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NICHOLAS MERCER: Stoking the fire using dated viewpoints

This video appeared on Corner Brook MHA Gerry Byrne's Twitter feed Jan. 22 and shows clips from 2017.
This video appeared on Corner Brook MHA Gerry Byrne's Twitter feed Jan. 22 and shows clips from 2017. - — Screen capture

There is an inherent rivalry between Corner Brook and St. John's.

There is no mistaking it.

Each wants to be better than the other. It is a rivalry that has gotten quieter in recent years, but a divide still exists between the west and east coast cities.

That apparent divide came to the forefront again this week when Corner Brook MHA Gerry Byrne shared a video clip of Conservative MHA Barry Petten questioning the move of the provincial Crown Lands office to Corner Brook.

In the clip, Petten is shown saying, "You're not moving from St. John's to C.B.S. or Torbay, you're moving to Corner Brook. It's like moving to another province when you look at this — it is a seven-hour drive. That's the reality."

It also has Petten addressing Marble Mountain, although that clip comes before the Crown Lands speech in Hansard.

At the heart of the clip is the movement of the offices from St. John's to Corner Brook in the spring of 2017.

Yes, you read that right. The issue reached its apex in 2017. Petten's full speech can be found in  Hansard (https://bit.ly/2sGvSyB)

On May 3 of that year, Petten — who was the opposition critic for Transportation and Works at the time — uttered that Corner Brook may as well have been a different province when put against St. John's as it pertains to the movement of families.

He was protesting what he described as the splitting up of families as employees were being forced to move from one end of the island to the other with no regard for schooling, spouse jobs and other factors.

"There was no real reason (to move the office) other than a political one," Petten told me Wednesday.

That means it wasn't about putting the office in a better place to serve the people of this province. It was being moved away from the lawyers it used and other resources.

That means it was a move perpetrated to look good in the eyes of constituents.

The question is, how does it serve Byrne to bring the issue up now?

Two years ago, those comments made barely a ripple among the populace and media.

There was no talk of a politician pushing this great provincial divide that stoked an old and tired stereotype. Some would see it as petty to bring forward an out-of-context soundbite that shows the opposition in a negative light.

It is still a rather strange card to play. Byrne runs the risk of coming off as a politician looking to gaslight the residents of the province into thinking Muskrat Falls wasn't something that his government had the power to stop.

Byrne doesn't see that bringing the truth to light as petty though. He sees the clip as a way to hold his critics accountable for their words and show them there is a permanent record kept with the House of Assembly.

The video comes as a result of criticism the Corner Brook MHA received after posting about a recent pre-budget consultation meeting in the west coast city.

Sparsely attended, a Twitterite surmised the low attendance was because people were tired of being lied to.

That was on Jan. 15. A little over a week later, Byrne started posting pictures of longtime Liberal projects that were underway in his district.

That led to videos that show members of the Conservative party questioning funding for west coast initiatives.

"That is a constant point of discussion. It is very upsetting and it is important to counteract that,” Byrne said.

Newfoundland is a big place. As Petten pointed out on Wednesday, he can get to Halifax quicker than he can get to Corner Brook, provided he isn't flying from the capital city to Deer Lake first.

When you drill down to it, there is some substance to the claim. In less time it takes for someone to drive across the province, that same person can drive from Toronto, Ont., to Montreal, Que.

On the other hand, the drive from Toronto to Thunder Bay, Ont., takes about 15 hours. The drive from Montreal to Val-D'or, Que., is similar to the run from Corner Brook to St. John's.

It is a longshot, but it is something people on the east coast can relate to. Some St. John's residents feel like the drive west is longer than the drive east. As if that makes any sense.

Being an east coast kid, I can attest to feeling like Corner Brook was a world away. When I originally moved here in the late ’90s, the drive took forever and it felt like we were crossing multiple provinces.

Looking back on that now, that feeling came from the distinct look of the highway as you move through the different parts.

There is also a distinct feeling when you leave the capital city and head west. Like there is a freedom of escaping St. John's and finding solace among the salt water, actual forests and the lessened public transit system.

I drive across the island a handful of times a year now. It doesn't feel that long anymore and it certainly doesn't feel like you're going to a different province.

Talking to Petten, it is apparent there is no substance behind the words he used in 2017. They were used for dramatic effect to push his criticism of the move. It was a tool for him to use as a critic of the government.

"I love Corner Brook,” he said. “It is a beautiful city."

How Petten felt about the distance between Corner Brook and St. John's in 2017 is irrelevant now, he said.

It serves no one to get upset about it. He was doing his job and stating what he felt was a fair point.

Still, it is language aimed at dividing the populace. Regardless of how it was intended, trying to pit on side against the other is a part of politics that is better left in the gutter rather than being a part of some morality play.

What makes this an issue worth watching is what 2019 represents. It represents a chance at renewal for the Liberal party.

In a political term that has seen plenty of public backlash toward the Liberal government for a host of issues, the party is reaching a critical juncture.

It appears Byrne is getting this very important election year started for a possible return of the red wave.

Although, to get that started is going to take a lot more than a two-year-old video.

Nicholas Mercer is the online editor with The Western Star. He lives in Corner Brook and can be reached at Nicholas.mercer@thewesternstar.com.

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