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Muskrat Falls protests ramp up as flooding looms

By: | October 4, 2016

As elders, river protectors and other concerned locals vow more direct actions, Labrador MP Yvonne Jones says she has alerted the Prime Minister of concerns as the federal government considers a loan guarantee to the province to finish construction of the controversial hydro project.

On Monday about 25 people walked to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the Muskrat Falls construction site in an act of civil disobedience aimed at halting the project before flooding begins, either indefinitely or permanently. Photo by Justin Brake.

On Monday Labrador MP Yvonne Jones told a small group of constituents the federal government is still considering a loan guarantee request from the province to complete the Muskrat Falls project, which at $11.4 billion and rising has run into major cost overruns.

The Independent was invited by one of the constituents, NunatuKavut Elder Jim Learning, to sit in on the meeting.

Jones told the group it is “unlikely” the loan will be “looked at in the context of environmental disagreement right now,” she said, responding to a constituent’s question on whether the Trudeau administration will place a condition on the loan requiring the dam’s reservoir to be fully cleared of vegetation and topsoil to minimize the impact of methylmercury.

Residents of the five communities bordering Lake Melville only a few kilometers downstream from the project are concerned methylmercury will poison the fish and other country foods they depend on for sustenance, a fear corroborated by a study led by researchers at Harvard University, Memorial University, and the University of Manitoba that was released earlier this year.

The Liberal MP told The Independent in an interview following the meeting at her constituency office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay that she has “made the appropriate recommendations” to the Prime Minister’s Office regarding the loan guarantee and the concerns around methylmercury and the North Spur, but that she would “prefer not to disclose” those recommendations to the public.

Photo by Justin Brake.

In a meeting on Monday with a group of constituents concerned about the Muskrat Falls hydro project Labrador MP Yvonne Jones said she has relayed concerns around methylmercury and the North Spur to the Prime Minister’s Office. The federal government is expected to announce soon whether it will grant the province another loan guarantee to complete the project, which has run billions of dollars over cost, and if the loan will include any conditions related to the concerns around the dam. Photo by Justin Brake.

“But what I will say to you is that I have made the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as others that are engaged in this process, fully aware of what our concerns are around the potential contamination of the food supply, of the project itself, and of our concern with increasing the loan guarantee without addressing this issue. I’ve also made that known to the premier of the province.”

Jones told the constituents in her office, however, that it’s “unlikely” the loan guarantee will be reviewed by the federal government “in the context of environmental disagreement right now,” and that if the province is granted the loan it will be up to the provincial government to determine whether they will use some of the money to fully clear the reservoir of vegetation and topsoil.

On Friday Nalcor told The Independent in an emailed statement that “while a full estimate of costs to remove all vegetation and topsoil from the reservoir has not been completed (including costs related to potential project delays), clearing is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and could result in adverse effects on the environment and surrounding ecosystem.”

Jones told the constituents gathered in her office that in discussions between the provincial and federal governments “the argument that the province I guess has been making is that without the loan guarantee, how do they basically not go bankrupt as a province, financially, is the problem.”

Last Thursday provincial Environment Minister and Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper announced in a statement that due to “contractual and legal obligations,” the government and Nalcor “must proceed with the project and the initial flooding of the reservoir to 25 metres.”

The following day Nalcor released a public safety notice stating the first phase of flooding could begin as early as Oct. 15.

Trimper said the province is willing to commit to further discussions with Nunatsiavut Government, which has been calling for full clearing of vegetation and topsoil from the reservoir prior to flooding, regarding the possibility of full clearing for the second phase, which Nunatsiavut stated in a recent press release it was told would happen in 2019.

Nunatsiavut Government Minister of Lands and Natural Resources Darryl Shiwak responded, saying the Inuit government, which represents the communities of northern Labrador, is “extremely disappointed” the government and Nalcor are willing to proceed with first flooding without fully clearing the reservoir.

First in a promised series of direct actions

Anxiety is growing in the Lake Melville region of Central Labrador, where thousands of people consume fish, seals and seabirds from the 3,000-square-kilometre estuary, home to both Innu and Inuit communities.

Following their meeting with Jones, Learning and the others joined about 35 others on the side of the Trans Labrador Highway near Muskrat Falls as they prepared to walk on to the construction site to protest the project. Most at the action said they either want full clearing of the reservoir prior to first flooding, or for the project to be shut down altogether.

Photo by Justin Brake.

Elder Ken Mesher held an eagle feather as he led a prayer with those getting set to undertake an act of civil disobedience Monday when they walked to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the Muskrat Falls construction site. Photo by Justin Brake.

“I’m here supporting the protectors of Mother Earth,” NunatuKavut Elder Ken Mesher told The Independent minutes before he gathered everyone into a circle and said a prayer, eagle feather in hand.

“In the 80 years I’ve been here we’ve seen Labrador not being respected,” he continued. “People have come in here and do what they like…take the resources and Labrador is left behind. This has been going on for years. It’s very important we respect Mother Earth, and the environment. I don’t agree with the way they’re going to pollute the Earth and the food supply for the people living in the Lake Melville area — it’s just not right.”

Now in his 80s, Mesher couldn’t go on the walk to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain. But he saw off about 25 people, including elders, river protectors and other concerned locals who waved Labrador flags and carried signs that read “Science doesn’t lie,” “Inuit Lives Matter” and “It’s not too late to do what’s right!”

