inspired by Martin’s efforts in life, the Friends of Cabot Martin—a committee including individuals he’d met through bureaucratic work, business and advocacy, including Sullivan, David Vardy, Pat Laracy, Diana Baird, Jonathan Moir, Carol Osmond, Ray Andrews, Rob Strong, Con O’Brien, Doug Moores and Phonse Fagan—have worked with Memorial University of Newfoundland to establish the Cabot Martin Research Award for Regional Policy and Development. It offers one research award of up to $15,000 each year for six years to start, not limited to any particular discipline and available to students and faculty. The committee is now seeking donations to support extending the award for an even longer period. (Donations are being handled by the university, with tax deductible receipts. Further information is available here).

The university is managing the award, including criteria and decisions on recipients each year. While they hold the reins, as Sullivan confirmed, there was one element Martin’s friends insisted on when it came to the award process: a public lecture on the research project and public discussion. It will be advertised and known as the annual Cabot Martin lecture.

Martin’s life’s work was diverse. It included years as an advisor to premiers Frank Moores and Brian Peckford, advocacy against overfishing and other aspects of fisheries management, an attempt at cod farming, investigation of oil resources (particularly in the Deer lake Basin through Deer Lake Oil & Gas) and efforts to raise the level of public debate around details of the Muskrat Falls Hydroelectric Project.

His interest in seeing information laid out, open for review, then discussed in an effort to have an informed public set him apart from others. He wasn’t a notable figure simply for being a member of the negotiating team for the Atlantic Accord, signed in February 1985. He was a public voice on the subject for years before, describing the province’s positions on offshore resources to the public in Newfoundland and Labrador and elsewhere. His outline of the province’s position was published by the Ottawa Law Review. And while the premiers naturally did interviews on the subject, so too did Martin. Take for example his 1976 appearance on CBC’s Land & Sea, discussing the fundamentals around what was described in the episode as “the greatest legal battle of our (NL’s) history”—the legal battle on offshore resource rights.

The legal fight was lost in the courts. The provincial government would eventually bring the Atlantic Accord over the finish line, with Martin as a member of the negotiating team for the settlement, but for many in the general public, he was a leading voice on the topic. In this and many other instances, he showed throughout his life that you did not need to be an elected member of the province’s House of Assembly to seek to inform and affect public dialogue.

As described in informational material developed for the new Cabot Martin Award, he believed in, “the principle of ‘subsidiarity,’ devolving governance close to people. Cabot called it the ‘adjacency principle,’ where local communities make key decisions on the matters that are vital to their interest.”

One of the reasons Martin self-published his book Muskrat Madness (2014) is that he didn’t want to wait and work through the standard publishing process. He was urgently trying to spur greater discussion in the moment on topics related to the project, including the use of offshore natural gas for a power supply alternative (even if the project was well underway) and the stability of the North Spur, a natural formation making up part of the Muskrat Falls dam area. Martin openly questioned the plan to incorporate the natural structure into the build, returning the issue to the forefront time and again.

When his book was ready, he didn’t sit at home and wait for orders. He loaded up boxes and drove copies from shop to independent shop, from downtown St. John’s to stops on the Trans-Labrador Highway. Stores like the since-closed Afterwards in St. John’s reported needing to go back to Martin to order box after box. It landed on desks throughout Confederation Building.

At this point, plenty of advocates had given up on hammering away at concerns around the project or talk of alternatives, given how far work had progressed and the feeling of nothing changing. Martin pressed on. The discussion and debate was everything, since it was through the debate that people would learn about available research and points of view among the influential, and where there were genuine gaps in the knowledge of decision makers and the general public.

It was not uncommon for debates Martin was involved in to get heated, to put it kindly. In relation to his public comments on the Muskrat Falls Project, his motivations were often questioned. Evidence at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry, for example, included an email from the independent engineer assigned to the project questioning, “who was supporting the Cabot Martin ‘enterprise’.” Martin never let up.

“For him, having the public aware of various implications of public policy issues was fundamental,” Sullivan said.

The Cabot Martin lecture and Cabot Martin Research Award for Regional Policy and Development were specifically designed to honour the idea.


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