One vote: that’s all it should take. If the provincial government is truly interested in knowing how many citizens support building more dams in Labrador, one vote is enough.
One vote could confirm whether Premier Kathy Dunderdale really has the mandate-to-exploit she claims from the last election, or whether the majority of voters would prefer that she cease and desist.
One vote could settle much doubt and contention, even without any binding powers. One vote could allow the government to continue with its hitherto unsanctioned construction work, or it could reveal as mistaken Dunderdale’s claims of public support.
One vote could lend opponents strength in their bid to stop the work, or force them to give up their cause. Either way, the question could be settled.
Calls for a referendum are already being made, but they’ve been denied by government and ignored by most proponents of the huge industrial project. This is typical of pro-versus-con fights over large controversial issues. People usually don’t demand a show of hands unless they believe their side has a fair chance of winning. They’re not always right.
After all, two different governments in Quebec never expected to lose the votes they called on separation. Earlier in history, but closer to home, Premier Joey Smallwood (Newfoundland’s patron saint of secretive and authoritarian governments) was so sure he’d win his losing referendum that he held another one to get the proper outcome.
In this case — that is, the case of the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project — those who oppose the industrial exploitation of Muskrat Falls (this author included) seem able to admit they could lose a referendum. They know they might be handed a majority ruling they won’t like. That’s the price of democracy.
However, opponents know they could win, too.
Since many citizens have taken an interest in the issue, most would be willing to consult both their brains and their emotions to come up with their own conclusions to register at the ballot box. Opponents of the dams are willing to trust democracy, to risk defeat, because they believe they can win an open and honest debate and ultimately carry the vote.
Proponents, on the other hand, claim to have a “vast majority” of support in favour of construction, but they’ve made no offer to prove it. That’s typical, too, of governments that don’t trust their own citizens, or of governments that just don't care.
In either case, Premier Dunderdale has a couple of strong reasons for not holding a vote.
First and foremost is the fact she runs the same risk as her opponents: she might lose.
How could she face that? If her opponents lose, they only lose a spectacular waterfall and hundreds of kilometres of rich riverine habitat, but if Dunderdale loses, her pride gets hurt.
No politician likes to lose that much face.
Another reason is more complicated, but the government’s cleverer strategists have probably already considered it, although they certainly won’t discuss it publicly since any discussion gives it more legitimacy. That’s something the government would want to avoid.
The results of any referendum held in this province as it is currently constituted will always show two things: not only a measure of the popular will, but also of the differences between Labradorians and Newfoundlanders. That was true in Smallwood’s time, when Labrador, unlike Newfoundland, voted overwhelmingly in favour of Confederation. It would be even more true in a referendum on this largely Labrador issue.
What must deeply worry any government would be the aftermath of an important vote that went one way on the island and the other way on the mainland.
There is, however, one good reason for Dunderdale to hold a referendum. At some point, she must stop denying the voices of large numbers of citizens. She has tried to stifle those in opposition by ignoring or ridiculing them, but if she maintains these tactics the protests will only get louder. The premier should be aware that the longer people feel that those in power are not listening to them, the more willing they become to make themselves heard in less peaceful ways.
One vote now could save the province a lot of grief later.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.