“This is not the time to be sitting on a fence,” says grassroots organizer who wants Muskrat Falls stopped.
On Thursday upward of 100 people gathered in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to call on elected officials in all levels of government, including the governing bodies representing the Indigenous groups, to join the grassroots movement to stop Muskrat Falls.
The People’s March for Representation drew many new faces to the ongoing protests that are part of a growing movement in Labrador, where the five communities bordering Lake Melville are on the brink of losing a traditional food source and way of life if the dam’s reservoir is flooded.
Project proponent Nalcor Energy has said the first phase of flooding could begin as early as Saturday. Despite being presented with a peer-reviewed scientific study earlier this year that projects methylmercury generated within the reservoir will pose serious health risks to people living downstream, Nalcor has said it will monitor methylmercury levels and release consumption advisories to the largely Indigenous population that relies on the fish, seal and birds they harvest from Lake Melville.
“We want our MHAs, our MPs, our Aboriginal leaders and our town councillors — all of the people that we voted for — to come and walk with us. We’re not opposed to any of those leaders, but we expect them to be here with us! We want them here with us!” shouted Goose Bay resident and grassroots organizer Kirk Lethbrdige.
Many of those demonstrating in Goose Bay, Rigolet, St. John’s and at the Muskrat Falls site in recent days say provincial and federal politicians, as well as the leaders of Labrador’s three Indigenous groups, have a moral, and potentially legal, responsibility to stand with them in light of the irreversible damage that’s expected to the water, food, human health and cultural practices of Innu and Inuit communities once the reservoir is flooded.
Tiffany Lambourne of Goose Bay attended Thursday’s march, which began at the Labrador Native Friendship Centre and concluded outside the Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Office, with her husband and three young boys.
“We hunt and we fish…and our kids, they love it, and I don’t want to take that away from them,” she told The Independent, holding her baby, who she said had his first feed of fish from Lake Melville just a few days ago.
Lambourne also said her five-year-old son Cameron “went out this summer and pulled salmon nets with his papa,” while their other son Benjamin’s first ever taste of meat was fresh seal that his father harvested.
“So they’re already eating it, and I just can’t believe that it’s not criminal…how [the government is] allowed to know they’re going to do this and do it anyway. It would be different if they did it and found out later, but to know and to go ahead anyway is inexcusable.”
Lambourne said for many people in the region living off the land is “not just a hobby, it’s a need, a reality.
I just can’t believe that it’s not criminal…how [the government is] allowed to know they’re going to do this and do it anyway. Tiffany Lambourne, mother and resident of Happy Valley-Goose Bay
“They can’t just walk into a grocery store in Rigolet and get their week’s groceries. They rely on [country foods]. So it’s not right to take that from them,” she said.
“This is not something that’s already been done and they’re trying to compensate for. This is something that hasn’t been done yet. They can cut the trees, they can do it. And I think that whatever it’s going to cost to cut the trees is nothing compared to the health costs they’re going to have for four generations of sick people, people who are either sick from methylmercury poisoning or sick from depression, or you name it.
“I’m not interested in living in a place where we can’t hunt and fish and enjoy Labrador,” she continued, saying she moved to Goose Bay from southern Labrador almost 20 years ago. “This is why we don’t live in a city, isn’t it?”
Lambourne said she’s hopeful the project can still be stopped, and that people “were all kind of holding out hoping reason would take over with the Harvard [methylmercury] study, that the powers that be would come around and say, yeah, this makes sense, let’s cut the trees. But they haven’t done it yet and the flooding is potentially days away and now it’s kind of a panic response.
“We’re pretty serious,” she said. “We’re in for what Cartwright’s doing. We’ll do whatever it takes. We’ll make their lives hell until they pay attention.”
On Wednesday Cartwright town council held a public forum, during which residents in attendance voted unanimously to take on the ground action to prevent a Nalcor subcontractor from landing in the community’s port and transporting transformers weighing 200 tons to the Muskrat Falls construction site.
Mayor Dwight Lethbridge told The Independent that residents of the southern Labrador community are concerned about the impacts of methylmercury on their country food too.
“We’re not in Lake Melville, but we know full well that this can impact where we live as well. We’ve got family, friends, and our food chain extends into Lake Melville,” he said.
On Thursday morning Nalcor told CBC the Crown energy corporation intends to proceed with its plan to land the cargo at the port in Cartwright.
Patricia Kemuksigak, Nunatsiavut Government’s Minister of Education and Economic Development, was the only elected official to speak at the People’s March for Representation Thursday.
