Angry elders and a community of people who’ve exhausted all other options are strong indicators Labrador’s Inuit-Metis have only two choices: lay down or stand up
Residents of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and other south and central Labrador communities are strengthening the resistance effort to protect their land, water and aboriginal rights on unceded Southern Inuit territory in NunatuKavut, which they say are being threatened by the development of the controversial hydroelectric megaproject at Muskrat Falls.
Last week the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) issued a statement announcing it had assembled an “On-the-ground Action Planning Committee to organize, plan and execute on-the-ground actions as directed by the NCC Board.” On Tuesday NCC President Todd Russell told The Independent those actions would commence this Friday, and that they will be “similar to other types of actions” the group carried out throughout the fall and winter.
“It’ll be on the highway and we will be asserting our presence once again,” he said. “And over the course of the next weeks and months I think that if they’re planning to move things by ship they can expect that we also have a right to be in the water, and if they’re moving things through our communities, we have a right to be in our communities and they can find us there.”
On Thursday evening another source said the Friday action would involve “blocking the Nalcor workers, service trucks and staff from their site at Muskrat Falls.”
The decision to escalate protests follows an unsuccessful attempt by the group to halt the project through the Federal Court of Canada, and in part as a response to what Russell says was a heavy-handed decision by the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador to grant Nalcor – the province’s Crown energy corporation overseeing the project’s development – a permanent injunction that prohibits NCC members or anyone else from accessing the land around the site.
The NCC currently has a land claim being reviewed by the Government of Canada.
In early September groups of five or six people began assembling peacefully near the project site shortly after pictures surfaced that showed Nalcor had begun clearing the land. Within a few weeks, as word spread about the preliminary construction, more people joined the resistance. With a gate and 24-hour security presence blocking access to the site, Russell and a few others chartered a helicopter and took photographs that further confirmed swaths of trees and land had been cleared despite the fact the project had not yet been sanctioned by the provincial government.
“Damage to the environment and wildlife will affect our ability to carry on our culture and traditions,” Russell said in a statement issued on Sept. 26. “Transmission lines will cut through the heart of our territory, yet our people will still be forced to use diesel generators and have higher electricity rates. We may get temporary employment, we may see a brief increase in economic activity, but we know all-too-well that those benefits are short lived. The destruction and negative impacts that we will endure will be with us for generations to come.”
Days later about a dozen people set up an information picket and slowed traffic on the Trans Labrador Highway (TLH) at the Cartwright Junction, which sits within the NunatuKavut land claim area.
On Oct. 10 demonstrators blocked access to the construction site, and within 24 hours the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador had granted Nalcor a temporary injunction prohibiting anyone – though Russell and the NCC were specifically named – from blocking the entrance or trespassing on the project grounds. The court order, which set aside a designated protest area across the TLH adjacent to the site, didn’t bode well with those who see Nalcor’s presence as an occupation of their lands.
“What we’re faced with is a situation where our land is being expropriated, our rights and interests are being ignored, and in certain instances being extinguished, and this is unacceptable,” Russell said on Tuesday. “And this has been going on not just in the present situation but for years now. For years we have said to the government that there’s a better way – we can sit down and negotiate land claims or our aboriginal rights and titles.”
In late November the NCC, Sierra Club of Canada and Grand Riverkeeper Labrador Inc. challenged the Muskrat Falls project in the Federal Court of Canada, seeking a court order to stop the federal government’s participation in the project. The plaintiffs argued the Joint Review Panel had not fulfilled its legal mandate by failing to address the cumulative impacts the dam would have on land, wildlife and fish habitat, and by not adequately investigating alternative energy options like wind and solar.
While Russell was in Ottawa to attend the hearing, the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador granted Nalcor a permanent injunction against NunatuKavut members and anyone else wishing to hunt, trap, fish, protest or undertake any other activity on the land.
Two days later, before the Federal Court of Canada had rendered a decision – which, if in favour of the plaintiffs, could have halted the entire project – Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper traveled to the Canadian Forces Base at Happy Valley-Goose Bay to announce a federal loan guarantee, an event media largely framed as a red stamp for Muskrat Falls. Meanwhile, a slightly smaller crowd of protesters demonstrated outside the base’s front gate.
Though the NCC, Sierra Club and Grand Riverkeepers’ environmental and economic concerns pointed to gaps in Muskrat Falls’ environmental assessment, on Dec. 20 Federal Court Justice D. G. Near determined the independent panel had in fact met its obligations.
