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Hunger striking NunatuKavut elder calls for a unified Labrador

By: | April 9, 2013

As discontent over Muskrat Falls mounts in Labrador, 74-year-old Jim Learning is being detained in solitary confinement and is on day five of a hunger strike that began with his April 5 arrest. He is calling for unity among Labrador’s aboriginal groups and non-aboriginal residents.

Jim Learning. Photo by Denise Cole.

NunatuKavut elder Jim Learning has been released from custody at the Labrador Correctional Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, where he was on day six of a hunger strike and being held in solitary confinement.

According to NunatuKavut Community Council spokesperson Kirk Lethbridge, upon his release Learning said: “They call it the correctional center…and I never learned a damn thing.”

The 74-year-old southern Labrador Inuit-Metis elder was also quoted as saying, “This fight is not over, its just beginning!”

Read the story below for details about Learning’s arrest, hunger strike and call for Labrador unity.

Hunger striking NunatuKavut elder calls for a unified Labrador

A NunatuKavut elder is now on day five of a hunger strike in solitary confinement at the Labrador Correctional Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Seventy-four year old Jim Learning and seven other protesters were arrested last Friday morning on charges of obstructing a peace officer on the Trans Labrador Highway (TLH) near the Muskrat Falls construction site. They were practicing peaceful civil disobedience by slowing traffic, including trucks trying to access the project site, in an effort to defend their aboriginal and land rights on what they say is unceded southern Labrador Inuit-Métis territory. Ownership of the land has also been asserted by Labrador’s Innu Nation, which is currently in negotiations with the Government of Canada for its land claim.

The other protesters, including NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) President and former Labrador MP Todd Russell, were released after signing undertakings.

Learning, who has been a vocal opponent to the damming of the Lower Grand River – also known locally by its Innu name Mista Shipu, or by outsiders as the Churchill River – was arrested last December after he, his brother John, and Ken Mesher defied an injunction granted to Nalcor by the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador that was intended to keep people off the land around the Muskrat Falls construction site for purposes of “safety”, Nalcor maintains.

NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell is arrested during the April 5 protest. Photo by Kirk Lethbridge.

NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell is arrested during the April 5 protest. Photo by Kirk Lethbridge.

According to various reports, several RCMP officers arrived at the scene of the April 5 demonstration and asked the protesters to move off the highway so the kilometre-long backlog of traffic could pass. The eight protesters, including Learning and Russell, then laid down side-by-side in the middle of the road and linked arms. They were handcuffed, arrested and detained until they signed undertakings before being released a few hours later. Most returned to the protest site again. Learning, however, was taken to the low-medium security correctional facility.

“Jim refused to sign the undertaking because…he had already signed one the last time he was in and he broke it, and he didn’t feel like breaking the law anymore,” Learning’s partner Roberta Benefiel told The Independent on Saturday. “So he said, ‘If you let me out of here I’m going straight back to where I was, so it’s no sense in me signing anything.’”

The decision to hunger strike

Benefiel said Learning had a bladder infection when he was detained and that he has been battling prostate cancer since 1996.

She and Russell visited Learning at the correctional centre on Monday and noted a “marked difference in his energy level,” Benefiel said. “His voice was even tired sounding, but he’s upbeat and still adamant that he will not eat while incarcerated.”

Russell said Learning was moved into solitary confinement, which is policy when a detainee goes on hunger strike. “He’s also wearing an orange jumper, which I find very, very demeaning. But they again say that is policy. I, like so many others, am fearing for Jim’s health,” Russell told The Independent on Monday. “Jim has cancer, it has metastasized, and this is a very delicate and sensitive situation. Jim has said to me directly that he will not eat as long as he is in custody, or incarcerated. He has not been convicted of any crime, he is not a criminal. The only thing Jim Learning has done is stand up for his aboriginal rights and protest in a peaceful and orderly fashion. That’s all Jim learning has done.”

The Independent first spoke with Learning following his arrest last December. “I couldn’t sleep well anymore, because I’ve wanted to (go on the land) since the day the injunction was issued,” he said. “I just really got sick and tired and couldn’t handle it in my head anymore so I just said ‘I’m gonna do it’ and satisfy myself. It was pretty selfish but that was what I had to do.”

