Time to get digging

I wasn’t fussy about meeting with Burf (Burford Ploughman, if you want to be formal about it). Nothing against the man, but I’ve been so darned busy that I wasn’t sure if it was worth yielding a precious hour to talk about an idea that had been covered many times before.

Ploughman, after all, has been preaching the same gospel for almost 40 years, ever since he was part of the 1978 Commission of Inquiry into Newfoundland Transportation. After considerable study, he and his fellow commissioners advocated the immediate construction of a fixed link tunnel under the Strait of Belle Isle, connecting the island of Newfoundland to Labrador. But here we are, in 2014, and Newfoundland and Labrador is no closer to a fixed link than it was 36 years ago.

I’m not aware of anyone who has ever disagreed with the value or validity of the idea. Labradorians have never needed convincing that they deserve better road access (nor has anyone who’s attempted to drive the Trans Labrador “highway”). Well-known engineer and innovator Tom Kierans, who died in 2013, spent much of his professional career touting the plan. (Kierans, it’s interesting to note, was a technical advisor to Environment Canada for P.E.I.’s Confederation Bridge.) Former N.L. Premier Frank Moores played with the idea as an election strategy back in the ’70s, even going so far as to set off a few explosives (Frank always did have a flair for the dramatic). More recently, Danny Williams broached the idea in the lead-up to his first election as premier, then followed through with a prefeasibility study in the early days of his mandate. The subsequent report said it was do-able, just not feasible.

Feasibility. That, in a single word, summarizes the so-far insurmountable obstacle to a fixed link. Would there be a sufficient volume of traffic to warrant the cost? Or are there more pressing priorities in the competition for public spending?

Back when Danny was leader of the province, he noted that a fixed link wasn’t an “immediate priority.” Still, he said, “the possibility remains that a fixed link could be constructed during the completion of projects such as the Lower Churchill hydro development or Highway 138 in Quebec.”

The Lower Churchill is going ahead, but there’s still no sign of a fixed link. It was this new issue which Burf wanted to address. Using maps and numbers, citing assorted studies and historical documents, he laid out his case for why he thought Muskrat Falls and its subsea transmission lines might be the best hope for a tunnel to finally link N.L.’s disparate parts. “They’re drilling one anyway,” he said, “to accommodate the electrical cables. While they’re at it, why not make it big enough to accommodate vehicular traffic?”

Why not, indeed? This was the question which we ultimately tasked freelancer Wade Kearley with investigating (you’ll find the results of his exhaustive efforts in this issue’s cover story “The Atlantic Disconnect”).

Link or no link, I believe there’s an even bigger issue at play. And it relates directly to the role, influence and respect owed to Labrador vis-à-vis provincial affairs. Think about it. What part of the province is home to the Voisey’s Bay nickel deposit? Where will Muskrat Falls hydro power be generated? Where, for that matter, is the Upper Churchill? Gull Island? Where is the iron ore rich Labrador Trough? (I know, that one was too easy.) Which part of the province has three newly-discovered oil and gas basins off its coast? And is perfectly situated as a gateway to Arctic developments? The conclusion is inescapable: a region that generates as much wealth and attracts as much investment as Labrador should not have to beg for anything.

Consider these what ifs. What if the provincial government waits too long to forge that physical connection? What if Labrador is provoked to act on its as-yet passive disgruntlement? What if other jurisdictions (Quebec, for instance) took advantage of their proximity to offer Labrador a more attractive alternative to its awkward union with Newfoundland? (A very real potentiality given the pending deadline on the Upper Churchill contract.) What if Labrador democratically decided to become a standalone province?

If that were to ever actually happen, a $1.7-billion tunnel would be the least of Newfoundland’s problems.

Dawn Chafe
About Dawn Chafe

For the past 19 years, Dawn has been editor of Atlantic Canada’s most award-winning and largest circulation business magazine: Atlantic Business Magazine. Under her editorial direction, Atlantic Business Magazine has won 14 Atlantic Journalism Awards, three TABBIE international business press awards and two KRW national business press awards.

2 Comments to “Time to get digging”

  1. Thank you Mrs.Chafe!
    Mr.Ploughman’s thinking is endemic with what is terribly wrong with Newfoundland’s abusive relationship with Labrador. Un-ending studies with no solutions for Labradorians at all.

    The “Link” in no way will ease the daily lives of Labradorians. The vast expense will be wasted connecting to a nearly non-existent transportation network. A condition which has placed any economic development in Labrador in a state of futility.

    Next, Newfoundland is in an un-realistic position compared to Quebec to garner natural transport linkage. Quebec has rail and small ports readily near likely transportation routes. Which give it a huge economic advantage that Newfoundland should not compete with if they had any sanity. Not to mention the Aboriginal groups have natural ties and links to other aboriginal transportation streams.

    Let’s face it. Labrador does not even have a paved two lane highway with a speed limit over 45mph! Labrador’s outports and coastal towns are stricken with very sketchy marine service at times. And there is no rail worth speaking of. Then they have a large collection of airports limited by runway length and width. Some of which seem to feature in rolling “studies” that never seem to end.

    In many ways the dies are already cast. Labrador is so used to being raped for resources with no expense ever spared. But try to do something to improve the lives of the people that live there? Oh dear. That seems to be illegal for Newfoundland Politicians to do. Without resolving this stranglehold on Labrador’s economy, it’s hard to see how a billion dollar boondoogle link will impress the people of Labrador.

    This is not rocket science. The people of Labrador have little reason to think Newfoundland has any sincere interest in their welfare. So they should not be surprised by widespread talk and organizing about an independent Labrador. Then what will Newfoundland do without their favorite money Pinata?

  2. The “passive disgruntlement” is becoming more and more “active” by the day. Check out Facebook groups like Free Labrador and Labrador Independence…

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