Northern Perspectives Interview
Hon. Bill Rompkey, MP, Labrador
NP: Representing a federal riding the size of Labrador would seem to demand a keen sense of diplomacy. How have you sought to deal equitably with what are often competing-and conflicting- regional interests?
Rompkey: While there are some issues in Labrador which are common to all regions, such as communications and transportation, there are other issues where there are conflicts. Low-level flying in Goose Bay is a case in point. Where there are conflicts, a Member of Parliament has to try and be fair to all groups and all areas, because he represents all areas of Labrador. My approach to low-level flying has been to attempt to find a compromise whereby military training can be conducted while, at the same time, ensuring that native people live the kind of life they want to live in the future, with control over their own communities and their own lives. I have said that this particular conflict is best addressed through the land claims process; and I hope that this is the course of action that will be followed.
Another area of potential conflict is in the matter of funding. I think that it is generally recognized that, in obtaining federal funding for the development of Labrador, it is very important to bear in mind that areas of coastal Labrador are in greatest need of development funds. Although there have been initiatives in the centre and in the west, that is why the greater part of those regional development agreements have been for services and development opportunities on the coast.
NP: What would you identify as the main issues confronting the Inuit of northern Labrador? How do their aspirations and concerns fit into the larger regional context?
Rompkey: The main issue confronting the Inuit of Labrador is how to gain control over their own lives and communities and their own future. They are pursuing that objective now through the land claims process; and if both federal and provincial governments are fair in their dealings, hopefully this can be achieved. It is important, however, to speed up the land claims process so that local control can be achieved quickly. Obviously, at the moment, special funding is still coming from the native agreement, and native people do not have as much control as they would like to have over how those funds are spent. Presumably, a land claims settlement would change all that, and, therefore, it is desirable to have it come about as quickly as possible. The objective of greater local control over decision making and over public expenditures is not confined to the Inuit of northern Labrador. I believe all people in Labrador want to have a greater say over how their area is governed and how public funds are spent. Hopefully, that objective can be achieved. It is certainly an objective I support. If it is to happen, though, some way will have to be found to integrate the self-government that may arise out of the Inuit land claims with any greater degree of autonomy achieved by the people in Labrador as a whole.
NP: Are the Inuit and other native groups of Labrador "have-not peoples in a have-not province"? What can be done to prevent the deterioration of traditional pursuits such as hunting, trapping, and fishing, and to counter an increased reliance on unemployment insurance benefits and welfare?
Rompkey: Yes, the Inuit and other native groups in Labrador are have-not peoples in a have-not province. It seems to me it is fundamental in public policy that you help first those who need it most. First of all, I believe that unemployment insurance should be done away with and that the government should bring in a guaranteed annual income so that people can stop having to beat the system and get on with living their own lives. In order to live those lives as they want, they need a degree of self-government and access to adequate revenue, either through resource rights, or through cash settlements or other means. Only with financial power and political power can they begin to map a future for themselves which presumably will include not simply hunting, fishing, and trapping, but also the pursuit of corporate ventures.
NP: The Canadian/Newfoundland Inuit of Labrador Agreement [Native Funding Agreement] has long been a contentious issue, particularly with regard to native participation in the decision making process. In your view, what can be done to make the agreement more workable?
Rompkey: First of all, the monies in the Native Funding Agreement are inadequate for the job that needs to be done. Referring to your earlier question, we have to remember we are dealing with a have-not people in a have-not province. Once the level of funding has been increased to an adequate level, I believe there should be a further democratization of the decision-making process. In other words, I think more power has to be taken out of the hands of bureaucrats and put into the hands of people who live in the local area and are duly elected to carry out their responsibilities. I am referring to structures such as the Labrador Inuit Association, but also to the various community councils which could be upgraded and strengthened so as to give them a greater degree of competence in the administration of funding.
NP: Land claim negotiations are now underway between the Labrador Inuit Association and the federal and provincial governments. How would you assess the process leading up to acceptance of the claim? The apparent lack of co-ordination between Ottawa and Newfoundland in even defining the terms of comprehensive claims would not seem to bode well for the success of tripartite negotiations.
Rompkey: With regard to the process leading up to land claims, this took too much time, and the fact that it was announced just before the provincial election laid it open to the charge of political expediency. However, the process is now underway. There was obviously a discrepancy between the terms of reference of the previous government and the federal government. Hopefully, under the new administration in Newfoundland these terms of reference will fall into closer alignment. I am encouraged by the fact that the premier has taken on the Native Affairs portfolio. It seems to me that this speaks very well for the kind of priority the government has given to the issue, and certainly places the power for dealing with it at the highest possible level.
