The loud and intemperate knocking on the front door didn’t just announce Uncle Gnarley’s arrival. It was a sure sign that Nav would have no peace this Christmas.
Suddenly, broken Christmas lights and spouse’s irksome claims regarding Nav’s diminishing utility were forgotten amidst an overcharged sense of anticipation, one that the old man instantly inspired. Nav had not felt so happy since Gnarley visited a couple of years ago on his way to the Charbonneau Commission Hearings in Quebec.
“My god, man, I thought you were going to leave me out here the whole bloody winter.” Gnarley‘s first words exploded with the gale force of a Wreckhouse wind.
He and his single worn suitcase soon filled the foyer, along with myriad ornaments. Spouse was a tiresome devotee — of St. Nick.
Ignoring his characteristic bluster, Nav looked his lofty and erect frame up and down, finding not a shred of evidence that the aging economist was slowing. “Am I to be consigned to the porch for the remainder of this visit, or shall I have to call spouse to rescue me?” he thundered. “It’s only been two years, Nav.” Gnarley lowered his voice a little, giving empathy to Nav’s inspection. “Wait ‘til you hear what I am up to,” he intoned conspiratorially. “I’m a long way from having measurements taken, my boy,” he added, allowing a mischievous grin to underline a look of bemusement.
Taking his arm, Nav directed Uncle Gnarley to his favourite chair in the sitting room — absolutely certain that one more word of ‘small talk’ would cause an outburst far worse than the mere mention of the ‘international experts at Nalcor’. Former Premier Kathy Dunderdale was always capable of setting Gnarley off with that confounding utterance.
Sensing his irritation, spouse entered the room with an air of rushed deference, prompting the old man to stand. He embraced her warmly but efficiently. He liked Liz, and she returned his fondness with equal favour even if his spirited compliments, in their formality, seemed practiced. It was just that Gnarley expressed them with such a mellifluous quality.
All formalities having been completed, the predictable question — “Oban or something a little more peaty?” — caused even the embers in the fireplace to telegraph that the room was ready for weighty conversation.
Gnarley relaxed his large head, letting it fall back against the chair’s padding as he gulped the first taste from a generous glass. Motionless but for the almost imperceptible movement of his Adam’s apple, his discerning palate seemed to take extra pleasure in the elixir’s slow burn. Even his large hooded eyelids stood sentinel for what seemed an eternity. Nav savoured the moment too, content that his old friend’s palpable weariness found resolve in the ‘smoky’ tonic from the Highlands.
“Nav,” he began, “I’m afraid we have been visited by the well-known Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’” He paused to let the declaration take effect. “Perhaps it is in the nature of Christmas to be reflective,” he continued, “but I seem to be thinking a lot about this place lately.
“I was born and grew up here. I fished. I was an educator. I got around the province. Oh! Unlike you, Nav, I needed no GPS,” he laughed heartedly. Gnarley was taking direct aim at Nav’s well-known failure as a navigator. “I suppose you had someone get you safely down the Churchill River in that little boat of yours; river right or river left must have been a tough choice,” he wailed.
“You fished summers, didn’t you, Uncle?” Nav shot back — reminding the old man that he didn’t paddle on just fine days! Gnarley seemed to sense that he had hit a sore spot and decided a refill might be in jeopardy if he continued to rub Nav’s sensibilities. The room went silent again as Gnarley sank back into his earlier reflective state.
“What is unique, of course, is not the incompetence or even the complete absence of political leadership,” he began again, as if there had been no break in the conversation.
“What distinguishes the moment is not even that a problem exists — or even that the denial of the problem is so large.” His huge hands extended giving his point reinforcement. “The worry is that the denial is reinforced by every stratum of our little society. It’s as if everyone is in pay and there is no bill. Denial doesn’t make a problem go away,” he stated solemnly, a cloud of gravitas descending over the room.
“What this province has undergone is something even deeper than what Charbonneau exposed,” he continued. “I was at the hearings,” he noted weakly. “I saw the gangsters. Quebec is big enough to absorb them and their deeds. This place is not. The population is small, which makes it sensitive; its rural character, with communities as small as ten or twenty, suggests it has no shock absorbers at all.”
“Uncle Gnarley, are you saying that something even deeper than corruption gave birth to Muskrat?” Nav interrupted Gnarley, just as he seemed to be building a head of steam, NL’s economic morass having abraded a pressure point in his nervous system.
Gnarley didn’t object to the intervention. In an even voice which confirmed that he had thought deeply about what he wanted to say, he added: “Actually, Nav, there is even something far more insidious than corruption, as deeply harmful to our institutions and corrosive to the public trust as corruption certainly is. It is the quality of the dishonesty that is so striking.”
“Quality of dishonesty,” Nav interjected again. “I hadn’t considered that idea before; but isn’t one lie or one liar as bad as the next?”
The Uncle’s eyes looked at Nav with a doubtful cast, as if his subject had not grasped the seriousness of the subject. “I am not talking about some isolated act of corruption, Nav, or even long-running acts of thievery, which was certainly the case in Quebec. This is about avar-ic-ious-ness on a grand scale.” He stretched out the word and gave it volume in a way that signified the kind of disgust for which only his wrinkled old face could give phrasing. “This involves a level of malice so great that even the possibility of social collapse did not concern the perpetrators. Its conception was well enough thought out, and kept secret among the few, such that any event which threatened sanction was sidestepped and given a new rationale. Its management spoke to extreme cronyism; its execution kept all the naysayers at bay while self-aggrandizement was allowed to impoverish a whole society. The perpetrators knew, from the very beginning, that billions of dollars were at stake. They knew, or ought to have known, that there would be consequences for a small society like ours. It didn’t matter. This wasn’t merely about legacy, Nav. This was about money.”
