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Labrador West MHA Graham Letto looks back at 2018 and peeks into 2019

Graham Letto, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Natural Resources, addressed the 31st annual Mining Conference in Baie Verte Friday, June 1.
Labrador West MHA and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Environment Graham Letto. - File Photo

LABRADOR WEST, N.L.

For Labrador West MHA Graham Letto, 2108 was busy, interesting, and had some ups and downs. Letto spoke recently with The Aurora, to elaborate on his view of the year.

“One of the highlights of the year for sure was the decision that would return a fair portion of pension to former Wabush Mines employees,” said Letto.

After Cliffs Natural Resources — the company that operated Wabush Mines — declared bankruptcy, workers lost about 40 per cent of their full pensions. The court appeals made through much work by the retired pensioners association, the provincial government, and the union resulted in an appeal and a positive ruling on deemed trust. This meant the workers’ pensions will be restored to about 90 per cent of what they originally were.

The workers have already received a lump sum payment for medical expenses that were taken away. That was a one-time payment. Letto says the pension increase is now expected to take place by April. One of the issues is finding some of the former workers, he said, who are certainly far and wide.

He also told The Aurora the workers will receive retroactive pay back to the time pensions were reduced in 2016. Despite the lengthy process, Letto says this is a big step for the Wabush workers.

Welcome news

While still on the subject of Wabush Mines, Letto says the announcement that Tacora Resources had completed its financing and intended to be producing at the mine by June 2019 was once again very welcome news for the entire region of Labrador West.

The company is taking resumes and expected to start the bulk of hiring early next spring.

“There is work underway as we speak,” said Letto. “Work is underway on the number two dryer, and equipment for the manganese separator is being installed.”

The MHA sees this as a big boost for the Labrador West economy as hundreds of job at Tacora will also mean jobs for the service industries and suppliers in the area.

To add to the areas economic improvement there was also the official opening of the Wabush 3 project  by the Iron Ore company of Canada early in the fall.

“More jobs and a longer mine life is a good thing for Labrador West,” Letto told The Aurora. “The area weathered out a few lean years recently but remained resilient.”

Medical issues

Letto then turned his focus to medical issues.

The MHA says there were positive changes in the medical travel assistance program.

“The program has been improved with things like full fare upfront,” he said.

But Letto admits there are delays on rebates that are being dealt with and he says there are changes on the way for ground transportation and accommodation criteria. He expects those to come into effect by the next budget.

Letto also pointed out that the local health centre recently commissioned a new echocardiogram machine. Letto said that procedure can now be done locally and read by a physician outside of the area. Previously the patient had to fly to St. Johns for the procedure that lasted 20 minutes. A big expense and a lot of time invested for the patient.

Letto says he hears often about the medical concerns of residents and intends to listen and work on solutions. He also points to the fact that there were improvements in mental health services this year. He says Labrador Grenfell Health now has two psychiatrists in place and wait times have decreased. Letto says walk-in services at the Labrador West Medical Health Services have made a big difference.

Transportation

Transportation is another important issue for Letto. He points to the progress being made on the Trans-Labrador Highway (TLH) improvements.

“We worked on 122 km of road this year with a lot of emphasis on the southeast area and the strait, and there is another 261 km that is already tendered or awarded,” he said.

Letto expects all the work to be done within two years, when people can drive the entire TLH on pavement. That being said, Letto points to the new ferries for the Labrador Straits and the north coast. Both have icebreaking capabilities that will enhance service and give year-round connections making travel and commerce between Newfoundland and Labrador much easier.

Hopes

Speaking briefly about the upcoming year, The Aurora asked Letto about some of his hopes for 2019.

Accommodations for seniors was first on his list.

“It is becoming evident there is a growing need for services in that area,” he said. “We are looking at different scenarios. Cottages or a seniors residence, and at the level of care that might be required.

“The issue was looked at in the past by the private sector without success, but that was years ago and it is time now to address the issue once again.”

Also high on the list is the desire to resolve the recreation issue in Labrador West. As this article was prepared, meetings were still underway to try and resolve the issue to the satisfaction of all parties, and keep the Mike Adams Recreation Complex open until a new facility is ready.

Finally, The Aurora asked Letto about his year as MHA personally.

“I was extremely pleased to become part of the cabinet,” he said.

Letto took on the portfolio for Municipal Affairs and the Environment. He is also responsible for Climate Change and Fire and Emergency Services.

“I do have a lot of experience with municipal politics having served as Mayor of Labrador City, the Combined Councils of Labrador, the Federation of Municipalities N.L., and other groups,” he said. “I have lots to learn still with the other aspects but I have very good help as well.”

The upcoming year is also an election year. During his conversation with The Aurora, Letto confirmed he would be seeking the nomination for the Liberal Party in the fall 2019 election.

“It’s hard to believe it’s almost four years already. . . I’ve enjoyed the job and it’s challenges and hope to have to the chance to carry on and do more."

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