The following ran as a letter from the editor in the September 2016 issue of the Community Edition:
Between the iron-ore pelletizing plant in Labrador City and the Manicouagan River-spanning 214 metre tall “Daniel-Johnson” hydroelectric dam, the Trans-Labrador Highway criss-crosses the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway many times. The highway is relatively new: when my family moved to Labrador in 1989, you had to fly or hike the 530 kilometres from Lab City to Happy Valley–Goose Bay.
And so it was at one of those crossings, a few weeks ago, that I slowed our rental van to count some 300 railcars slowly heading north. The cars were all empty, and on their way to being filled with iron ore in Lab City, travelling along rails owned by the Iron Ore Company of Canada to a mine owned by the Iron Ore Company of Canada.
My family was headed south, back to Ontario after a week in Sheshatshiu, the Innu community in which we lived for three years in the early 90s. In the 17 years since we were last in Sheshatshiu, a lot has changed. Many of my parent’s peers have passed away, as the life expectancy is decades shorter than the national average. Many Innu are now working outside of the community, many of them on the construction of a new hydroelectric dam at Muskrat Falls.
According to Harvard researchers, the project is also poisoning the river with mercury. The dam will eventually flood traditional hunting grounds. Forced by the state to settle on the Atlantic coast after many thousands of years of living nomadically, the Innu are now being forced to make impossible choices, set up to lose a game whose rules we created. The day before we left, Innu Nation announced another boil-water advisory for the community.
Iron is the key ingredient in the production of steel. And we all use steel, right? The hydro generated by the dams we drove by, on the Manicouagan and Churchill Rivers, stays mostly on the eastern seaboard. But then, we all use hydro too, right?
Despite their massive scale – megawatts, megatons, mega-everything – it’s easy for me to forget about these projects, or to pretend they are not an essential part of our Canadian economy. It took a two-week, 5,000 km road trip to connect the dots between my warm showers and my bicycles and the mercury and the flooding and the false choices couched in the language of self-determination and economic development that we impose on indigenous peoples.
And while I know it’s complicated, because we’re always told it’s complicated, it’s also simple. There is a certain amount of violence in our everyday existence, far from the coal face as we may be. We are digging and burning and poisoning and flooding somewhere and someone else. All of our energy comes at a cost. For now, we’re lucky to be on the receiving end of that long line of railcars, but it could always be otherwise.