The crisis is the big picture

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On Dec. 22, the day after power went out across much of Toronto, I was riding in a car in the Kipling Avenue area listening to the radio.

We were in what many would consider to be “Ford Nation,” that die-hard bloc of voters who continue to support Mayor Rob Ford despite his drug use and antics. In fact, most Ford fans don’t live in his Etobicoke neighbourhood, but are clustered in other areas of the city.

The chatter on the radio that day was about the ice storm that had just ravaged Southern Ontario. At its peak, at least 350,000 customers were left without electricity — representing about half the population of Toronto proper.

Instead of the practical, everyone was talking about protocol, specifically about the fact Rob Ford would have to relinquish control to the deputy mayor if he declared a state of emergency. That was one curious result of a council session that stripped many of the controversial mayor’s powers.

Ford’s critics argued he refused to declare an emergency because he doesn’t want to let go of the reins. His supporters said there’s no need for an emergency and critics are just grandstanding.

Even the radio hosts got in on the act.

Few, it seemed, were focusing on the facts. What does a state of emergency entail, and what would it achieve?

In the end, Ford was probably right. Roads were mostly clear, and traffic was not seriously impeding the work of crews. A state of emergency would have kept businesses shuttered and people off the streets, without doing anything to speed up the recovery.

I was reminded of all this when rolling outages and equipment failure hit this province in recent days. Specifically, I was reminded of all the political bickering that seemed to infect the narrative.

Apart from residents having to cope with the cold and darkness, however, the two situations are starkly different.

Toronto’s crisis was caused by Mother Nature. Crews were faced with endless downed lines as the result of sagging and broken trees. It took them more than a week to get everything back in order. But the system, as such, didn’t fail.

The Newfoundland crisis is far more distressing. Even before Friday’s snowstorm hit, before the Sunnyside substation blew up, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro and Newfoundland Power were forced to ration power. Rolling blackouts continued all through the weekend.

The problem is aging infrastructure, some of which was not even operational at the time. The grid couldn’t handle the extra energy people were using to heat their homes during the early winter cold snap.

To top it off, officials say they actually saw something like this coming. Perhaps they were hoping Muskrat Falls would be merrily pumping out juice by now, before the shelf life of other generating equipment like that at Holyrood expired. It’s certainly not the first time infrastructure woes have come up. Company officials have talked about for at least a decade.

In any case, even if Muskrat Falls does bring energy security to the island, it won’t happen for several years.

This is not your routine outage. This seems to be something much more dire.

So, unlike the mayor of Toronto, the premier of this province cannot get away with shrugging it off in that condescending tone which has become all too familiar.

It took Kathy Dunderdale almost two days to make a public statement about the rickety power grid, and even then she was her usual stubborn self, refusing to accept there was anything warranting the term “crisis.”

This is a crisis. For the whole province. And someone needs to start answering questions soon.

On Monday, the premier said once the non-crisis was over, the utilities will be conducting a review of what happened. She said she has absolute confidence in that process. Then, surprisingly, she even endorsed the Public Utility Board’s involvement in the review.

“I have absolute confidence in the PUB and the role they play,” she told reporters.

A shocker, considering she and other government members slammed the PUB for not reaching a conclusion on Muskrat Falls. Then, the PUB was seen as irresponsible and incompetent, and was frozen out of any further review of the project.

Indeed, Muskrat Falls may be the solution we need. Or it may be a financially draining white elephant. But Muskrat Falls is not the issue right now.

The issue is the failure to bridge the gap between the failing system we have and the grand new dam to come.

 Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email:

Organizations: Public Utility Board, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, Newfoundland Power

Geographic location: Toronto, Etobicoke, Southern Ontario Newfoundland Holyrood

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Recent comments

  • Geri
    January 08, 2014 - 11:01

    I couldn't agree more!

  • Geri
    January 08, 2014 - 10:58

    I couldn't agree more!