Uncle Gnarley paused and took a sip from the still-full glass, seemingly determined to take a break from what his face described as a nauseating epistle. Still, his lips kept moving as if his brain had mistaken the message, intent on completing the point anyway. “Nalcor is still putting out press releases enthusiastically telling people that the Maritime Link is completed, that the Labrador Island Link is virtually done, too. They tell us that the powerhouse construction has entered its final phase. Everything seems positive. The claims are given no context, no reminder about the overruns, delays, management incompetence, or the fact that sanction was a mad decision made by stupid, avaricious people. There is no hint of regret. There is only the institutional lie that everything is manageable — when, of course, it isn’t. Even the Minister of Finance, whose predecessors annually borrowed two billion dollars or more in excess of revenues, tells us we are not in crisis.”
Gnarley’s anger wasn’t just visceral; it was palpable. “And talk about dishonesty!” he thundered. “The crowd around Dwight Ball want to help the Tories cover it all up. There’s not a goddamn political party on the Hill worth the minimum wage,” he swore. “Still they will obfuscate, deny and placate until they have two terms and the promise of a pension.”
“They are greedy and short-sighted to be sure,” Nav agreed. “But those behaviours will only get them so far,” he suggested as a matter of fact.
“That’s right, Nav,” Gnarley cut him off, signifying he had not finished. “Here’s what I find especially interesting in a group of politicians who are normally expected to be empathetic about the body politic: they have not even a basic understanding of how a society functions. What none of them, Premier Ball included, can see is that people are forgiving when trouble strikes, as in times of war or disaster. But there is no forgiveness when the root cause of the problem is dishonesty and deception.”
Nav raised his hand, indicating the need to interject, but the old man continued without signalling he had more to say. “I heard what the Anonymous Engineer stated… his words are inscribed in my memory. He said, and I quote: ‘I could not put up with falsifying information anymore.’ He gave details on how the project estimates and budgets were contrived. He established, for any inquiry or forensic audit, a series of signposts for where any investigation might lead. He gave the government a gift, coming as it was from a senior Nalcor engineer. The Premier will live to regret that he barely noticed the queue.
“In going about the public inquiry as he did” — Gnarley’s voice now in crescendo — “he has deigned that his Administration will be robbed of power, even if the Liberals win the next election. Any government with a brain would know: we are not at war with anyone,” he said, raising his hand to signify the obvious, “and when the bond markets choose, likely when Muskrat is commissioned after the next election, no government will be permitted to stay in power having failed to protect the public Treasury. Yes, Nav, their preoccupation with their pensions will also be for naught.” The colour of Gnarley’s face was fast becoming beet-red, suggesting the close of his narrative was near. He took a gulp of the golden elixir and continued the rant.
“One of the panelists examining the terms of reference of the Muskrat public inquiry recently spoke of reconciliation and of the need for a focus on the future. Missing from her narrative, Nav,” he said solemnly, “was that reconciliation is subject to at least one pre-condition. That pre-condition, I suggest, is the truth. It is not just a matter of coming to terms with the broader social and financial implications of the deceit — because so many people will be affected on a personal level. People will have to grieve over their reduced circumstance,” he added, lowering his voice as if in pain. “In the absence of war or some tragedy, an understanding of who was at fault, how the decisions got made, and who profited unfairly… all these answers are mandatory. The Premier, undoubtedly having a different motivation, missed that most essential of human expectations.
“For that reason — there are others — the Liberals calculated badly, Nav, in setting up this public inquiry on Muskrat. They thought they could placate a public only slowly growing weary. And they wanted to provide cover for the culprits who got us into this mess. They even allowed some of them to help draft the terms of reference!” Gnarley exploded. “Little wonder it is so fuzzy and insubstantial!”
“But Uncle Gnarley,” Nav stopped him, “the public only want solutions. They think that, ultimately, the government got them into the mess and the government will get them out of it. It’s a mistaken belief, but what are you suggesting? Surely Uncle Gnarley has some answers,” Nav tendered, perhaps a little too sarcastically.
If Nav was exacting a little revenge, having suffered more than one of Gnarley’s snide comments, the old man was not willing to concede. “Actually, Nav, I have thought about the problem a great deal. A decent people will see their society under pressure; a five hundred year-old culture will be forced to confirm, again, that it has learned to survive. Still, the loss of trust will harm democratic government and inspire kick-back on a scale not even witnessed in the 1930s. The fallout will shock the whole country. So, when Dwight Ball talks about ‘rate mitigation’, Nav, I think about mitigation — not of rates, but of the social and, yes, political impacts, too. I fear they will gnaw at our sense of justice and fair play. If the Inquiry isn’t permitted to identify malfeasance, rest assured that the public will, even if they get some of it wrong.
“I have thought about this problem a great deal, Nav, and I think I am finally ready to share with you at least the skeleton of a plan, not just to deal with that issue but with the Liberals, the Tories, and the NDP too. They are all ultimately to blame — the Tories just a hell of a lot more than the others.”
“And what would those plans be, Uncle Gnarley?” Nav inquired, suddenly discovering that his voice was becoming less audible — as if it were being slowly absorbed by the atmosphere in the room to which Uncle Gnarley’s expostulations had just given vent…
“… Nav? Nav, are you coming up to bed? It’s already Christmas, you know. Are you asleep in the chair, again? Oh, for gosh sake!” Nav shuddered awake at the sound of Liz’s voice. He could hear spouse intone, “It’s past midnight, Nav. I guess Uncle Gnarley isn’t coming after all.”
“Oh, he’s been here.” Nav rubbed his eyes. “Perhaps we will get some peace this Christmas after all! “