On March 26, a week before Learning, his brother, Mesher, and Dennis Burden – the Port Hope Simpson man who was arrested Dec. 16 after chopping a Nalcor power pole near the project site – were to appear in provincial court in Goose Bay, he told The Independent he was prepared to hunger strike in prison as a way to protest and raise the profile of the controversial mega-project, which he repeatedly called an “indignity” to him and the people of Labrador.

Jim Learning. Photo by Denise Cole.

Jim Learning. Photo by Denise Cole.

“Whether I’m aboriginal or not aboriginal, I should be able to walk this land as a free Canadian,” he said. “But in terms of the (NunatuKavut) land claim itself, it’s not for the Newfoundland government to tell me I have no right. They do that continuously, and they’re standing on NCC’s land claim with that very philosophy: ‘Don’t let them have this, for god’s sake. That will be our third group in Labrador, and they’re the largest group in Labrador. We’ll have no more say there. We will be done.’

“That’s exactly what we threaten here, and…Ottawa is holding that up, saying (to the provincial government), ‘Okay, okay, we won’t take away your provincial powers totally.’ But that is what, ultimately, this will do if NCC gains its claim, or pushes its claim. So in the broad sense it’s standing on everybody’s right. In the narrow sense, specifically, they’re standing on my right to (aboriginal) title.”

Learning said he began considering a hunger strike months ago, as a last resort to defend the land and NunatuKavut’s aboriginal rights if the NCC and other groups could not halt the project through the legal system. When the supreme court granted Nalcor the injunction, which made it illegal for members of the southern Labrador Inuit, Innu and anyone else to use the land for hunting, trapping, protesting or any other reason, Learning grew impatient as the NCC made plans for collective action and began to think more seriously about what he could do as an individual.

With the intention to defy the injunction again, Learning said it was simple: “If they throw me in jail, don’t bring me any food. Don’t bring me any water either – I could just make it that fast, as far as I’m concerned.

“People think we don’t die, there’s no sacrifice to be made to get our democracy back? Well, sacrifice yourself. Give them the nuisance of dealing with somebody who is dying in the cell,” he continued. “[I]t’s the only way we can fight back in this country, because you do anything physical and you’re marginalized instantly. But if you fall on your sword, then you’ve got a hope.”

According to Benefiel and Russell, Learning could be kept in solitary confinement until Friday, when he is supposed to go before a judge. Prior to his April 2 hearing, he told The Independent he intended to plead ‘not-guilty’ and read the following statement to the judge.

Full (unedited) statement by Jim Learning:

My respect for authority is not now nor never was absolute. However, I was raised to respect authority, first my parents, then whatever laws were expected to be followed and upheld by general rule. I have no criminal record. Not so much as traffic ticket.  I do not know, nor do I comprehend the lengths of which this industry Nalcor has gone to injunct my rights to the lands I have traveled all of my growing up years. I know I have a right to public road ways. I know I have the right to disagree in philosophical terms with any action or industry which appears to limit my freedom to these roads and is perceived to be a threat to the environment in which I live and the long term effects of that industry on that environment. I do understand the need for industry to function and do business in my community. However the social, environmental and burgeoning finances this industry will wreck on my community, as I see it, needs to be challenged.

I am buoyed in my beliefs about these facts by the documents submitted to the Environmental Review Panel during the JRP hearings into this Project, to the Public Utilities Board of NL,  as well as the virtual Town Hall phone survey done by our Federal Member of Parliament in March 2011. This pan-Labrador survey showed that with over 2000 Labradoreans on this call, the majority were not in favour of this Project going ahead. The Dunderdale Administration and Nalcor summarily dismissed this survey. The following are some of the questions covered in this survey.

Question 1. Does the Proposed Muskrat Falls Development provide enough benefit for the people of Labrador? Response 83% No.

Question 2. Are you concerned about the environmental impacts of the proposed Muskrat Falls Project? Response 79% Yes.

Question 3. Have Labradoreans been properly consulted about the proposed Muskrat Falls Project? Response 80% No.

Question 4. Do you feel that you have enough information about the proposed Muskrat Falls Project? Response 84% No.

