‘Muskrat Madness’ in N.L.

Self-published title selling to who you’d expect — and who you wouldn’t

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on July 25, 2014

At the used bookstore, two copies of the new release “Muskrat Madness” were marked “on hold.”

Afterwords Bookstore in downtown St. John’s is not used to having copy after copy of one title plucked day after day from its shelves and plunked down beside the register, but it has seen just that over the past two weeks.

The store is “90-odd per cent” previously loved product, owner David Benson said Tuesday, but it maintains a small collection of new Newfoundland and Labrador-authored books — a carryover from when Benson’s mother-in-law ran the place, insisting on supporting local authors.

Benson has been happy with the tradition, particularly while replenishing the display of Cabot Martin’s 176-page, self-published title about the province’s $6.99-billion hydroelectric development.

“We started with a box of them, which is 42 I believe. And then we had to go to get another box of them and another box,” the bookseller said. The store is into its fourth box.

“I’ve never seen the like,” Benson said.

He guessed the interest is partly due to the limited number of stores carrying the title, as Martin has been negotiating directly with independents for shelf space.

And he has another thought — one he communicates with a serious stare. “I guess that there’s actually been so little real information about (the Muskrat Falls power project) that people want to find out as much as we can.”

The leaders of the Newfoundland and Labrador government — including former premiers Danny Williams and Kathy Dunderdale and now Premier Tom Marshall — have espoused the transparency around the development and a flood of factual information has been produced on the subject. They have been supported by representatives for the proponent, Crown corporation Nalcor Energy.

Even so, a feeling remains among more than just a few members of the public, expressed daily on radio shows and in conversations on the street, of either a lack of straight talk, a lack of understanding, or of something secret happening behind the curtain.

And so the new book sells — at $16.95 a pop.

“I have a copy and I have read it,” said Andy Wells, chairman and CEO of the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities (PUB), the province’s utilities regulator, when asked about “Muskrat Madness” this week.

He said he would not comment on the contents. He did mention he is also a reader of the Muskrat Falls-related blog postings of locally-based Uncle Gnarley, a.k.a. Des Sullivan, and others who delve into the detailed and sometimes difficult to understand subject matter.

“We have a copy in the caucus office and I have been reading it. It is on Ms. Michael’s must read list,” stated NDP political assistant Amanda Will, referring to the provincial NDP leader. Will’s copy came directly from Martin.

“When I heard Cabot Martin had written a memoir, I wanted to read about his journey through the murky waters of the Muskrat Falls project. I respect the work that he and others, like David Vardy and Ron Penney, have done in bringing concerns to light,” she said.

Ron Penney is a former deputy minister of justice and former city manager of the City of St. John's. David Vardy is a former clerk of the executive council and chairman of the PUB — as is noted at the end of their 13 joint letters to the editor published in The Telegram in the last two years.

Vardy has read the new book and has given it a positive review, which is posted to the Uncle Gnarley blog site.

“(The book) doesn’t pretend to cover everything. It covers certain things that Cabot was particularly interested in,” he said in an interview.

In saying it, Vardy highlights the challenges in trying to convey information on a multibillion-dollar megaproject, reaching through the province: focus and clarity.

What are the key topics in need of discussion? Is it the potential effect of the construction on at-risk caribou populations? Should you learn first about potential markets for the hydro power being produced, or what risk might be posed to undersea power lines by icebergs in the Strait of Belle Isle?

“Muskrat Madness” highlights the topic of alternatives to using hydro power to meet the province’s power needs, including Martin’s push for use of offshore natural gas. The book also offers the topic of landslides along the lower Churchill River and Martin’s argument of the potential for a project-killing washout at the North Spur — at the dam site.

“Cabot’s book is an attempt to wake people up,” Vardy said, cheering the consultant’s attempt to engage the public he describes as jaded.

While the book is selling, Vardy is not ready to label it a successful project. For one thing, he feels Martin is naive at times in the text. But really, it’s about the Muskrat Falls fatigue.

“I guess I’m a pessimist. I don’t think it’s going to make a huge difference because I don’t think many people are going to read it,” he said.

Fred Winsor is conservation chair of the Atlantic Canada chapter of the Sierra Club Canada and, while outspoken on the project, has not picked up a copy of the new book, though still had his criticisms.

Natural gas is a non-starter, he said, and the real topic in need of discussion is the rise of renewables, wind power paired with energy efficiency initiatives.

“I fear that there’s going to be a lot of people on fixed incomes making very serious choices of whether they’re going to eat or pay the power bill in the years to come.”

A musician who has sung out against the development and refers to Martin as a family friend, Con O’Brien credits the book as an incredible effort by an individual, laying out his take — what O’Brien backs as the bare truth — on topics of concern around Muskrat Falls.

“Whatever side of Muskrat Falls you’re on, there’s so many issues with the project that need to be highlighted,” he said, adding he believes there is time to put a pin in the project.

As for Martin, he was driving to Happy Valley-Goose Bay from Southern Labrador along the Trans-Labrador highway this week. The trip was part of his self-initiated, cross-province book tour.

The tour has brought “Muskrat Madness” to the Bookwork in Gander, the Central Pharmacy in Grand Falls-Windsor, at Island Treasures and the Newfoundland Emporium in Corner Brook and at the Treasure Box in Port aux Basques.

“I’m hoping today to line up a couple of places in Goose Bay,” he said, when reached by phone Thursday.

He said he feels a book may reach and connect with people who have yet to engage in the discussions around the Muskrat Falls project.

“I think there’s still an honest chance to stop the thing,” he said.

Throughout the book, Martin makes it clear he is convinced the project will be a great boondoggle.

“It was a deeply personal kind of thing to do. And I kind of knew I would be losing friends by writing it,” he said, “but I kind of worked myself into a situation where I wouldn’t feel comfortable not doing it.”

It was self-published for the sake of time — to get conversation moving on the project sooner. He had a thousand copies produced.

And by Tuesday evening, two more had gone out the door at Afterwords.