Labradorians had a front row seat to watch Nalcor’s encroachment on their land. But with only four politicians representing them in the 48-seat House of Assembly they were helplessly removed from the political spectacle unfolding in St. John’s, where opposition parties filibustered the Kathy Dunderdale-led Progressive Conservatives’ use of an omnibus bill to push through legislation that weakened access to information laws, effectively throwing a veil of secrecy over crucial information about the project and limiting journalists’ abilities to hold government accountable to those who elected them.
The Tories also canceled plans for a special Muskrat Falls debate in the legislature, implying opposition parties were being unreasonable for wanting to have independent experts testify in the House of Assembly since both independent reviews of Nalcor’s environmental assessment report – first by the Joint Review Panel (JRP), then the Public Utilities Board (PUB) – found information presented by the Crown corporation to be inconclusive. In both cases the provincial government exercised its ministerial powers to ignore the JRP and PUB’s concerns over the economics of the $7.4 billion project and the omission of some key environmental studies, particularly the inevitable cumulative effects of greater mercury levels in the water, which will pose serious health risks to residents of the Inuit communities downstream from Muskrat Falls who depend on the fish, seals, seabirds and caribou in and around Lake Melville for food.
Time was running out for Muskrat Falls and a sense of desperation was growing in Labrador.
On Dec. 11 three Inuit elders chose to defy Nalcor’s injunction and exercise their aboriginal rights by walking through the gate and up the construction road at the Muskrat Falls site.
Ken Mesher and brothers Jim and John Learning spent a few hours in the woods, set some marten traps and built a fire. But on this day a tradition passed on by their Inuit ancestors, from generation to generation over thousands of years, would end in the back of a police car. Instead of going home the elders were escorted to the police station by local RCMP officers witnesses say appeared uncomfortable enforcing the injunction.
On Dec. 16 Dennis Burden traveled for hours from his home in Port Hope Simpson to Muskrat Falls, and in front of local and national media took an axe to a Nalcor power pole on the north side of Grand River. He left the pole standing, but the 50-year-old father of three made his point by planting a Labrador flag in the snow and leaving a white cloth bag hanging from the pole. On the bag were hand-written messages: “Protect Labrador,” “Save Muskrat Falls,” and “Stop killing my planet.” Burden was arrested and, like the elders, escorted to the police station without the use of handcuffs.
None of the men spent more than a few hours at the police station but all of them knew their fight was far from over, because none of them intended to surrender their aboriginal rights, even if it meant being turned into criminals on their own land by a justice system they felt wasn’t doing them justice at all.
They will go before the court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on June 18. None of them intend to hire a lawyer, and each has said they intend to plea ‘not guilty’ and will not pay any fines. Should any of the three elders end up in jail, they say they will go on hunger strike in an effort to defend their rights and land.
“I’ve had more than enough Newfoundland politics. What it’s doing to us is horrendous,” Jim Learning told The Independent in December, after being released from police custody. “I’m 74 years old and it’s been adding up since I was 11 years old. I was made aware of the difference, and it’s just been piling up and piling up.”
A well known and respected NunatuKavut elder and veteran, Mesher was born in 1936 at Independent Harbour, a coastal fishing community near Cartwright, and now makes his home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Over the years, Mesher explained, he has watched Labrador gradually slip into the hands of corporate interests, namely the mining companies that offer temporary jobs to locals in exchange for non-renewable resources that, in the coming decade could attract $10-15 billion in outside investment. If he’s going to do time anywhere, it’s in the woods where he has spent much of his life hunting and trapping in central and southern Labrador. But despite some health issues, including a heart condition, Mesher said he’s ready to sit in jail without food if it means mobilizing more people to defend their aboriginal and land rights.
“We’re being ripped off, left, right and centre,” he told The Independent earlier this week. “We can’t even get work over across the road at Muskrat Falls. Our people’s put off of work and we can’t get a job – they won’t even talk to us over there, and that’s our backyard. We own that land and it’s not right.
“I believe in the ways of our people and I believe in the land … and this big megaproject now is gonna pollute the whole area, the animals, the fish,” he continued. “The people won’t be able to eat the fish, and the animals will be dyin’, the animals will be polluted, and that’s not the way Aboriginal People are. Don’t believe in the ways of destroying the land. We should all have respect for Mother Earth. And it seems like today most of the big corporations don’t care about what happens to the land, they don’t care if animals and people can’t drink the water. Money is what drives ’em. When I grew up over the years we didn’t have big money, we lived off the land and respected Mother Earth and had respect, but it seems like people today is losing more of the traditional ways of our people. It’s going to be very difficult to convince the people of what’s happening.”
Though Burden hadn’t been to Muskrat Falls until last fall he said he feels a duty to protect Labrador’s land and water from the same fate of other resource-rich places in Canada.