Question 5. Should Muskrat Falls power be available in Labrador for residential and commercial customers? Response 95% Yes.

Question 6. Does the proposed agreement respect Aboriginal rights of Innu, Inuit and Metis in Labrador? Response 68% No.

Question 7. Are you satisfied with the proposed employment benefits for Labrador residents? Response 67% No.

Question 8. Do you believe that Labrador will receive a fair share of revenues from Muskrat Falls power sales? Response 86% No.

Question 9. Should a dedicated Labrador development fund be a condition of a proposed Muskrat Falls Project? Response 84% No.

Question 10. Do you support a federal fund for transmission lines to Newfoundland or Nova Scotia? Response 38% yes.  48% No.

There are several other social and technical aspects of this survey which I did not mention, but which did still show that Labradoreans are not in favor of this project.
In summary; I will defy any constraints or judgement the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador has served on me by this injunction. It is my duty to my conscience to protect my freedom, rights to land and title, and rights to defend my culture and its history. I also will not see these tenants denied me by any other Labrador Culture, nor the Provincial Government who’s duty it is to respect these rights. This Government has blatantly seen fit to choose one Aboriginal culture over another.

I challenge this injunction because I believe my freedoms and rights are infringed upon and will continue to be so if this project proceeds. This is Canada and it has a fiduciary obligation to respect my cultural part of its mosaic as it claims in section 35 of its Constitution; even if the Provincial Government of NL does not! I am somebody and I have Aboriginal and inherent rights to title in the lands of our ancestors. I will not bow down to such denials by anyone or anything which stands to block my rights.

Calling for a unified Labrador

Learning has repeatedly stated he believes strength is in numbers for Labrador’s almost 30,000 residents. “The three groups, or the four groups – I include the non-aboriginals as well – 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. Right now, the Newfoundland government has neatly taken it apart because they said, ‘Well there’s only two aboriginal groups in Labrador,'” he explained.

“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.”

People protest outside the Canadian Forces Base in Happy Valley-Goose Bay last December during prime minister Stephen Harper's announcement of a federal loan guarantee for Muskrat Falls. Photo by Denise Cole.

People protest outside the Canadian Forces Base in Happy Valley-Goose Bay last December during prime minister Stephen Harper’s visit to announce a federal loan guarantee for Muskrat Falls. Photo by Denise Cole.

Russell doesn’t agree with the hunger strike but supports Learning’s autonomy. “Jim was fighting long before I came on the scene, but for about 20 years now we’ve been fighting side by side, and he’s a damn good friend and a great crusader for aboriginal rights,” he said. “The real issue here is what happens with the deterioration of his health and how that could affect his cancer … [Y]ou could get to a point where it does accelerate things, and beyond repair. So his hunger strike may not result in his death in his cell, but (it) may affect things where there’s no going back in terms of his health, and that’s the real danger.

“It’s no doubt stressful, but we’re there for him,” Russell continued. “We don’t advocate hunger strikes but we respect his decision.”

Russell is also advocating for a united Labrador. “Obviously there are issues that are specific to NunatuKavut, but there’s also issues that affect all of Labrador and Labrador’s aboriginal groups,” he said. “In fact, at our protests that took place on Friday and part of Saturday, we were joined by people from Nunatsiavut in particular and one of those Nunatsiavut members was arrested. We weren’t all NunatuKavut members. We had people there from other parts of Labrador who are not affiliated from any aboriginal organization, and we’ve got messages of support from even within the Innu Nation. So yes, this is something we’ve always advocated for and something that I know Jim shares – the coming together of all Labradorians, aboriginal and non-aboriginal.”

Nunatsiavut has not spoken publicly about the protests and President Sarah Leo declined comment when contacted by The Independent.

Innu Nation Grand Chief Prote Poker said on Monday he was unaware of Learning’s hunger strike. Asked if he would speak with NunatuKavut leadership, he said he would first have to consult with other Innu leaders. “I think we have to discuss this amongst ourselves, on what would be our position on their fight, and then I guess I will make more comments after,” Poker explained. “We may have some more to say later on.”

