Milestone has different appeal in Labrador

Terry Roberts
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Labour

We often hear debates about Newfoundland's place in Confederation, and undercurrents of nationalism as some still debate the merits of joining with Canada in 1949.

There's a similar undertone in Labrador, but the barbs are most often directed at the island portion of the province, or, more accurately, the provincial government, with charges that Labrador and its more than 26,000 inhabitants are underappreciated and taken for granted.

Then Premier Joey Smallwood stands at a news conference wearing a Churchill Falls hardhat. -Photo courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Memorial University of Newfoundland

We often hear debates about Newfoundland's place in Confederation, and undercurrents of nationalism as some still debate the merits of joining with Canada in 1949.

There's a similar undertone in Labrador, but the barbs are most often directed at the island portion of the province, or, more accurately, the provincial government, with charges that Labrador and its more than 26,000 inhabitants are underappreciated and taken for granted.

Many say the feeling of alienation has ebbed somewhat in recent years, eased by increased investment in infrastructure such as roads, schools and health-care facilities, land claims agreements with aboriginal groups, and stronger representation at the political level.

But there are flashes of discontent from time to time, usually sparked by anger over plans for resource development and the resulting benefits for Labradorians.

"That feeling is always there and it will always be there, similar to the feelings Newfoundlanders have toward Canada," said Stanley Oliver, deputy mayor of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and past-president of the Combined Councils of Labrador, which represents 33 communities.

While there was great bitterness and division on the island during the Confederation debate, the people of Labrador were resounding in their support for a union with Canada, a bond that evolved through Labrador's physical connection to the mainland.

But the resentment felt by Labradorians toward the island goes back much farther than the Confederation debate, with many saying it originated in the 19th century with the migratory fishery, which at one point saw roughly 20,000 Newfoundlanders making their way each year to the rich fishing grounds off Labrador. This resource was exploited mainly for the benefit of Newfoundlanders, and Labradorians began to feel like they were second-class citizens.

This belief was reinforced during the development of the Churchill Falls hydroelectric megaproject in the 1960s, and the establishment of a world-class mining industry in Labrador West. Labradorians felt they had no say in their affairs, and the wealth generated from their resources was being extracted for the benefit of others, said Labrador MP Todd Russell, a passionate defender of his homeland and harsh critic of provincial policies.

To Newfoundlanders, the Churchill Falls project became known as a bad deal. It was something more personal for Labradorians, Russell said.

"We also lost a river, a way of life, whether you were Innu, Inuit or Metis or someone who moved here. There was no compensation," Russell said.

Russell is not a separatist, but believes it's time to re-examine the governance structure for Labrador, noting "there is hope for a true partnership, but I don't believe it now exists."

A generation ago, Labradorians traditionally elected politicians that came from the island. It wasn't until levels of education improved and frustration mounted that this changed. There's now been a long list of local politicians who have carried the Labrador message to the halls of power in St. John's and Ottawa, and it's slowly making a difference, Oliver noted.

He said the landscape has changed when it comes to resource development, co-operation and consultation, and he credits much of this to the growing political power of aboriginal groups. But Oliver and others say there's still a long way to go to erase the inequities of the past.

And while relations with the current government of Premier Danny Williams have generally been fruitful, he said there are still irritants that make Labradorians question their place in the province.

He made special mention of the province's much-hyped energy plan, which was announced nearly two years ago. There was a loud outcry from Labrador about how the Lower Churchill hydro project would be developed, and the benefits it would bring to Labrador.

"It kind of stirred up feelings of contempt and questions about our place with this government," Oliver said.

In terms of infrastructure, Labradorians often lament that they are many years behind Newfoundland, and further still behind the rest of Canada.

Transportation has long been a sore point, and the lobby for improved road and marine coastal infrastructure has often dominated politics in the region. In the 1990s, supporters of a proposed Trans-Labrador Highway even threatened separation from the province over the issue. After many years of construction and millions of dollars in investment, that dream is expected to become a reality by next year.

This roadway will change the face of Labrador, said Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Leo Abbass. He said it will open up the region to traffic from Newfoundland and mainland Canada, and result in new opportunities for economic development, cultural and sporting events.

"This interaction will only strengthen the province's understanding of who we are and hopefully make us more united," Abbass said.

Because of this underlying feeling of alienation and disregard, a unique sense of identity permeates every facet of life in Labrador. The most visible evidence of this is the Labrador flag, which for many trumps the province's official banner. Russell displays this uniqueness right on his lapel, where he routinely wears a pin featuring the Canadian and Labrador flags.

"I'm trying to say that there is a certain sense of pride in where I come from," Russell said.

"I'm not saying I'm not proud to be from the province. I have my issues as a representative and as a person from Labrador with the island portion, but I'm also proud that I'm from this part of Canada that's called Newfoundland and Labrador."

troberts@thetelegram.com

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, Happy Valley Goose Bay St. John's Ottawa

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments