Another kick at the can

Peter
Peter Jackson
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The story of hydroelectric power generation in Labrador is a long and complicated one. But in the end, one simple fact remains: Quebec was handed an insanely lopsided licence in 1969 to siphon the bulk of Upper Churchill wealth out of this province, and it will fight tooth and nail to keep that deal intact.

Billions of dollars are at stake; Quebec could hardly be expected to do anything less. But the deal is patently unfair and - at the risk of sounding like a latter-day Joe McCarthy - patently un-Canadian.

The story of hydroelectric power generation in Labrador is a long and complicated one. But in the end, one simple fact remains: Quebec was handed an insanely lopsided licence in 1969 to siphon the bulk of Upper Churchill wealth out of this province, and it will fight tooth and nail to keep that deal intact.

Billions of dollars are at stake; Quebec could hardly be expected to do anything less. But the deal is patently unfair and - at the risk of sounding like a latter-day Joe McCarthy - patently un-Canadian.

The province's Water Rights Reversion Act of the early 1980s - which was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada - attempted to uphold the province's constitutional right to its own resources.

Its effect would have been to expropriate Upper Churchill water rights and consequently undo the contract with Hydro-Quebec.

The Supreme Court saw it as a deliberate attempt to undermine a valid contract - which, in effect, it was - although the question remains whether the contract should be considered "valid" if it usurps one province's ability to control and prosper from its own resources. It's a chicken and egg thing, and a majority of judges felt the chicken held the squawking rights.

(In questioning this decision in a past column, I was labelled "Duplessiste" by a former Liberal strategist. It was an astonishing revelation, as I had no idea I was advocating widespread corruption, union-busting, church dominance and overflowing orphanages.)

At any rate, other premiers have poked at the Upper Churchill pact from various angles, but have been unable to shake it loose. So, when the province's energy company, Nalcor, announced this month it had formally "requested" that Hydro-Quebec reopen the contract, red flags went up.

Nalcor's communiquÉ included reference to the Quebec Civil Code which, since 1994, has included provisions that would nullify a lopsided contract deemed to have been negotiated in bad faith. In other words, Nalcor was saying, "renegotiate or we'll take you to court."

It's hard to imagine that after the highest court in the land had already upheld the contract, a simple civil code clause could strike it down. But there are a couple of differences between the two cases.

First, there is no "hidden" agenda in the current argument. The province is not, as the Supreme Court assumed in the former case, using a constitutional argument to simply weasel out of a bad contract. This time, the province is, quite openly, trying to weasel out of a bad contract. And Quebec's law seems to offer such an opening.

Second, if this case was appealed beyond provincial jurisdiction, it would be Quebec's own law that would be in question. And Quebec doesn't usually like federal courts interfering in its laws.

It's a long shot, to be sure. Quebec's energy minister and Hydro-Quebec's boss both dismissed it within 48 hours of hearing about it. And the fact that Premier Danny Williams is waffling about the legal case is not encouraging.

That being said, provincial Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones can hardly be excused for asking the government to sabotage its own plan.

There is something curiously naÏve about an opposition leader who asks the government to reveal a legal strategy for what could become a high-profile, interprovincial case. To make pretrial legal advice public is a little like handing secrets to the enemy.

Williams has been tackling the hydro issue on a number of fronts, and his efforts seem clumsy and contradictory at times. He vows to "go it alone," while secretly continuing to negotiate with Quebec and pressing Ottawa for financial backing. And he's openly juggling two possible transmission routes - Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

But exploring multiple avenues is not exactly a unique approach. Politics, as Bismarck said, is the art of the possible. And while any possibility remains to correct the imbalance of Labrador power development, it deserves a chance.

At least if the effort goes down in flames, it won't be for lack of trying.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Supreme Court of Canada, Hydro-Quebec

Geographic location: Quebec, Labrador, Ottawa Atlantic Canada

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  • Taxpayer ll
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    I don't think the Premier has been waffling, or clumsy,or contradictory, but hey, this is the tele, and you guys do have to bash the premier at least once a day, so keep up the (good?) work guys, you'll get a job out of it yet.

  • Taxpayer ll
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    I don't think the Premier has been waffling, or clumsy,or contradictory, but hey, this is the tele, and you guys do have to bash the premier at least once a day, so keep up the (good?) work guys, you'll get a job out of it yet.