Muskrat Falls is off our backs? Nah. We'll be paying for that monstrosity for decades

Andrew Furey may have been boasting about the new deal with Ottawa on rate mitigation over the overbudget Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, but guest columnist Edward Riche is skeptical.

Andrew Furey's metaphor falls short, columnist Edward Riche says

Premier Andrew Furey said a new deal on rate mitigation 'will finally get the muskrat off our back.' (CBC)

This column is an opinion by Edward Riche, a St. John's writer.

Announcing the results of negotiations between Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador on "rate mitigation" last week, Premier Andrew Furey likened the outcome to "finally [having] the Muskrat off our back."

We don't expect Oscar Wilde from an administration in adolescence, but like much communication from the eighth floor of Confederation Building, the metaphor came off as a rushed first attempt.

The image doesn't quite scan. One thinks of Muskrats slinking flat to the ground, around your ankles, not on your back. Cornered, they might give you a nip but are hardly menacing.

Perhaps the falls being named after such a creature lulled us all into a kind of complacency about the cursed project. Would we have given more scrutiny to, say, "Rabid Wolf Rapids"? The project feels more like that Jesus big black bear that lurks around the Cartwright Junction, and he can be on your back with amorous intentions.

The line also implies that we are nearing the end of the Muskrat Falls saga when what we actually got was a stopgap, an emergency rescue from crushing electricity rate increases. Urgently needed and welcome but by no means the end of the story.

There are still issues with transmission, the high-priced bullshit artists who duped Kathy Dunderdale and her cabinet are still at large and unpunished, no charges of breach of public trust have been laid. Nalcor remains a bloated, lumbering beast, a Cadillac social program for surplus engineers and managers.

We'll be paying the tab on the Muskrat Falls hydro project for decades.

A transmission tower at night, powerful cables of the Labrador-Island Link stretching off into the distance.
Power will soon start flowing from Muskrat Falls. Columnist Edward Riche says the headaches from the megaproject will flow for years, too. (Nalcor Energy)

Everyone at the announcement was clearly coached to say "Lower Churchill" whenever possible. That likely means that development of Gull Island, one of the assets Canada needs to meet emission targets, is imminent.

If you're at all paranoid you might also think this was also a way to signal to Quebec that arrangements will be made to see that the Upper Churchill remains effectively in their control. Editorialists from La Belle Province have mused about how they might capitalize on Newfoundland and Labrador's bankruptcy and Hydro-Québec continues to carry on like they will be the primary beneficiary of Churchill Falls long past 2041, when a 65-year contract finally expires.

A separate way of thinking of 'nation building'

That no one said "Atlantic Loop" raises the question whether the idea was floated in Montreal and Hydro-Québec said participation would be contingent on them having ownership and control, with the Atlantic provinces as clients.

That's wouldn't surprise anyone, it's the way Hydro-Québec rolls. They have their own understanding of the "nation" in "nation building."

There is a large building.
Columnist Edward Riche suspects Hydro-Québec will play a critical role in any future development of the rest of the Lower Churchill energy project. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The Globe and Mail blew the dust off an old general purpose editorial and called the arrangement "a bailout." But the help from the feds is in the form of loans, loan guarantees and the gift of a tiny part of the vast fortune it made off a natural resource Newfoundland brought into Confederation. Toronto's National Newspaper also saw the deal as a means of securing Liberal seats in Newfoundland and Labrador when everyone knows they already have the six they hold in the bag, and a good shot at St. John's East with Jack Harris taking his well-earned retirement.

Even though it was the federal government's purview, Joey Smallwood couldn't get Lester Pearson to oblige Quebec to allow passage of Newfoundland and Labrador hydroelectricity through the province.

A national energy network was never going to be analogous to roads or rails.

The current prime minister is the member for Papineau and victory in the next election depends on Liberal fortunes in his home province. So long as Canada is held hostage politically by Quebec, our power isn't going to find a route to North American markets that isn't dictated by Quebec.

It may turn out that North American industry will have to come to the energy at source. 

The communications squad at the premier's office needn't fret about a few clumsy lines in the early drafts. They are going to be writing many more speeches about Labrador hydroelectricity.

Maybe give the metaphoric muskrat a name? "Martin," perhaps?

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Edward Riche

Freelance contributor

Edward Riche writes for the page, stage and screen. He lives in St. John's.

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