The Independent made repeated attempts to speak with Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale about the protests and Learning’s incarceration and hunger strike, but an assistant to the premier said Dunderdale “will not be providing comment for this story,” and has directed questions from The Independent about the NunatuKavut-led protests and Learning’s hunger strike to the Department of Natural Resources. “The Department of Natural Resources remains the appropriate place for questions regarding the Muskrat Falls development,” Milly Brown said in an email reply to The Indy’s interview request.

A request for an interview with Minister of Natural Resources Minister Tom Marshall was not returned by the time of publication.

Support and criticism

A vigil tent has been erected by family, friends and supporters, who are maintaining a fire in Learning’s honour and sharing food, stories and prayers. They are calling for his immediate release.

“He’s fought cancer for 16 years because he knows about nutrition and about what he should and shouldn’t do,” Benefiel said on Sunday, struggling to speak as she began to cry. “So I’m sure he knows that this is not good. But he’s so determined, God love him, that Nalcor and Dunderdale and Danny Williams and all of them are doing the wrong thing. Not just to Grand River, but to the people – not paying attention to anybody in Labrador.

Jim Learning vigil tent in Goose Bay. Photo by Jacinda Beals.

A vigil tent has been set up in Goose Bay by Jim Learning’s family, friends and supporters. Photo by Jacinda Beals.

“I was reading some of the comments (online), and two or three people said, ‘Throw him in the jail, lock him up and throw away the key. Who the hell are they, 6,000 when we got 500,000 here on the island? Who the hell do they think they are, stopping progress?’” Benefiel continued, paraphrasing the comments she read on a provincial news outlet’s website.”I don’t think there’s that many people on the island who think like that, but when a few people think like that it really hurts. This is in our territory, and it’s our home,” she said, trying to compose herself to finish her sentence. “It’s a river that we live on and love. And then people talk like that. I think they’re very insensitive and uncaring, and I would never say that about a river in Newfoundland, about people in Newfoundland who fought for something they loved and cared about.”

But she conceded, acknowledging Learning’s actions and some of the public’s response is “all part of” the fight. “You don’t get away easy when you determine you’re going to fight for something that the powers that be decide you’re not going to have, or (that) you’re not going to get or get away with. They have all the power and all the money – in fact, they have all our money. And all we have is our determination.”

Update: This statement was released by the NCC and Jim Learning’s family today, April 9

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – APRIL 9, 2013

NunatuKavut (NCC) Elder James Learning in 5th day of
hunger strike at Labrador Correctional Centre, Goose
Bay, Labrador.

In protest of the unprecedented, permanent (forever) injunction placed upon his people by the NL Government and to highlight planned environmental destruction of the Churchill River and its valley, James Learning is fighting against the devastating Muskrat Falls project of Nalcor Energy, the Province’s Monopoly Crown Energy Corporation.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL, April 8, 2013:  On Friday, April 5 2013, our father,
grandfather, friend to many, and long time partner of Roberta Frampton Benefiel, and
NunatuKavut (NCC)  Elder, James Learning was arrested for crossing his traditional territory in peaceful protest of the NL government and Nalcor damning of Muskrat Falls. He refused to sign a waiver agreeing to never cross his land again. He has been unjustly incarcerated for taking a stand on his and NCC rights in an attempt to save their land and culture. His daughter, Carren Dujela, speaking on behalf of the family stated: “It is tragic that our father has had to risk death through hunger to protest the destruction of his homeland and culture, of NCC territory and culture. How do you tell your children their grandfather is in jail and on a hunger strike? – with tears in your eyes and pride in your heart!”

Our father is living with cancer and we are extremely worried that this action will
exacerbate his condition. He came to visit us in February of this year to explain that this might be the only way to get the government’s attention; to force them to recognize how wrong the injunction against his people is and how very destructive the Muskrat Falls project is, not just to him personally and to NCC members, but to all Labradoreans and Newfoundlanders.  He came to tell us “goodbye” and to ask our understanding should this action end in his death. We do not wish to lose our beloved father and grandpa, but, we understand his actions and support him to the end if necessary!

The family asks that you respect their privacy at this difficult time. Any personal or family-related questions should be directed to Roberta Frampton Benefiel at (709) 896-4164 (home) or 709-897-4241 (cell). Questions regarding Aboriginal rights issues should be directed to the Council of the NCC at (709) 896-0592.

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