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'We can’t mine one more pound of iron in Labrador West': Power, health care shortages prohibit growth in Labrador City

An idea board at the Future of Lab West Summit. - Contributed

LABRADOR CITY, N.L. — Mining and Labrador West go hand-in-hand, but that wasn't the highlight of the Future of Lab West Summit held in Labrador City this week.

“We have mines. There are more mines to come," says Toby Leon president of the Labrador West Chamber of Commerce, who adds there are projects on the books to go forward in the area.

“At the moment, we can’t mine one more pound of iron in Labrador West. Because of energy, because of the doctor shortage, because of the cost of plane tickets, because of housing. There’s a bunch of structural problems in Labrador West.”

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Leon says Labrador West is a great place to live and work, but the issues are adding up.

“We all love it here. But you can’t do anymore," Leon says.

"It’s at capacity, and the people who live here put up with a lot of stuff in order to live here. They like it here, and they like the money, frankly."

He says a new power project is badly needed in Labrador West to accommodate any more growth, especially where companies and employees fork out a significant amount of taxes.

“IOC (Iron Ore Company of Canada) paid $500 million in taxes, or around that. That’s not the employees paying taxes –– that’s one company out of three, and then 10,000 employees that are the best-paid employees in the province paying taxes as well,” he says.

“There’s a golden egg at the end if you can make these projects go ahead. That includes power –– we’re looking for a significant amount of power, which is going to require a new line to be built. We needed that for 20 years.”

Premier Andrew Furey addresses guests at the Future of Lab West Summit. - Contributed

The need for power could exceed 1000 MW, Leon says, representing a generational commitment that would yield big results.

“Our mining companies pay a lot of tax," he says, adding that he doesn't believe it's the mining companies' problem to solve social and economic problems in the community, such as access to energy, health care and the high cost of travel.

"That’s why they pay their taxes,” he says.

“We can’t mine another 20 million tonnes, 30 million tonnes of iron ore in Labrador West. We can’t mine a pound more unless the structural problems are solved.”

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"Labrador West is tapped out. We have no more electrical load left. We have two lines that are maxed at over 300 megawatts. You can’t get another electron down the line. We need more new infrastructure one of the things is we need to bring more electricity to Labrador West." - NDP MHA for Labrador West, Jordan Brown

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NDP MHA for Labrador West Jordan Brown says energy is his biggest concern.

“Labrador West is tapped out. We have no more electrical load left," he says.

"We have two lines that are maxed at over 300 megawatts. You can’t get another electron down the line. We need more new infrastructure one of the things is we need to bring more electricity to Labrador West."

The solution to the problem, he adds, must be clean energy.

“We don't want to burn fossil fuels at any of our mining operations and the decarbonization is going to bring a lot of more workers, a lot more development, and a lot more people to Labrador West," Brown adds.

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"We also heard from health care that there were things we could do as a community that we didn't realize we could do around welcoming physicians and finding ways to make them part of the community. They are all good points." - Toby Leon, president of the Labrador West Chamber of Commerce

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Both Leon and Brown say health care is another big challenge. The hospital in the area is almost brand new and adequate, but they both say staffing is a different story entirely.

“You got big companies talking about these big dreams, and at the same time, I can't recruit and retain doctors, nurses, and other auxiliary health-care staff into the region. I can’t get no teachers into the region,” says Brown.

“We're having a recruitment issue there and a lot of it is because of the wage discrepancy between how much a mine worker wakes and how much government is paying these important employees.”

That's why the community is considering stepping up to solve the problem, Leon says.

“We also heard from health care that there were things we could do as a community that we didn't realize we could do around welcoming physicians and finding ways to make them part of the community. They are all good points," Leon says.

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MP Gudie Hutchings speaks at the Future of Lab West Summit. - Contributed

Another key issue discussed was the MTAP (Medical Transport Assistance Program), says Leon, who believes changes are needed.

“Why should it cost me $1,800 for a plane ticket to get out to Newfoundland? You can say what you want, it still costs me a considerable amount of money to do the same things that you do in St. John’s,” says Leon.

“There seems to be a commitment to talk about improving MTAP, it's very important to us. That program is very important to us, and we would like to see it be much better.”

Brown says he wants to see a change to how MTAP works.

“You just get on the plane, go to your appointment, or go get your procedure done and then come home," says Brown.

"We let Minister Dempster know about what we want for MTAP. The message was brought to her that we still want to see a program where nobody has to pay upfront for health care.”

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Leon says another major issue was travel in and out of the region. He says approaching a second airline is not off the table.

“We only have one airline. We may go making the case to some other airlines," Leon says.

"There’s a lot of people here that got money who would love to get on their planes to land in Montreal and then go to Vancouver or whatever."

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Attendees at the Future of Lab West Summit included several members from the provincial government. - Contributed

Both Leon and Brown say the summit was productive. They want to see more discussion about issues in Labrador West.

Brown says while discussion is great, there were no commitments from government for health care.

“Our problem in Labrador West is that we have machines but we have no people to run the machines," Brown says. "Unfortunately, so far, we just seen a reiteration of prior promises that they're going to do better, but nothing of solid when it came to health care."

The Future of Lab West Summit was held in Labrador City from Feb. 26– 28. Attendees included Premier Andrew Furey and other political and business leaders from across the province.

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Sanuda Ranawake is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering Indigenous and rural issues.

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Sanuda Ranawake, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram