You probably heard that Canadian actor Christopher Plummer died. One of his claims to fame as an actor was playing the character Captain von Trapp in the movie musical The Sound of Music. Plummer performed alongside Julie Andrews who was a most troublesome novice nun who could sing the birds out of the trees. After moving in to care for his children, Andrews as Maria, becomes romantically involved with von Trapp. Predictably she leaves the convent to eventually take on the role of wife and step-mother to a large family. One the songs of the musical that always plays in my head is that of the Mother Superior singing “How do you solve a problem like Maria” when poor Maria was having trouble fitting in.
I hope I am not too distracting with the lead to this column. Hopefully it will connect as we go along. As this is being written news of the delay in voting in the eastern part of the province is known. This means the overall election result will not be known for a while at least. Regardless of the outcome, Canada as the national government may too be singing a new version of the aforementioned song: How do you solve a problem like Newfoundland and Labrador?
Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949 on the heels of a referendum that gave back responsible government to what was then a country. Here it is now, some 70 years later and the province is staring down a situation that we have seen before.
When Newfoundland joined Canada after the Commission of Government years, the then country had a modest surplus of cash. My information is that this was in the order of $30 million. This, no doubt, was to a large extent the result of the efforts of the non-elected Commission which ran the country for 15 years. Today things are upside down again as the province struggles to keep the lights on and pay the salaries of civil servants. The accumulated debt is now unsustainable to the point that there appears there will be no choice other than that the national government – Ottawa, will need to come to the rescue.
Having spent most of my years living in the province I feel very much a part of all of this.
The people that the Premier appointed to study the province’s economic situation have quite a challenge ahead. As a non-elected advisory body, they will make their report and leave it to the elected representatives to do with it what they will. If you study the history of Newfoundland’s troubled past there was a similar exercise in the years leading up to Commission of Government in 1934.
Let’s be clear, Newfoundland is not alone in facing financial headwinds. Ontario is reported to have the highest debt of any subnational government in the world. Saskatchewan faced down a pretty horrible financial situation some years ago. Canada has borrowed over 400 billion dollars this year because of the pandemic and other provinces have had to manage new financial circumstances.
What really separates this province from others is its declining (and older) population, government expenditures that on a per capita basis are the highest in the country and a landmass which drives up the cost of providing government services. Add to this a misguided hydro project (Muskrat Falls) that ballooned in cost and created even more debt. Newfoundland and Labrador’s indebtedness (highest per capita in Canada) and its inherent disadvantages, by virtue of geography and demographics, leaves it extremely vulnerable. Other jurisdictions can bear high debt more durably even though after the pandemic there will be a reckoning for all in this country.
All political parties acknowledge the province will have to get creative with Ottawa, or maybe the other way around. Ottawa is the Mother Superior who will have to help Newfoundland and Labrador solve its financial problems. Quite unfortunately, the provincial election did little to shed much light on the impact of the financial situation and any talk of bankruptcy was not welcome. Criticism for holding the election before the report of the economic recovery team is probably justified, although I think the province’s voters know things have to change.
As in the musical, a nice and thoughtful song did not make things better for Maria in the convent nor does an election change the gravity of the financial situation facing the province. It just heightens the urgency to take charge of the problem. Citizens will need to be patient and enduring through it all. The forecasts from some of the pundits paint a pretty grim picture of how the province will need to function in the years ahead. I have little to offer as to how things may be set aright. I can tell you one thing – as a former resident and patriot, I too will feel the pain.
Larry Peckford and his wife, Dianne (née LeRiche), have lived in Ottawa for the past 10 years, but keep a seasonal residence in the Codroy Valley. Larry has worked as a NL public servant and community volunteer. An occasional blogger, he also writes other pieces of personal interest. You can e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.