On the high end of homeless

Michael Johansen
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Oh, the benefits of development. Boom times are good times, they say. Jobs, jobs, jobs! Spinoff profits! Riches for all!

That's what they say. They say Labradorians should give away their region's natural resources for the promise of a small slice of a big pie. They say people who live in Labrador should let outsiders dam its rivers and take all the power to sell elsewhere. Sure, the profits (if there are any) will be collected by faraway financiers. Sure, most of the destruction and pollution will be borne by Labradorians. Sure, after everything is done, not one excited electron will be used in Labrador.

But none of that matters, they say. What matters is that Labrador will get 5,000 new jobs.

What they don't say is that while Labrador might get those jobs, almost all will bring their own job-holders with them. Only a fraction of the positions will be filled by Labradorians and only one segment of Labrador society is promised any of them - the members of a single aboriginal group. Otherwise, Nova Scotians and Newfoundlanders will have a better chance of getting on a Lower Churchill construction crew than any Labradorian.

Regardless of that, they say, the 5,000 positions themselves are an unmitigated benefit for Labrador - but what they say is clearly wrong.

Western Labrador is experiencing a boom, but that boom is not a boon for the people of the twin towns - not in the short term, or in the long, either. Thousands of workers are flooding into Wabush and Labrador City and they're forcing many of the old residents out. What's happening is a social tragedy for Labrador West and it portends what is in store for the rest of Labrador should it be further inflicted with megaproject madness.

Next in line for massive societal and economic upheaval, should the Newfoundland government have its implacable way, are the communities at the western end of Lake Melville.

Just like in western Labrador, anyone with land and buildings in the upper Lake Melville area, with the possible exception of Mud Lake, stands to make a killing when big contractors look for places for workers to live for the few years it takes to build a hydro dam. They'll push property prices to insanely unaffordable heights.

The Newfoundland government failed to insure sufficient housing for the Lab West boom, and it is failing in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, too. An incalculable number of people are already homeless because there simply aren't enough houses and apartments available in central Labrador for everyone who needs one, and the hydro boom hasn't even started yet. When the workers show up, they'll have to take homes that are currently inhabited. That's great (at first) for those who sell, but once they've sold out they won't be able to stay - not if rent goes as high as $4,500 per month.

Even those who hang onto their properties to earn that rent will have to leave the area and those landlords would likely see their deceptively high profits eaten away by federal, provincial and municipal taxes.

The publicized eviction of long-time renters from 14 Wabush apartments - families who spent years making themselves a home in the town - is only the most visible example of what has been happening for months in Lab West and what could happen further east. The people promised the primary benefits from the exploitation of their resources will effectively be kicked out of their region. So many long-time residents will leave their communities and so many temporary ones will arrive. The towns will become unrecognizable.

So, what happens when the boom goes bust? It happens regularly in Labrador West and it'll happen in central Labrador if hydro dams are built nearby. When the work is all done, most of the thousands of workers will leave - off to take jobs, jobs, jobs elsewhere in Canada. Happy Valley-Goose Bay property prices will plummet after half the town empties out. Will local people evicted by the so-called development then return from where they've established lives elsewhere? Or will Sheshatshiu, North West River and Happy Valley-Goose Bay all become ghost towns - half empty and decaying?

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Labrador society, Lab West

Geographic location: Labrador West, Newfoundland, Wabush Happy Valley Goose Bay Lake Melville Mud Lake Canada North West River

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