A meeting had been scheduled with provincial government representatives to deal with a road that is leaving residents and visitors in increasingly life-threatening situations.
Junior Hancock of Forteau took part in a demonstration committee set on attending the closed meeting. He said this threat the highway poses to driver safety is the first and foremost concern.
“The road is deteriorating fast and there is a major potential for a serious tragedy,” said Hancock.
With flat tires and busted rims becoming a daily occurrence, many residents feel it is only a matter of time before someone loses their life to this main highway.
“They can keep bringing in those cold patches, but if they don’t do something soon, they’re going to be bringing in body bags,” said Hancock.
While preparing with the committee, L’Anse au Loup Mayor Hedley Ryland received a text from Cartwright L’Anse au Clair MHA Lisa Dempster the meeting had been moved to the Northern Light Inn in L'Anse au Clair. It was sent less than an hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin.
Ryland said the meeting was moved due to fears related to the developing protest.
“I thought it was unfair. This is a non-violent group that just wants to show their dissatisfaction with the state of the highway,” Ryland said. “It was just to show that they’re very concerned for an accident that’s waiting to happen on this highway.”
Dempster said the meeting was moved out of respect of concerns her team had regarding the protests.
“It was anticipated to be a very large demonstration,” Dempster said. “The team that were with me were concerned with being caught up in that and having their faces in the media. That was not what they had signed up for.”
As word spread about the change in location, impassioned residents headed across the shattered highway to resettle their protest in L'Anse au Clair.
“It didn’t stop nobody. We just had to drive further over all the holes,” said L’Anse au Loup resident Jenny Normore.
With over 200 people crowding the parking lot with signs and concerns, Hancock said it was the biggest gathering he had ever seen at a protest.
The government representatives initially got up and exited the room upon seeing the unexpected attendants when Ryland brought his committee into the closed meeting.
“We could not believe it,” said Hancock. “They just stood up, put their binders together and left.”
Dempster said the meeting was organized for elected community leaders and felt it was inappropriate to have the demonstration committee attend.
“Sometimes you need a small focus group when you’re hashing things through,” she said. “I understood their frustrations, so I asked to be given an hour to meet with community leaders and I would come back and speak to them.”
Eventually their differences were worked out, and Dempster addressed demonstrators inside the hotel.
Joe Dunford, assistant deputy minister for the Department of Transportation and Works, came to an agreement with the mayors that the condition of the Labrador Straits section of the highway is no longer a road issue, but one of safety.
Ryland hopes this will make access to an emergency fund much easier.
During the meeting, the originally planned pavement of six kilometres of hot asphalt was stretched to 11 kilometres. Ryland said 20 kilometres is what is really needed, and an additional $1-2 million from an emergency fund would make this possible.
“If we can get 20 kilometres this summer, we can hold our head high,” he said.
Dunford is expected to get back on whether or not emergency funds can be secured within a week.
Some who attended the demonstration, like Jenny Normore, felt that the heated asphalt is not enough for a road in dire need of repair.
“It’s only a Band-Aid, that’s all,” said Normore.
Normore said people are not satisfied and many feel more demonstrations need to be organized if the right solutions are not undertaken. Some possibilities include organizing roadblocks at some of the most dangerous areas of the highway, as well as areas leading to the Muskrat Falls project.
Normore said communities across the Labrador Straits are not going to let it slide any longer.
“We have to keep going. We’re not going to stop here,” she said. “It’s time to do something and I think the only solution is if we block the road because I don’t think they think we’re serious.”
An extra crew is expected to immediately continue cold patching in L’Anse au Loup, and the paving of 11 kilometres of heated asphalt is expected to begin soon.
Ryland insisted that even if the 20 kilometres they hope to have paved this summer is met, a five-year plan set for next year is still essential. He hopes within five years drivers will be able to safely travel from Quebec to Goose Bay with no fears of flat tires.
Dempster said overall the meeting was very positive.
“It was a crazy evening in terms of all the going-ons, but people were respectful,” she said.
By Kyle Greenham
The Northern Pen