An unintended lesson in colonialism

Michael Johansen
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The fan purrs, cooling the magic lantern that's casting a light onto a pull-down screen in the college in North West River.
(The clock says 7 p.m. The projector presentation has attracted a sizable audience on this mid-week evening, but it's in competition with a popular television show. However, that won't start for another two hours.)
There's a map of Labrador shining on the white screen. Lake Michicamau is there, but so is the Smallwood Reservoir, revealing the immense area of land and water drowned by a massive hydroelectric project built by Newfoundland almost half a century ago. The magic lantern show - organized by two local residents who have decades of experience doing wilderness travel and wilderness tour outfitting - is not actually about the politics of resource exploitation, but about the hardships and joys of canoeing several of Labrador's rivers.
(The clock now says 7:30. Lots of time left. The lantern is still stronger than the idiot box.)
One photographic slide shows the bottom of two feet - no delicate appendages these. They're dirty and calloused after hiking back and forth over a 40-kilometre portage between two rivers north of Nain. This was truly man and woman and one canoe against the elements, with black bears seeming as thick as flies and flies seeming thick enough to envelope a grown man and carry him away. The slides show a landscape barely touched by humans, who now only ascend to the high valleys on snowmachines in winter, if at all, or only see them from far above.
(It's now a quarter after eight and despite all good intentions, a countdown has begun in the privacy of thought. As beautiful as the photos are and as fascinating as the talk is, they're beginning to lose ground to the lure of the box: Jake's going to a wedding, wha? What kind of trouble's he getting into this week?)
Photographs of a third river, the Naskaupi, show a waterway that's far from pristine. The attraction of the northern rivers - to both the canoers and the audience - is that they've hardly changed for hundreds of years, but the fascination of the Naskaupi valley is that it's hardly recognizable to someone who knew it only 50 years ago, before Newfoundland reached out to its colony and reshaped it for its own purposes. At the time, it had not been thought necessary to worry about things like what kind of environmental destruction the dam builders were about to wreak on an unsuspecting wilderness and its easily ignored population. When the reservoir was diked, the presenters explained, a sluice gate could have been built into the dam to allow the Naskaupi to have a portion of its age-old water supply, but instead a solid structure was thrown across its headwaters, diverting it all through turbines at the former Grand Falls.
(It's 8:30 and the clock is demanding more and more attention. What's Jake look like in a tuxedo? Is the guy finally going to shave?)
The presenters tell an old story that bears repeating: the Naskaupi is a shadow of its former self. What was once and for so long the main Innu route into the Labrador interior is now so depleted a canoe can't float on its upper reaches, putting (along with all the other damage Churchill Falls continues to inflict on vast areas of Labrador) the lie on persistent claims that hydro dams are environmentally friendly.
(The clock now says 8:55 and it's time to go. "The Republic of Doyle" starts at nine.)
The evening provides an unintended lesson in the mechanics of colonialism. Colonizers don't need to learn about the colonized since such knowledge only deters them from exploitation. On the other hand, the colonized learn all about those in control - Stockholm Syndrome on a massive scale. The TV show "The Republic of Doyle" plays well in Labrador, not only because it's well written, acted and filmed, but because the viewers (unlike many from outside the province) can identify with the people it depicts - they've already met the Doyles. Despite all his rough edges (despite decades of neglect and abuse), you've got to like ol' Jake.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador

Geographic location: Labrador, Naskaupi, North West River Nain Republic of Doyle Grand Falls Stockholm

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Recent comments

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    Ah------------ Michael not you too. Commenting on fluff , the last act of a jaded writer .

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:05

    Ah------------ Michael not you too. Commenting on fluff , the last act of a jaded writer .