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A group of determined Newfoundlanders wants to be linked to the rest of Canada via Labrador, the land that French explorer Jacques Cartier once said God must have given to Cain.

The idea of driving a tunnel that would cost at least $1-billion across the 17-kilometre Strait of Belle Isle from the tiny community of Yankee Point on the island of Newfoundland to the lighthouse of Pointe Amour in Labrador has more than its share of skeptics.

But then so did the idea that a bridge could be built to link Prince Edward Island with the mainland. Today the Confederation Bridge, which was completed in 1997, has proved a boon to PEI.

Right now, a tunnel could belong on the long list of grand schemes for which Newfoundland is famous, especially since the tunnel's landing point is a small settlement in southern Labrador that won't be linked to a main highway until 2003. And that highway is not connected to the Trans-Canada Highway or to highways in Quebec. But after being bandied about by engineers and dreamers for more than a century, the idea of a fixed link is now being debated openly by politicians in the province.

Danny Williams, the leader-elect of the Conservatives, is making construction of the link a major plank in the party's platform for the next provincial election. Not to be outdone, the governing Liberals are asking the federal government to finance an engineering study to examine how a tunnel might be built in the 90-metre deep water.

The 28,700 people living in the isolated expanses of Labrador are now connected with the 520,000 island-dwelling Newfoundlanders by air routes and a ferry that runs eight months of the year between Blanc Sablon, Que., and St. Barbe, Nfld. As well, the province operates coastal ferries to several other Labrador communities in the summer months.

There has already been one attempt to tunnel across the Strait of Belle Isle.

In 1975, engineer Tom Kierans, who supervised construction of massive tunnels at the Churchill Falls development, began sinking shafts for a tunnel that was supposed to house a power line across the Strait of Belle Isle. But water problems in the porous rock formations forced the construction crews to drive tunnels into hardrock about 530 metres below the surface.

The cost of an electrical transmission line was prohibitive and the two shafts still stand as monuments to the first attempt at the crossing.

Twenty-five years later, Mr. Kierans heads a citizens group called the Strait of Belle Isle Fixed Link Study. He is delighted that politicians are taking an interest in his project.

He said there are more than 20 such projects in other parts of the world, including one between Denmark and Sweden and the famous Chunnel across the English Channel, that show the idea of the tunnel across the Strait of Belle Isle is feasible.

He estimated the cost of the proposed tunnel at about $1-billion but insisted that it is essential to create jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador through development of the resources of the northern area and the promotion of tourism.

"There is nothing more important for the future of this province than the fixed link," Mr. Kierans said in an interview from his St. John's home. "You could put Voisey's Bay, Hibernia and the Lower Churchill all together and they would not be as important as the fixed link."

Mr. Kierans, who also worked on the 12.9-kilometre Confederation Bridge that links Prince Edward Island with the mainland, envisions a railway tunnel that would provide cheaper and quicker transportation for Newfoundlanders and their goods to an area that is now joined by the ferry for only eight months of the year.

The immersed tunnel would also house electrical cables to transport power to the island and pipes to transport fuel.

Mr. Kierans, who has developed a Web site to promote the tunnel concept, acknowledges that the anticipated level of traffic across the strait won't pay for the project and that it would need some public funds.

He said that a tunnel would cut the time required to move goods from Montreal to Newfoundland to two days from three because companies wouldn't have to wait for ferries.

Both the governing Liberals and the opposition Tories are arguing about who championed the concept first.