Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Feminist Take on #DarkNL

Guest blog post written by Susan Manning, Mount Saint Vincent University

Looking at the title of this blog post, you might be thinking, “What does this blackout in Newfoundland have to do with feminism?” In order to answer that question, we need to reframe it and ask instead “How can we ask feminist questions about the blackout and what different insights might those questions give us?”

The hashtag #DarkNL was created on Twitter when a massive blackout hit Newfoundland on the morning of January 4, 2014. This widespread outage came in the wake of days of warnings to conserve power as the island’s electricity system was reaching its peak.  A rolling blackout system had been implemented earlier in the week. The spark for the blackout was a fire at the terminal station in Sunnyside, which combined with the already overburdened system, caused one of the province’s main electricity generating plants in Holyrood to go offline, leaving much of the island without power.

How Do We Start to Ask Feminist Questions?

Feminist questions can begin with personal experiences, just as the inspiration for this blog post came from my own experience. That being said, I was very lucky to be staying with a family member in St. John’s who had a generator when the power went out. I was also very lucky that most of my family members on the Burin Peninsula had alternate sources of heat available to them in their own or their neighbours homes. However, many people on the island faced the very real (and scary) concern of being without heat for long periods of time in one of the harshest winters on record.

Feminist questions started emerging in my mind while I was taking in the comments about the blackout on social media, on the radio, and the news on January 4 and the days that followed. Some compared the situation to a zombie apocalypse or living in a Global South country. Others faced the crises of not being able to watch the hockey game, running out of data on cell phone plans due to lack of wireless Internet access, and the inconvenience of being in the checkout line at Canadian Tire when the lights went out (see the #DarkNL Twitter feed). While I agree that there are certainly many things worthy of examination and critique in relation to the blackout and the government’s response, those are not anywhere near the top of my list. In discussions of this nature, some critical questions and points are being missed.

Question 1: What Caused The Blackout?

Feminist questions attempt to make connections bigger contexts, moving the personal to the political. A question that helps us do this is “What caused the blackout?” I see several potential strands of thought that can help to begin to answer this question. The immediate answer is of course a fire, but there was certainly a heavy burden on the province’s electricity system before that point which needs to be considered. A first strand to this puzzle is that in Newfoundland (and the Global North in general), we are generally not mindful of our electricity consumption and the need for conservation. The vocal resistance to the rolling blackouts and the many complaints about things like the neighbours’ Christmas lights being left on or empty businesses being lit up despite two days of conservation messages is evidence of that. Becoming more sustainability-minded would be a good first step in reducing the chances of a similar blackout happening in the future.

A second strand is the reality is that the housing industry in our province is booming right now. I typically get to go home about once every six months, and each time I see at least one new subdivision being built or expanded in St. John’s. The metro area is growing. All of those new houses need electricity, but our current system is over 40 years old in some places. There have not been any recent upgrades to account for this additional demand. Add the consideration that most of these new houses likely depend on electric heat, and we can see a problem in the making, which has not been adequately addressed by subdivision developers, city planners or the province. And yet, very few people have considered this as a factor when asking their questions about the blackout.

A third strand is that we are having an unusually cold winter and therefore demands for heat are higher than they have been in recent history. Heat was likely the biggest portion of power usage on the island on the morning of January 4. The question then becomes what has contributed to this deviation from normal weather patterns. I think that it is only logical to consider whether climate change might have been a factor and if we find that it was, then that brings us back to the question of the obligation to conserve energy and change our culture of endless consumption. Feminist questions show us that these bigger contexts are interconnected.

Question 2: Who Was Most Affected By The Blackout?

Feminist questions encourage us to ask whose experience is not represented in the stories that are making it into the media and onto Twitter. A critical question that has not been asked by many is “Who was most affected by the blackout?” Putting aside the inconvenience of not being able to watch the hockey game, this is fundamentally a question of “Who does and who does not have a source of heat that does not depend on electricity?” Those of us with access to a generator, a woodstove or perhaps a real or propane fireplace were the only people able to be warm during the blackout. And many people with one of these heating sources opened their homes to their friends and neighbours, which needs to be celebrated.

However, access to a warm place was not possible for everyone during the blackout and that is a piece that I think is missing from the conversation. A feminist framing of this question would incorporate intersectionality and would ask “What aspects of a person’s identity, history or circumstances might have prevented them from finding a warm place during the blackout?” Let me illustrate what I mean by this with an example.

Let’s pretend I was renting an apartment in St. John’s when the blackout happened on January 4 and have no source of heat that does not depend on electricity. Given that I am renting instead of owning a house, it is quite likely that I am a student, someone living on a low income, someone who moves frequently or am a newcomer to Canada. This means that it is quite likely that I do not have a car and probably depend on the bus system. If I have no heat for several hours, I might want to go to a warming centre. In St. John’s, my options would then be the one at City Hall or Memorial University. However, I live in Kenmount Terrace, one of those newer subdivisions created near the outskirts of the city in the last 10 years. My apartment is quite far away from both of these options (about 7 km) as I don’t have a car. I could take the bus, however MetroBus service was cancelled on January 4. If I’m a student or someone living on a low income, I probably don’t have the money for a taxi, even if they are operating. I probably should not walk the distance in the -15 degree weather and certainly cannot even consider the possibility if I am a parent and would need to bring my small children with me.

My other option to find a warm place is to depend on the generosity of family, friends or neighbours. If I’m just in St. John’s for school, I might not have any family in the city to depend on and my student friends are likely in the same situation as me. Likewise, if I am someone who moves around a lot or am a newcomer, I may not have family in the city or formed relationships to my neighbours. If I am a newcomer, there might be a language barrier to communicating with my neighbours and receiving updates from Newfoundland Power and the provincial government. There is also the possibility that I may be a person who has physical mobility limitations and may not be able to leave my apartment until someone comes by to shovel the snow drift which accumulated outside my door in the overnight storm. Or maybe I am a young woman who would feel very vulnerable if I was forced to depend on a neighbour that I do not know.

These thoughts represent only a few of the many potential complexities of why Newfoundlanders may not have been able to find a warm place to spend the blackout. This example shows us how asking feminist questions can help us to gain a different insight and see where emergency response measures such as warming centres might not meet the needs of the people who need them most.

I would like to conclude by noting that the general consensus among Newfoundlanders on the response by the provincial government to the blackout was that it was disappointing. The (former) Premier used the opportunity to promote the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project without satisfactorily recognizing the impact of the blackout on people’s lives or the faults of the current system. However, she has assured us that there will be a public inquiry into the blackout. I hope that some of these feminist questions can be addressed in that process and we can be better prepared for responding to this type of situation in the future.

Susan Manning is a graduate student in the Masters of Arts in Women and Gender Studies jointly hosted between Mount Saint Vincent University and Saint Mary's University. Outside of school, she enjoys knitting, climbing and drinking many varieties of tea. 

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