Once autumn arrives, the sparse entertainment on the MV Apollo becomes even sparser. There’s a fancy restaurant visible through white curtains, but the doors remain locked summer and fall. A sign says dinner reservations are required, but no reservations are ever taken.
One deck up, a lounge boasting a broad sweep of windows overlooking the bow is always open, but the bar in the corner never serves drinks. Downstairs a gift shop that operates in summer is not only closed, but is stripped bare of all merchandise. A cafeteria serves for most of the two- to three-hour crossing from St. Barbe to Blanc-Sablon, Qué., but to hang around invites the danger of overeating.
Aside from going onto the outside deck to watch smokers search for places to light up, the only diversion is the rack that usually holds dozens of tourist brochures. By autumn there’s little left to read. One pamphlet advertises boat tours in Bonne Bay, another a bed-and-breakfast in Forteau. A third asks, “Why turn left when you disembark?”
Why indeed? The pamphlet is meant as an invitation, as most passengers who get off the Apollo are expected to immediately turn right at Route 138 towards L’Anse au Clair and the rest of Labrador. The brochure wants travellers to linger on the left side of the border: “Don’t miss Blanc-Sablon and Bonne-Espérance in Québec!”
The pamphlet makes a persuasive argument. The six small towns on the Gulf-side highway that ends in a cul-de-sac west of Old Fort Bay are set in a beautiful landscape where visitors can cast lines into rushing currents of salmon rivers, explore an ocean archipelago and view icebergs, seabirds, whales and other marine mammals.
But the quiet dead end in this forgotten corner of la Belle Province won’t remain so for much longer. One day soon (with or without a tunnel under the Strait of Belle Isle) Route 138 will become a major highway for anyone driving from the Avalon Peninsula to central Canada. Route 138 may only be a road of a few kilometres at its eastern extreme, but the greater part of it starts far away at Montréal and follows the north shore of the St. Lawrence River all the way to Sept-Iles and a bit beyond.
Until now, the dozen or so communities inside the gap have been supplied by boat and plane only. Until recently, the prospect of a road running along the whole North Shore has been as wistfully wished for as Labrador’s Freedom Road back in the 1970s and ’80s. No longer. The completion of Route 138 has been part of the Quebec government’s Plan Nord for several years, with construction of roadways and bridges well underway.
Plan Nord is Quebec’s three-pronged push to exploit more natural resources by improving access to Val D’Or, Schefferville and their Lower North Shore. What Plan Nord means for Quebeckers is well-appreciated: thousands of short-term, highly paid jobs.
That Plan Nord means anything to anyone else comes as a surprise to many Quebeckers and to many Newfoundlanders and some Labradorians, as well. But not to all — some Newfoundlanders believe it could change their lives. They see Route 138 as finally giving them a way to avoid the ferry to Cape Breton Island. They are mistaken, for a simple reason: they already have one. It’s called the Trans-Labrador Highway.
One day, people might realize they could easily drive from St. John’s to Toronto as quick or quicker by way of St. Barbe, Churchill Falls and Labrador City as by Port-aux-Basques. It’s not yet possible because the Newfoundland government won’t pave the 600-kilometre dirt track from Red Bay to Blackrock. Perhaps government ministers don’t promote this alternate route to Newfoundlanders because they’re afraid they’ll then be forced to bring it up to proper standards.
The sooner the dirt is paved, the quicker Labradorians will benefit from the enlivened commerce that increasing traffic will bring. As long as the government regards pavement as a handout rather than an investment, those benefits will keep flowing to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
If Route 138 opens before Route 510 becomes fit for use by Newfoundlanders, then the benefits will also go to Québec. Labradorians will miss out again.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.