What a difference an election makes.
Against all odds, Newfoundland and Labrador’s team in the race to pave the Ungava Peninsula has taken a commanding last-minute lead over its nearest rival and now looks to win the regional semifinals by at least 150 kilometres.
When we last checked in with the racers over a year ago, Newfoundland and Labrador was in a poor second, its efforts to pave Route 500 before Quebec finished laying tarmac on Route 389 were hampered by late starts and a relatively parsimonious level of moral support.
The Quebec paving team had dashed from Gagnon to Relais-Gabriel in less than two months and come within 80 clicks of Manic-Cinq before winter hit. In contrast, although the western Newfoundland and Labrador team finished up within sight of Churchill Falls, the eastern team was stubbornly slow to make up for time previously lost. Smart money was on Quebec.
The Quebec team got its seemingly unassailable edge from their government’s Plan Nord: $80 billion being spent to reach and exploit natural resources in the province's northern territories. Former premier Jean Charest set the 25-year plan in motion in 2011, declaring it would create 200,000 jobs a year and eventually return $14-billion annually to the public purse.
The plan called for an initial
$2.1-billion expenditure on airports and roads above the 49th parallel in 2012. When $41 million of that was allocated to pave Route 389, the race with Newfoundland and Labrador went from cold to hot.
Then came the Quebec provincial election and the Quebec teams suddenly lost all steam. Had the Liberals maintained their hold on power, the story would be different, but it was the Parti Québécois that won the vote and became the government.
While new Premier Pauline Marois lacks a majority in the National Assembly, she clearly does not lack the confidence to make whatever changes she and her colleagues see fit to Quebec’s economy.
Among the first changes her
government announced was a new five per cent minimum royalty levied on the value of all minerals mined in Quebec, as well as a 30 per cent tax on all mining corporation profits above eight per cent.
The PQ then cancelled the Liberal’s Plan North and did not replace it with their own plan “'North for All” until months later — a plan that looks much like its predecessor in general terms, but requires only $868 million to be spent over five years.
However, by then the Route 389 paving crews were merely a memory, their 2013 plans forgotten with the work stopped far short of the finish lines at Manic-Cinq and Fire Lake.
There’s no sign anyone intends to resume the race and complete the job.
The Parti Québécois’ demand for more revenues from the mining sector had already stifled several plans to dig more pits at the northern end of the highway (where it crosses into Labrador) and so the industrial need for an improved driving surface in this far-flung corner of Quebec has been drastically diminished.
Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the border, the Newfoundland and Labrador paving crews chugged along industriously (tortoises to the Quebec hare) and managed to not only close the gap during the short 2013 summer, but to finish up with a total of only 61 kilometres left to pave.
That’s just enough to remind drivers why the pavement is needed (for most of the stretch, fields of deep potholes alternate with bone-jarring washboard bumps that try to fling cars off the road), but it might not be enough to keep crews busy for the whole 2014 race season.
So, with the first snowfalls marking the end of the 2013 heats, it looks like nothing short of another provincial election (and maybe not even that) will prevent Newfoundland and Labrador from taking next year’s blue ribbon, allowing the province to move to the Atlantic finals by tackling the ambitious Black Rock to Red Bay paving course.
Given the sudden Quebec forfeit, that means the dream of driving on tarmac all the way from central Labrador to Central Canada is still a distant one, but race fans on the eastern side of the border (and their poor, gravel-beaten vehicles) are nonetheless pleased with the progress they see.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.