Labrador City, Sept. 24th, 2011
What a difference a few years make. It was only four years ago when the collective hope for this area’s future was low, when you could have picked up one of the original Lab City or Wabush townhouses here for thirty to sixty thousand. Not now! To be straight about it Labrador west towns are not here for any other reason than the fact they exist as mining towns. As such they have always breathed the ebb and flow of prosperity according to the vagaries of the markets where minerals are traded. The wealth here is built directly because Labrador West is at the site of one of the worlds best deposits of Iron Ore. It may compete with a few other global locations but really, the world needs this resource. So, to think of this place as having a long standing heritage, an aboriginal population or having some other hold to the past is false, this place is only 50 years old. Many of the faces that came here to see the first rock being blasted are still here. I’ve always identified with blue collar people, being in a working town has always been refreshing for me. Here, workers are everywhere, people who do physical things.
We arrived here a few days ago. Our plane ended up number eight in a holding pattern waiting for the air traffic to clear. That doesn’t happen here! It’s not supposed to be that busy! In the airport the diversity of travelers is obvious. I’ve not seen Filipinos here before, now there are a lot, the same with faces of people who are likely African, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Chinese. This is sudden, just two tours ago there was some talk of needing to import workers here with the expansions at IOC and Bloom Lake, QCM and Wabush mines, but the future has happened. Help wanted signs are everywhere in town.
The economic trickle down is slow. One of the chief concerns here is the housing. Speculators have bought up every thing and now you’d be fortunate to find a house at all, never mind the price! IOC used up an old school and turned it into single room apartments for temporary workers and are expanding on that building. Most workers directly associated with the mine expansions come and go from here on turnaround, in for three weeks out for one. They don’t add much to the local economy, their paycheques go back home. It’s the associated business, jobs and construction as a result of all that mining that is directly affecting the welfare of the towns. When we last did shows here 18 months ago a hotel was being constructed and the owner got an offer from a mining company to lease it to them to accommodate workers. He didn’t bother to open it as a hotel, so the already tight situation with hotel rooms has gotten no better.
Store and business owners can’t get staff. Housing has become unaffordable. The road goes through the towns now and continues on, linking Quebec with the ferry to Newfoundland, effectively making these once almost inaccessible towns a road stop. The once evident sense of community is being challenged. Walmart is here, flooding the area with cheap imported Chinese goods indirectly squashing small retail businesses. The place has new challenges for the youth who are simply trying to stay without being forced elsewhere. All of these things happened in Fort McMurray, even I can remember back 25 years ago when that place consisted of 22,000 residents; it now supports a population approaching 140,000. Will it happen here? What are the consequences? It’s really difficult to answer either question.
This area is destined to become a large hole in the ground. The engineers have the plans already. Even the ski-hill, Old Smoky will disappear, it’s just too valuable. Is it possible to remain loyal to a place like this? I think so, I see it in the long term residents who love the place and the place offers a lot to love. But it offers a micro-glimpse of the way we humans think of the planet in general – a resource to mine.
There exists an old adage that the only thing which remains constant is change itself. That holds true for our northern resource towns. Like it or not this place will evolve and as long as Iron is needed in the world its future is guaranteed.