NP: Is the land claims policy unveiled by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in December 1987 a realistic framework for negotiation? Do you anticipate any changes to that policy under the Liberal administration?
Rompkey: As I indicated previously, the land claims policy of the previous Conservative government was, in my opinion, not a realistic framework for negotiation. I would hope that there would be changes to that policy under the new Liberal administration.
NP: Is regional self-government as it now exists in northern Quebec a possibility for native Labradorians? How would such a proposal be greeted by other segments of the population?
Rompkey: I believe that a greater degree of autonomy is desired by all the people in Labrador. There has been discussion for some time in Labrador about a system of regional government. Nobody has clearly defined how that would work. Clearly, there are great differences between the various regions of Labrador, and each has its own problems, its own possibilities, and its own orientation. It has been very difficult to bring the various regions of Labrador together into any coherent and effective body, although several attempts have been made. Whether the model of northern Quebec is a possibility for native Labradorians remains to be seen. It seems to me that Labrador has to work out its own system of local administration, bearing in mind the differences that exist among the regions. However, I do believe that this is necessary and possible. and that it could work in harmony with any system of self-government that emerges from the land claims process.
NP: You have expressed support for the establishment of a NATO training base at CFB Goose Bay. What considerations led you to that position? Is there an inherent risk in tying the economic development of Labrador too closely to military expenditures?
Rompkey: I have supported the establishment of low-level flying at Goose Bay. The government of which I was a part brought the Germans to Goose Bay and began negotiations with the Dutch. My belief then, as now, is that Goose Bay began as a military base and still is of strategic importance to the military. I wish it were not so, but it is a fact of life that the military presence has been and is the economic foundation of Goose Bay. I and others have tried to find economic alternatives for Goose Bay; but, so far, with the exception of certain logging operations, we have not had a great deal of success. A viable economic alternative for the Lake Melville area, for instance, might be found in developing cottage industries.
Indeed, there is an inherent risk in tying economic development too closely to military expenditures. But my own feeling is that we cannot do away with the military until we find suitable economic alternatives. The experience of Summerside and Portage la Prairie shows us dramatically that an over-dependence on the military is extremely risky for any economy. However, like many other single-industry towns in the North, Goose Bay has no economic alternatives and would be badly crippled, as it was in the late 1970s, if the military were to go.
NP: Low-level flying and associated issues have thrust Labrador's native community-particularly the Innu-into the national spotlight. Do you feel the situation has been accurately depicted? What might be the long-term impacts of the native protest movement on political debate in Labrador?
Rompkey: I do feel that the story of the majority of people in the Lake Melville area has not been heard by the general public in Canada. There is a silent majority in Goose Bay-900 recently demonstrated their support for military activity-who have homes, businesses, and a community that they fear is at risk. Some of them have already gone through the trauma of a military pull-out when the Americans withdrew in 1976. Furthermore, many of these people are second- and third-generation residents of Goose Bay who have made their home there and want to stay. The question they ask first of all is, "Why should we leave?" and, secondly, perhaps more importantly, "Where would we go?". So the situation in Goose Bay is not simply a matter of the Innu versus the military. Obviously the Innu have rights which I feel should be pursued through the land claims process. Out of that process an arrangement can be worked out whereby all of the people who live in Labrador can do so in harmony-both those who want to work for the military and those who do not.
I believe that land claims should be settled speedily. Needless delays have only heightened the possibility of confrontation between the various groups in Labrador. I do not want to see this, and I hope that discussions can replace public protest as a means for settling the differences.
NP: The Department of National Defence has been criticized for a lack of sensitivity toward native interests as they relate to wildlife conservation and environmental protection. As Opposition Defence critic, how would you rate DND's handling of such issues?
Rompkey: DND feels that its environmental impact statement speaks positively, rather than negatively, about its handling of wildlife conservation and environmental protection. However, DND has a vested interest; I want to hear from independent experts and observers with regard to the conservation of wildlife and protection of the environment during the time of the military presence in Goose Bay, and be governed to a great extent by what they say. I believe we have to treat the military with some suspicion on these matters because of their vested interest. But I have no knowledge of serious environmental damage or negative impact on wildlife. In fact, in spite of the low-level flying, the George River herd is so healthy now that the Labrador Inuit Association in Nain can carry on a commercial caribou harvesting operation. At the present time, I have an open mind on the subject. If I am convinced, however, that wildlife conservation and environmental protection are threatened, I certainly will not support the continuation of military activity. It seems to me that our priority has to be the land, which will be there long after the military are gone.