A clear vote for a referendum

Michael Johansen
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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.

Geographic location: Labrador, Quebec, Smallwood

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Recent comments

  • James G. Learning
    November 11, 2012 - 16:18

    Michael there is one other little senarrio we could run to a greater extent, I will touch on it here. It has been my contention all along the MFP is a wedge issue between NFLD and Labrador. NFLD so called needs this powe, at least that is what they are told by Danny and the group, Labrador don't and gets it in spades regarding the costal communities, North and South. We were told it was just not going to happen. Our Costal communities were and are to stay on the ever increasing pricey diesel, no electrical heating for them , as Bennett was spouting at the time. Now lets fast forward 25 years, Island rate payers are paying double the rates with the new MF Power, and of course all Labradoreans and Newfoundlanders are paying a head tax of $16,000.00 + to keep NS in power from MF as agreed to. Even if NS backs out NL taxpayers have to pick up the bill, not only that but the Labrador mines are or will be also subsidised by the NL tax payer. Now lets say in 2525 Labradoreans finally fed up with being ignored by the Island politics their resource gouging, and never building anything for Labrador, find some way to go the independent road, I like to call it self determination. Now the Island rate payers and tax payers are on the hook with about the then 80,000 Labrador population and the Island shrinking population. So the 80,000 Labradoreans are gone, the Island rate payers are then left holding the bill for this Mega Fiasco. Before anyone gets huffy about this, it is a strong possibility, the world works like that, validating strong posibilities, and sometimes lesser ones. After all the Yukon gets by as an independent Territory with far less resources than Labrador, and a few more in population. All groups in that Territory make it work quite well, their resources are for them, Labrtador's resources go for the popullation of the Island. It remains to be seen as to how much longer Labradoreans will be have nots in a have Territoty. How much longer will we let it go on? That is the question, not if we can be self determining.

  • Cyril Rogers
    November 11, 2012 - 11:29

    One vote, Mr. Johansen, but it is MY vote and YOUR vote, on an issue that has major implications for this province for decades. Like you, I am more than willing to risk losing out in a referendum......the only real democracy we have left in this country. Governments control the message and have all the resources while we, despite having the capacity to think for ourselves, are told that we must do this, or that, because it is good for us. Well, not me! I am disgusted with that kind of governance and will not quit fighting it until the last metre of concrete is poured and the river is dammed. Your argument that the river needs preserving resonates with me but it seems too many people still want it to go ahead, thinking incorrectly that it is economically viable. I am of the view that we have done enough damage to Labrador's ecology and should resist any further destruction of the river. I am surprised that some of the aboriginal groups in Labrador are not more vocal. I know that some are but I would have expected overwhelming opposition from all of the residents of Labrador. Sadly, not that many people on the Island appear to be overly concerned about the ecological destruction, but some of us are. Aside from the financial cesspit this province will put itself in, the construction of Muskrat Falls will ensure that few, if any, other forms of infrastructure get built in Labrador, or on the Island. Democracy, under this administration and under DW, was ultimately hijacked when they set up NALCOR and enacted Bill 29. They are hiding behind those entities and are AFRAID to hold a referendum.....they need to remember though that those who dismiss the collective wisdom of the people are digging a political grave for themselves, although it may be too late to stop us from falling into the financial chasm. Ironically, Williams' legacy will be yet another giveaway! Keep plugging away and keep this aspect of the project alive. You may yet save a river!