First as tragedy, then as farce: The Churchill River legacy

Commentator Drew Brown blames the Progressive Conservative government, led by Danny Williams, for the Muskrat Falls "mistake" and says the public let them get away with it.
Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall surrounded by cameras as he speaks to media on June 24. (CBC)

Stan Marshall agrees that Muskrat Falls is a boondoggle. The word I would use is unprintable at the CBC.

The Danny Williams team — Williams, Kathy Dunderdale, their legion of unthinking backbench desk-thumpers — have robbed Newfoundlanders and Labradorians of a future, all to build some Pharaonic concrete phallus out in the Labrador woods.

And, by and large, we let them get away with it.

Muskrat Falls was a mistake. It is "A gamble that's gone against us;" "Not the right choice for the power needs of this province;" "A heavy burden," in Marshall's own language.

If the Upper Churchill is one of the great tragedies in Newfoundland and Labrador's history, then the Lower Churchill is its farcical repetition. And as it turns out, the farce is usually worse.

The cost of building Muskrat Falls is now estimated to be $11.4 billion, including interest on borrowing. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

When BRINCO and Hydro-Quebec built the Upper Churchill in the 1960s on the assumption that energy prices would never rise, Newfoundland never had any direct skin in the game and lost out as prices rose. Fifty years later, the province is in for at least $11.4 billion on a project built on the opposite, equally foolish assumption — that energy prices would never go down.

Cursed from the start

And there is no way out. We have already sunk upwards of $6 billion into this. The cost of cancelling is likely more prohibitive than finishing, once you factor in how much Astaldi or Emera could sue us for if we decided to pull the plug.

Even then, we'd come away with nothing to show for any of this but a great gaping hole in the ground next to the Churchill river. We are chained to Nalcor's dream.

The great irony in all this is that Muskrat Falls was deliberately pitched by the government(s) of the day as a way to redeem our great national hydroelectric shame, to break the power of Quebec forever and make us masters of our own "energy warehouse."

The Upper Churchill project has brought windfall profits to Quebec because of a contract that gambled on power rates staying low.

Instead, it's an even bigger embarrassment and a much heavier albatross around our collective necks. This would be a hard burden to bear even in the best of times — much the worse for us in this moment of economic despair.

But then, we knew that it would go this way, didn't we? It was cursed from the start. Muskrat Falls was sanctioned 21 years to the day that Joey Smallwood died, as if to intentionally call down the wrath of his ghost.

It happened after years of meaningless, farcical debate both inside and outside the House of Assembly. The political and economic powers-that-be were absolutely contemptuous of the public, of the Public Utilities Board, of the Joint Review Panel, of anyone of any status or expertise who dared to question the wisdom of their decisions.

We were sold a pack of half-truths, false promises, and misguided assumptions by Nalcor, the provincial government, and an alarmingly large swath of the provincial business establishment. And anyone who said boo was likely to be mocked and jeered and pilloried by a media set operating on the loftily misguided assumption that there was no way the people in charge could be as willfully blind and incompetent as we secretly feared.

But they were, and it's the public who has to wear it.

Cold comfort

The "Known Critics," in spite of all their other eccentricities or errors or misjudgments or foibles or prickly Twitter personalities, were largely on the right side of history in the Muskrat Falls debate. Almost all of their warnings about the project have come true, which I expect is cold comfort to them now.

How many more shoes are left to drop? What about methylmercury in Lake Melville? What about the problems with the North Spur? What about the final cost, the potential market for surplus energy, the ratepayers' burden, the ultimate purpose of this whole awful enterprise?

Can we believe anything Nalcor tells us anymore? Are we going to foot the bill for Gilbert Bennett's severance package, too? Because that's the other thing: it is unlikely that anyone who had a hand in letting this happen will ever have to eat it.

Ed Martin, who presided over arguably the greatest infrastructure disaster in Newfoundland history (it's a genuine tossup between Muskrat Falls and the Smallwood industrialization plan), was given a $6-million golden handshake on his way out the door.

Danny Williams said in 2010 he was so confident in the deal to develop the Lower Churchill he would put his own money on the line. (CBC)

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett chaired Nalcor's board of directors in the period before they sanctioned Muskrat Falls and now she is in charge of cleaning up the province's fiscal mess.

The Tories have demonstrated in opposition that they are incapable of self-reflection or contrition or otherwise owning up to the fact that they gleefully sold us a terrible mistake.

The same broken tendering process for public projects big and small is still shrouded in mystery. Unaccountable corporate and union money still flows freely into partisan coffers, in a province where conflict of interest is regulated more by the honour code than the rule of law.

The clearest accomplishment of the Muskrat Falls fiasco is to expose that Newfoundland and Labrador, nearly two decades into the 21st century, remains a brutish political backwater.

Danny Williams once enjoyed the status as God-king of Newfoundlanders, the tribal leader of our race, avenger of our national pride.

He will now likely be committed to history as the man who squandered our glimmer of prosperity and as the architect of our latest national shame.

It is a legacy that our families, friends, and children will be paying off the rest of our lives.

But hey — at least we got the IceCaps.


Drew Brown


Drew Brown writes frequently on politics. He lives in St. John's.