They may have been small in number — just over 20 people — but if the continuous blare of horns from passing vehicles was any indication, along with cheers from passengers who had their windows lowered in the warm weather, a highway of motorists agreed in full with what the protesters were standing for in front of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) offices on Torbay Road in St. John’s on Friday.
They were there to fight against power rate hikes — the recent rate increase on July 1 — and more increases to come, followed by the expected doubling of rates when Muskrat Falls power comes online in 2020.
There was no need for a “honk in support” sign on Friday, one protester noted.
“We are protesting the rates of Newfoundland Power and we are protesting the fact that the PUB is even considering more rate increases, and it is very concerning for everybody,” protester Gail Miller said.
“I’m representing thousands of people who, online, have protested against this, and trying to make a difference. I’ve spoken to hundreds. The other day I was at a doctor’s office and I took out my petition with permission, and this 80-year-old lady said to me, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve always been independent and never wanted to rely on my children or family to take care of me, but I honestly think I’m going to have to put myself into a home because I’m not going to be able to afford this and I don’t want to burden my children with it.’ It broke my heart. She should never even have to entertain these thoughts. It’s so wrong.”
Miller said the group she is a part of, FreeNL, has organized online petitions as well as paper petitions. More than 15,000 people have signed online, she said, and hundreds on paper. She said that when the House of Assembly opens in the fall, the petition will be presented to the House to hold government accountable and say “no” to power rate increases.
In addition to the protesters, two of the province’s MHAs showed up to speak to those holding the line — Independent MHA Paul Lane, who was also at last Friday’s protest, and Tory MHA Jim Lester.
Lester acknowledged there are few citizens in the province who are not concerned with the threat of increasing power rates to the point of them being doubled or greater in a couple of years. He said there are ways around it, including using the extra expected terawatt of power to come from Muskrat Falls in ways to boost the economy.
Lester noted that the havoc that the threat of the doubling of power rates is causing is doing more damage than what the actual cost of the increasing rates will do.
“To me, as a citizen, I would love to see government taking initiative to sell (extra power) here in Newfoundland and Labrador to attract business because this threat of a power increase is only a very small part of our problems in this province today,” he said. “We pay three times the amount of interest on our provincial debt than every consumer in Newfoundland and Labrador pays to Newfoundland Power.
“Government has no plan that I see as of yet, yet they have committed to contribute to rate mitigation. Do I want to see them borrow money to lower electricity rates today for someone to have to pay back, or more interest to eat up? No I don’t. And I don’t think anybody else does either.”
Protesters on the line Friday told stories of how they, or members of their family, are thinking of moving away. Others spoke of the impact on seniors and fixed-income residents.
Most of them carried signs with different phrases, waved at the oncoming traffic during the three-hour demonstration.
One man, who didn’t want to give his name, said part of his job takes him into the homes of seniors at times, and since stories of the potential impact of power rate increases have been in the media, many seniors have already been turning down their heat.
“I’ve been in homes, and in older homes particularly, where it was freezing,” he said. “So the impact has already started.”
Heather Penney, a health researcher and certified public health officer, said she fears a general downturn in the health of the province’s population.
“I am concerned, particularly, about people on fixed incomes who are often elderly, retired — especially in rural areas — being unable to meet their expenses based on what’s estimated conservatively to be about a doubling of (power) costs,” she said.
“So there will be a choice between food, medications and heating homes. I am concerned for public health. You need heat, and with people cutting down on heat, you have colder homes and you start looking at mould growth. It’s just ridiculous. It literally affects every single person, many of whom will be cutting costs that are detrimental to their health. That’s why a lot of people are out here today, and that’s why I’m here.”
On Friday night FreeNL activist James Murphy urged people to pressure their MHAs to get involved.
"We need our MHAs to speak up for us in dealing with the potential double power rates coming down the pipe," he posted.
"We could make a stand at each constituency office in a co-ordinated strike. Here are the contact numbers of each MHA as well as their Twitter handles. Tag them in your comments. ... Co-ordinate in your own area and make something happen."