Infrastructure and medical access top of mind for Lake Melville voters

·9 min read

The central Labrador riding of Lake Melville is one to watch this election. With five candidates, two running as independents, that have a wide range of views on various issues, there’s something for everyone.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Perry Trimper is seeking re-election, following his removal from the party over controversial statements. He’s taking on former and current Happy Valley-Goose town councillors Shannon Tobin and Michelle Baikie, representing the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals, respectively, Labrador Land Protector Amy Norman running for the NDP and outspoken human rights advocate Andrew Abbass, who is running as an independent.

SaltWire Network contacted people in the region to see what the biggest issues are for them in this election, and contacted the candidates to get their views on those issues.

Access to medical services and issues surrounding infrastructure dominated the responses, in different forms.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Robert Way told SaltWire infrastructure is top of mind for him and people he’s spoken to, ranging from the Trans-Labrador Highway to access to basic services.

Way mentioned projects such as Highway 520, more commonly known as North West River Road, which residents have been calling for repairs to for years.

“There have been people who have died on that road. There have been major issues and it's treated like it’s a piecemeal project, done a few kilometres at a time,” he said.

Infrastructure generally is a concern, he said, and affects a variety of other issues, such as health care and quality of life.

Florence Milley, who also lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, highlighted transportation infrastructure as an issue, specifically the impact it can have on people living in communities such as North West River and Sheshatshiu, who rely on the roads to obtain medical services and even things like groceries.

“There have been a lot of accidents, deaths because of it and I don’t think government is doing enough to assist in that area. There’s talk about it, but no action that goes with it.”

Milley, who grew up in and works in Sheshatshiu, said she sees every day the impact the road has on people and their ability to gain access to services.

Access to medical services is also a big issue for Milley, who said services are not being provided in an efficient and culturally sensitive way. There are a lot of changes that need to be made to medical care in Labrador, she said, ranging from the availability of doctors to making sure people are dealt with in a culturally appropriate way.

SaltWire made a social media post asking people what their concerns were and found many of the same issues brought up.

“Lack of medical specialists,” Peggy Blake wrote. “Until medical specialists are permanently located in Goose Bay there should be (no) cost for travel to specialist appointments outside Goose Bay. More hospital beds. Goose Bay has no ventilators, equipment for EKGs, or MRIs in our hospital that services the communities of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Mud Lake, North West River, Sheshatshiu, Nain, Natuashish, Hopedale, Postville, Makkovik, and Rigolet. We need permanent doctors. I could go on and on, but is there any point?”

Trimper said he’s heard a lot about different aspects of medical services so far this campaign, such as mental-health services and transportation. Trimper said the medical transportation assistance program (MTAP), which provides discounted flights for medical travel, needs to be scrapped and overhauled. He said people shouldn’t have to fundraise or get help from different charities to obtain medical services.

“If we can’t have medical services in a community, we need to figure out how to get those residents to those medical services. When I think of all the people who can’t afford even the reduced payment on airfare and that people have to cancel appointments because they can’t afford it, that needs to change. When people have to rely on charities, we aren’t providing a provincial service here at all.”

Regarding infrastructure, Trimper said there still needs to be a lot of work done in the growing region, not just paving of the roads.

“You look at some of the districts in Newfoundland, so much of the infrastructure they have is in place. We’re still growing and growing here, and it’s on people’s minds. The highway is huge. We’ll soon have the TLH paved, but there’s so much to go with it, from washrooms to communications and safety considerations. Where else would you drive three or four hours without those services available? It’s not acceptable.”

Norman, a first-time candidate who has been involved in social justice issues in the region for years, said she isn’t surprised a lot of people see infrastructure and medical access as big concerns, since it’s the same thing she heard knocking on doors the last few weeks.

“Regarding medical, a lot of changes need to be made,” she said. “A big one is MTAP. Right now people have to pay upfront to fly to appointments on the island. That’s a huge burden, especially if you have a chaperone or need an appointment quickly, it adds up quickly. We want to do away with that upfront cost to people.”

She said the lack of availability of family doctors and specialists is something she heard about a lot, which can lead to other, more complicated medical issues.

Something needs to change in recruitment and retention of doctors in the area, she said, because the system right now is not working. Infrastructure deficits such as lack of available child care tie into it, she said, and are part of the same overall issues.

“We’re supposed to be the gateway to Labrador, and we don’t see that in infrastructure,” she said. “There’s a lack of respect that underscores all these deficits in our infrastructure. If some of these issues were happening on the island, people wouldn’t stand for it, they would be rioting. It’s frustrating when you see the difference in the way people are treated, the services offered, the upkeep of the roads, and it's part of the reason I stepped up to run. Frankly, I’m tired of it.”

Tobin said it’s no secret there needs to be greater funding of the medical system in Labrador, and one change his party is proposing is eliminating the cost of medical flights entirely.

“This is going to create a policy change in how health care is dealt with in our communities. There’s the common-sense solution of either sending 30 people out to see a specialist or getting a doctor to come here and see people, or investing in the equipment and sending a tech up. These are simple solutions that Labradorians on the ground see and can’t understand why it hasn’t been done yet.”

While there will still be people who need to travel for medical reasons, he said, this change would lead to policy changes that will lead to better health care for the people in the region. Infrastructure-wise, Tobin said there needs to be more of a vision for Labrador.

“There needs to be a cohesive plan for the region,” he said. “The northern strategic plan has been a historic thing for the PC party to do. It’s always been the Tories' goals to develop Labrador, focus on developing services here so people have access to services they need. It’s about making sure we have a road map for the future of Labrador.”

He said his party sees a lot of potential in the region, and that plan will help them achieve that potential.

Abbass is another newcomer to provincial politics, but is a well-known figure in Newfoundland and Labrador as a mental-health and human rights advocate.

Abbass said he sees the medical and infrastructure deficits in the region, which shouldn’t exist in an area that provides so much to the province economically.

“To me it all comes back to the idea of adjacency. If you look at Newfoundland when they talk about the fisheries, and how people should be benefitting from living adjacent to these resources, there have been a lot of strong words. But when you look at Labrador, especially Lake Melville, between Churchill Falls and soon to be Muskrat Falls, providing power to a big chunk of the eastern seaboard, where’s our adjacency?”

He said the government also needs to look at making regions of the province more self-sustainable and independent, especially with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still not fully felt.

“We should be positioning ourselves to make sure we’re not caught up in that. We’re from a region that produces in abundance, but it’s very seasonal, and when it’s not in season we have to rely on outside areas, and we need to wean ourselves off that.”

Baikie said her party is working to ensure all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have equitable access to quality health care, and has made a number of changes recently, such as reducing the private vehicle deductible from 1,500 kilometres to 500, and income-support clients using the MTAP will now be able to claim a $25-per-night private accommodation rate, with those staying in private accommodations eligible for a $29-per-day meal allowance.

She said the Liberals have also committed to expanding ehealth and telemedicine, and working with local stakeholders to recruit and retain health-care professionals.

“Our Liberal government will continue to support families who must travel for medical care, and work to simplify and streamline the application process,” she said.

When asked about infrastructure, Baikie said with the completion of the TLH within sight they’re now able to take a good look at what the next step will be in building a road to the north coast. She also mentioned changes to marine service in the region, which she said has brought increased capacity, and the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp.'s three-year action plan to address housing needs and homelessness throughout the province.

Evan Careen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram