Five years ago when we first visited Labrador, by ferry from northwestern Newfoundland, we were so enchanted that we resolved to come back, and next time to come across by land, taking the Trans-Labrador Highway (TLH). We're started on that trip now, and our story so far is a tale of Canadian politics. Provincial Map of Quebec showing our driving route Our path so far

First we might note that Canada is a federation of provinces, which often do not cooperate with one another. The TLH is 700 miles, some paved, but mostly graded dirt and gravel, and it is about half in the province of Quebec and half in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. If tourists want information about travelling the TLH, they need information about both halves of the road (or so you'd think). But in Quebec you get information about the Quebec half of the TLH and in Newfoundland and Labrador you get information about the Labrador half of the TLH, and in Ottawa you get told that tourism is a provincial responsibility. So much for passing the buck, Canadian style.

The more important tale of Canadian politics arises when one asks, "Why is there a TLH, anyway?" The answer: STEEL and ELECTRICITY. About 350 miles north of Baie Comeau, Quebec, and 350 miles west of Goose Bay, Labrador, is a big deposit of iron ore. Some of the iron ore is in Quebec, and some in Labrador. The iron mines in Quebec are French and the iron mines in Labrador are English. This takes a little understanding. Both mines use big shovels to dig up the ore and drop it Panoramic view of a large iron mine showing parts of a mountain cut away Massive Quebec iron mine into enormous yellow trucks that haul it off to be smelted. But it is quite difficult for a French miner to succeed (let alone advance) in an English mine, and vice-versa. We think this is a matter of language, certainly, but perhaps even more importantly, of culture. The hundreds of little differences between francophone and anglophone Canadians translate into differences in working customs in the two mines. And of course, a francophone is more likely to be promoted in a French mine, while an anglophone is more likely to succeed in an English mine.

The first miners didn't have a road. They were flown in and flown out, and the rest of the time lived near the mines. The TLH is relatively new. It was built first in Quebec, because Hydro Quebec (an electric company) wanted to put in a series of dams to get electric power (some of which is used in the mines) and needed a road. So the Quebec part of the road got built first. The Labrador part was a lot more touchy. Labrador used to be a territory, administered out of Ottawa, but it became a province, sort of. The province of Newfoundland and Labrador is mostly Newfoundland (in population) and mostly Labrador (in land area) but almost all Newfoundland (in political power), as there are only 30,000 souls in all of Labrador. So it took a long time for Labrador to get the politicians far away in St. John's to pony up the money for a road -- and they're still waiting for The three story brown building stretches a quarter-mile into the distance THE WALL goes on and on and on the road to be completed to Cartwright and the coast. Putting in the Churchill Falls power plant probably gave the economic impetus to continue the road.

But back to the iron mines. The first we learned of another political issue was in the once-town of Gagnon. It doesn't seem right to call it a ghost town, because there are no old buildings as we're accustomed to in the ghost towns of the American West. There are signs of streets, even a divided highway, but not a single building. It's all overgrown with weeds. The entire town of Gagnon was bulldozed to the ground in 1985. It seems this was a company-owned town, and when the company (a subsidiary of U. S. Steel) decided the mine was no longer profitable, they didn't want any other company buying up their lease and using their townsite, so they just kicked all the people out and levelled their homes.

Needless to say, we were shocked. This happened just 20 years ago? We thought that company towns were a thing of the distant past, and that now the laws provided that towns had to be governed A plain white corridor inside the residential wing of The Wall THE WALL: interior corridor by municipal governments and democratic political principles. But evidently the province of Quebec does not have laws that require towns to be public and democratic, because the town of Fermont (French for Iron Mountain) is another company-owned town. Amazing!

When Gagnon was shut down, the miners with the greatest seniority were moved 20 miles north to Fermont where they displaced the miners there, forcing the young miners to leave the area (and go to Montreal or Toronto for work). What's more, the miners from Gagnon did not mix with the miners from Fermont. They brought their own clubs and cliques and did not integrate for many years. (Now Fermont is -- more or less -- one big happy French mining town.)

In Labrador things are different. There the miners own their own homes, and there are businesses -- Walmart, supermarkets, Tim Hortons, motels. Whereas in Fermont things are bleak. The company decided to put all the residential and commercial facilities in a single building -- perhaps half a mile long. They call it THE WALL, and they say it provides a winter windbreak. That may be. We walked through about half of THE WALL, the part devoted to housing for teachers in the town schools (the population of Fermont is about 3500) and soon became quite depressed. The walls were stark and bare, the architecture featured no embellishments, the feeling was decidely institutional and A few small homes line a residential street in Churchill Falls Residences, Churchill Falls unappealing, the residents added no decorations of their own (why should they if the company could bulldoze the whole thing away?)

The TLH is a pretty lonely road. Aside from the mines and the power plants (and the towns around them), and a few (very few) fishing camps, the TLH is deserted. No signs of humans, few signs of wildlife, a rather boring scrawny coniferous forest, some hills but nothing big enough to be a real mountain, and a goodly number of emergency phone booths in case of breakdown. There's no cell phone coverage, so it's pretty isolated. But in truth there's so much traffic that another vehicle will come along soon and report if you have a breakdown and need help. We did worry a bit about this before setting out, but it's no more isolated than parts of the west we've driven through.

All the residents of the mining communities on both sides of the border are worried about the chances that the mines will shut down if the yields per ton get too low and the mines are no longer profitable, so they're trying to get some industrial diversification. One idea is to provide cold-weather testing for jet engines. Aircraft jets operate at subzero temperatures at high altitudes, so they need to be tested at those temperatures. And it's a lot easier to bring the ambient temperature An eagle nest has been built atop a high tension electrical tower An eagle nest atop the tower down low here at the 52nd parallel than in Florida, where some of the testing is now done. So they have their bids in and they're hoping.

And if the road is completed all the way to Cartwright, there will be some more tourism to bring in some money, but probably tourist income could never replace the money made from the mines. Perhaps the best hope for the locals here is the one billion Chinese who all want to own automobiles (even though they have no roads on which to drive them) which will require a good deal of steel for many years to come. It should keep the price of iron high, and so the mines ought to remain profitable.

Some parts of the far north are inhabited by indigenous tribes; but they are mostly near to the sea, which is their principal source of food. Here in northern Quebec and western Labrador, if the iron mines were shut down, the land would again be deserted and empty after a few years. A few small communities would exist to maintain the hydroelectric plants, and a few salmon fishermen would fly in for summer trips, but the TLH would no longer be a way to travel.