I’ve only been six months on the mainland, but like so many before me, my love for home is getting a timely intensification and dose of perspective from afar.
Like so many again, I imagine moving back “in a few years,” whatever that turns out to mean. Vague as that plan is for now, though, one thing is clear: any honest imagining of a life in Newfoundland and Labrador in the short or long term future is incomplete without the attempt to understand the Lower Churchill Project, and Muskrat Falls in particular.
Clear also is that understanding its profound implications on the future requires a reckoning with the historical forces that helped produce it.
So writing about Muskrat Falls comes from the urge to keep track, bear witness, and to help amplify the voices of those who have been doing so, and pushing back, since its inception. As it happens, the wisdom and warnings of several scholars, consultants, land protectors, and activists recently gathered to discuss the matter have not been well-enough heard, much less heeded.
Taken together at the For a New Earth’s Muskrat Symposium in Happy-Valley Goose Bay in late February, these voices formed a multi-layered, robust, stark picture of what we face. It’s a picture whose various economic, political, social, cultural and historical perspectives and their combined implications, painful though they be, demand attention.
In aiming to start at the beginning, the question arises of how far back to go. Drew Brown writes in The Democracy Cookbook that the political and cultural history of Newfoundland and Labrador is marked by repeated loss: of life in World War I and the Ocean Ranger disaster, of independence in 1949, of livelihood and culture in the cod moratorium, of a supposed newfound prosperity in the oil boom and bust of the past decade, and, especially pertinent to Muskrat Falls, of the benefit of our own resources in the infamous Churchill Falls hydro agreement with Quebec in 1969.
Brown suggests that we as a people have never come to terms with these compounded losses. The pain, grief, and frustration remain buried and unresolved. Well, as historian Jerry Bannister pointed out in his keynote address at the Symposium, “Danny was popular for a reason.” When in a throne speech in 2007, Premier Williams proclaimed that “our province will achieve self-reliance by becoming masters of our own house,” he was tapping the mainline of a deep-seated collective desire for redemption.
Enter Muskrat Falls. How better to right the wrong of Upper Churchill than with Lower Churchill? And with retirement looming, one can only imagine the sense of destiny propelling Danny forth — the jewel in the crown of his legacy was to be the very thing that provided his province and people the redress and closure they so yearned for: a star-crossed alignment of the individual and greater common good seemingly too grand to be real.
Reality has been struggling to intervene ever since.
We can see why Bannister emphasizes the importance of foregrounding the historical, and remembering that Muskrat Falls is “not just a dam.” He captures the original reason why not in a theme echoed by governments going back to confederation, “we’re one resource development away from salvation and redemption.”
Hearing those words the first time, I got shivers. Was it not just a few weeks ago that Premier Ball announced with prideful glee the “doubling of oil production by 2030,” calling this, of all things, “The Way Forward.” Setting aside (for an ecological moment we no longer have) the glaring, global environmental issue here, for Newfoundland and Labrador, does this not sound distinctly like the way backward? To an excruciatingly recent past?
Maybe so. But in the immortal words of Brian Peckford, “Someday the sun will shine and have-not will be no more.”
Remembering also the ominous formulation of the same story, spoken here by Premier Dunderdale in response to early opposition to Muskrat Falls, “Failure to make the right decision now would be no different than the failure to make the right course of action a generation ago.”
It’s been a powerful story — opposed at one’s peril. But power can only work to obscure truth for so long. I’m reminded of the recent words of Land Protector Jim Learning, “They lost the war the day they fired the first shot, and we lost the battle cause we pushed back against them. There’s nothing here but losers.”
Next month, for part 2 of this series, we draw on the work of David Vardy, Steve Crocker, the Labrador Land Protectors and more, to explore how the mad quest for redemption has devolved into its antithesis: a perpetuation of the cycles of loss through the neglect and thwarting of due process, fiscal prudence, and the very lives of those sustained by an ecology under siege.