“I’m here to support the protest and be part of this movement against the construction of the dam,” said 24-year-old Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Christina Tellez, whose primary concern is the methylmercury.

“The government has decided not to cut the trees that will be covered by the water in the [reservoir], and that will cause a significantly higher level of methylmercury leeching than was originally intended, and that will affect the seals and the fish that people rely on and the natural ecosystem that exists here,” she said.

Jerry Igloliorde, who is from Nain but now lives in Goose Bay, said he’s worried that children growing up now and in the coming decades won’t be able to harvest country foods from Lake Melville.

“The wildlife will be ruined by all the mercury, and what will become of that in the near future, for our children? They will destroy what we depend on,” he said, adding he would like to see the project stopped altogether.

Twenty-one-year-old Goose Bay resident Carlie Thomson said she joined the walk, an act of civil disobedience, “because we have too much to lose, and we have to stop this before it gets to a point where it’s too late, once flooding starts,” she said.

 I’m hoping that they understand they can’t walk over us, and they can’t do what they want, and our lives do matter. — Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Carlie Thomson

Not far down the dirt road on the north side of the river, Nalcor and security vehicles awaited the group. A security guard from Speuata Security began reading a statement informing the walkers they were trespassing on Nalcor property. The protestors, many of whom could not hear him over the wind, paid no attention and walked on by toward the North Spur and Spirit Mountain.

“I’m hoping that they understand they can’t walk over us, and they can’t do what they want, and our lives do matter,” said Thomson.

Local songwriter Jacinda Beals has been a vocal critic of Muskrat Falls since before the project was sanctioned.

She told The Independent Monday she was “walking for all the Labradorians who can’t walk today,” she said, adding concern around the impacts of Muskrat Falls is rampant in the communities but that many people can’t protest, out of fear family members who work on site could face consequences.

She also said she was walking for all the women in the communities “who are afraid of this dam, and afraid of being wiped away and, to go to sleep at night. Those women exist and I’m walking for them.”

Methylmercury can be passed from mothers to their nursing infants through breast milk, and can cause neurological damage to fetuses in the womb.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are generally “two groups [who] are more sensitive to the effects of mercury,” namely foetuses and “people who are regularly exposed to high levels of mercury, such as populations that rely on subsistence fishing…

“Methylmercury exposure in the womb can result from a mother’s consumption of fish and shellfish. It can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system,” the WHO’s website explains. “The primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Therefore, cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills may be affected in children who were exposed to methylmercury as foetuses.”

Leadership silent at the 11th hour

“It just feels right now like there’s no leaders and Labrador is on its own — there’s no voice,” said Beals, alluding to the Indigenous leaders and provincial and federal politicians who she said should be acting to halt flooding until the concerns are addressed. “There’s no support, there’s no respect for the land and for the people here. We’re going to be poisoned here and we’re going to be so afraid of that dam.”

Shiwak told The Independent last Friday that Nunatsiavut has been weighing its options, legal and otherwise. Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC), which represents the Inuit of southern Labrador, have already unsuccessfully challenged the project in the courts.

 It just feels right now like there’s no leaders and Labrador is on its own — there’s no voice. — Jacinda Beals

NCC President Todd Russell and Innu Grand Nation Chief Anastasia Qupee have not responded to interview requests from The Independent.

Beals said those outside Labrador who might be following the story and want to help should “be vocal, write all our leaders and explain that the Labradorians need support and need help, and our lives are at risk here. And culture is at risk. We need as many voices on this topic as humanly possible.”

“I am so afraid that the reservoir will be flooded before we can stop it,” she said, adding that there will be more protests and a “good possibility that there will be arrests because there are people here who are going to attempt to stop this.”

Monday’s act of civil disobedience saw members of all three Indigenous groups, and settlers, come together to oppose the dam.

The turnout was “twice as more than we expected,” said organizer Kirk Lethbridge, adding “beautiful people from all cultures walked with us today.”

Standing on the North Spur with Spirit Mountain behind him, Elder and former Innu leader Bart Jack told The Independent his forefathers would be “totally shocked” if they could see the destruction to the land and waters around Muskrat Falls, which is overlooked by Spirit Mountain, a sacred place for the Innu.

During the early stages of construction on the site, Nalcor unearthed tens of thousands of Innu artifacts dating as far back as 3,000 years.

Jack, who previously supported the Muskrat Falls project, said “when I look at it now I see that I made a mistake, and I’m not ashamed or afraid to say that. But I wish that some of our leaders would come here today and say that this is something they’ve done to the generations to come. They’ve completely destroyed our land, our way of life — and how are our people going to survive, our children and our grandchildren?

The 65-year-old member of Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation said he “implores the Innu Nation leaders to come and see and witness this destruction. I think it has to stop. I think we have paid a price too dear for our children to pay. And I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to sleep tonight if I go home — but this is the kind of situation that we’ve put ourselves in, and I’m just as guilty as the rest of the parties in the Innu Nation. But at least I’m here today to say it’s not too late to stop this project — it’s actually in our domain, in our own hands to stop this.”

Lethbridge vowed “there will be other actions very shortly. This is the 11th hour and it’s time to move. It’s also a time to be very positive and very strong. That’s what we have to be.”

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