“Our home is only starting to heal now from the Upper Churchill after all those years,” he said. “Jesus b’y, how much habitat are we humans gonna have left on the planet? It’s not just this river here – the whole planet I’m thinking about. We’re not gonna be able to continue living here for very much longer if we don’t start making some smarter choices.”
In August of 1765, on behalf of the British Crown, Newfoundland Governor Hugh Palliser entered into a “peace and friendship” Treaty with the Inuit of south and central Labrador. The Treaty solidified relations between the two groups but did not include the surrender of land or waters by the Inuit to the British Crown. The groups agreed to live peacefully together but there was no discussion of permanent British settlements in the area, and the Inuit continued their own system of self-governance.
The NCC maintains the Treaty protects and provides the Labrador Inuit-Metis’ constitutional rights under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, including the right of self-government, the right to harvest wildlife and other natural resources, and the right of trade for commercial purposes.
It also doesn’t hurt NunatuKavut’s fight for recognition that in January the Federal Court of Canada ruled that Metis and non-status Indians are now considered “Indians” under the Constitution Act, which could help the NCC negotiate a better claim, and perhaps sooner.
Though overlapping land claim areas will eventually have to be negotiated between NunatuKavut and the Innu Nation, given their small population in a vast land with plentiful resources, enormous potential exists for cooperation between the groups.
In fact, Learning said unity among all Labradorians – including the northern Inuit of Nunatsiavut (the only aboriginal group in Labrador to have successfully negotiated a comprehensive land claim agreement), the Innu Nation, NunatuKavut and all non-aboriginal residents – might be the only way to successfully address the ongoing neo-colonial campaign by multinational corporations and the provincial and federal governments.
“[We] have to break through this barrier of government division, to come together as a single people, as much as anybody can, to forge a relationship that will stand up for the territory,” Learning said. “Right now, the Newfoundland government has neatly taken it apart because they said, ‘Well there’s only two aboriginal groups in Labrador … There is no NCC,’ which you can say but that’s not being very responsible because you’re telling me I have no culture, no culture or aboriginal connections whatsoever. Wrong. And that’s what I’m going to fight for. I’m fighting for what was my cultural history.
“If we had some way to unify Labrador we would push that third party out, which is the Newfoundland government, to bring our own issues to the fore, and we make our own mistakes. But we certainly wouldn’t be just giving in willy-nilly to what’s going on now. I mean, Labrador is nothing but a resource pit that everybody is digging holes in and nobody’s leaving anything behind. We are, all of us, giving away our lands and our profits … because we’re not paying attention, and they know we’re not. So they pick us off, one by one.”
Leading the resistance and willing to risk their lives to defend their rights and land for future generations, it’s conceivable the elders could very well spark a movement in Labrador, particularly among passionate youth (like this one), who are better equipped than any generation before them to inform themselves and start an online dialogue involving all groups and communities in the Big Land.
How Nalcor will react remains to be seen. When The Independent contacted them for comment earlier this week, spokesperson Karen O’Neill said she was not aware of the coming protests or the elders’ intentions to hunger strike if they are sentenced to time in prison. She later forwarded a message from Gilbert Bennett, Vice President of the Lower Churchill Project, who did not address the questions posed but did rehash previous statements about Nalcor’s safety concerns.
“Ensuring we operate a safe work environment is the most important thing we can do as a company and we will continue to work tirelessly to ensure safety on the Muskrat Falls site and that includes the safety of the workers and protestors,” he said.
“The choice we have right now is the destruction of the environment for basically no benefit, no respect, no accommodation – and that is one situation which we cannot accept.” – NCC President Todd Russell
While Nalcor and NunatuKavut members likely agree on the safety issue, the discrepancy remains over what’s safe and what isn’t. Nalcor’s idea of safety is keeping the protesters away from the site, while the NCC members are only at the site because they feel their future isn’t safe if they wind up with flooded lands and a dead river with poisoned fish in it, all in exchange for a few short-term jobs.
“I think the people would be able to maybe live with, not necessarily accept, some of the damage if they understood that there was some real tangible respect and accommodation for aboriginal rights, if there were some real benefits flowing from this, and something that was not only going to happen in the interim but something that was meaningful and lasting for people. Not for this generation but for future generations,” Russell explained. “But what we’re left with is we don’t have that choice. The choice we have right now is the destruction of the environment for basically no benefit, no respect, no accommodation – and that is one situation which we cannot accept.”
Correction: The story initially stated the NCC is currently negotiating a land claim with the Government of Canada. NunatuKavut’s claim is in fact being reviewed by the federal government, so negotiations have not been initiated.