She read a statement from Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe, who said the Inuit government “remains steadfast” in its position that the “reservoir must not be flooded until it is fully cleared of trees, vegetation, and topsoil.”
“As long as there’s time we must continue to fight,” Kemuksigak continued. “At the same time we need to also be prepared for the worst. We need to make sure a robust monitoring program is put in place, that we can measure the amount of methylmercury entering Lake Melville.”
The comment generated some dissent from the crowd, including from Elder and NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) councillor Jim Learning, who yelled “No concessions!”
Though NunatuKavut President Todd Russell has been absent through the recent Muskrat Falls protests and has not returned interview requests from The Independent, Learning said the NCC council is holding a teleconference call Thursday evening to decide whether, and how, it will respond to the growing resistance.
“I think maybe they’re feeling now they should be involved,” Learning told The Independent during Thursday’s march.
In his statement through Kemuksigak, Lampe said he has spoken with provincial ministers, the premier, federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett, and that Nunatsiavut has “written the prime minister asking him to intervene and to not grant any further loan guarantees on this project, a project that has been doomed from the beginning.”
Last summer both the premier and Nalcor confirmed the province has requested a second loan guarantee to cover the cost of completing Muskrat Falls, which at $11.4 billion is already billions over cost.
“When we set out to study the potential downstream effects [of Muskrat Falls] we hoped our fears would be put to rest, but that wasn’t the case,” Kemuksigak continued. “The impacts will be far greater than we even thought. The independent, peer-reviewed research conducted by Harvard University speaks for itself. There is no debate on the science. There is no debating the proof. There is no debating the potential dangerous impacts. Still, we are told that it’s a done deal and there’s no turning back, which we don’t agree with. As a government we cannot accept that.”
While Nunatsiavut’s concerns with Muskrat Falls have centred around the projected methylmercury increases, many in the grassroots movement, as well as Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Jamie Snook, have expressed serious concerns over the integrity of the North Spur, a land structure comprised primarily of sand and clay that juts out into the Grand River and is being used in part to anchor one of the two dam walls at Muskrat Falls.
Earlier in the week Environment and Climate Change Minister Perry Trimper commented to Labrador land protector Denise Cole in St. John’s that the Canadian Dam Association (CDA) has “huge oversight” on Muskrat Falls, but on Thursday the manager of the provincial government’s Dam Safety Program, which adheres to the CDA’s dam safety guidelines, said the government couldn’t provide those guidelines to The Independent because they are copyrighted.
“The guidelines do provide details on how to manage a dam safety program, but it’s the same as a book publisher,” said provincial Dam Safety Program Manager Paula Dawe. “I can’t give you a book from a book publisher, because it’s something they are producing and making revenue from.”
The CDA charges $250 for copies of its dam safety guidelines, which the provincial government’s website says dam owners—Nalcor, in the case of Muskrat Falls—are responsible for following to keep their dam “in good repair and ensuring that the structure is maintained and operated safely.”
On Thursday The Independent emailed questions to Trimper asking what he meant when he said the CDA has “huge scrutiny” over Muskrat Falls, and whether the government would be willing to share with The Independent a copy of the dam safety regulations it alleges Nalcor is following. The minister did not respond by the time of publication but The Independent will continue to seek responses from from the Department of Environment and Climate Change.
The CDA is funded in part by SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering firm that is embroiled in a global scandal and faces charges of bribery and corruption. It won a major contract on Muskrat Falls for engineering procurement and construction management and has authored reports on the North Spur.
At the People’s Rally for Representation Thursday, locals condemned the silence of elected officials, and the lack of transparency in light of the numerous concerns around methylmercury, the North Spur and lack of government oversight on Nalcor’s management of the Muskrat Falls project.
“When you see the passion of the people and the danger that the people are facing this is not the time to be sitting on a fence,” Lethbridge told the crowd. “And for me personally, I’m not here to get a grant so that they can cut a few trees. I want that stopped so that I can sleep in my bed safely in the nighttime and not be drowned. There’s a lot more to this than just cutting a few trees.”
Lambourne called the political and Indigenous leaders’ silence and reluctance to join grassroots protests in recent weeks “shameful.
“I’m a member of NunatuKavut, our whole family is, and we’ve gone to so many things to support different ventures they have had, and they’re just silent on this. And the town too,” she said.
Asked if she had a message for the NCC in light of their reported internal discussion around how it will respond to the growing concerns and movement to stop Muskrat Falls, Lambourne said: “Be there for us.”
“They’re pushing for a land claim, but who wants to claim the land if you can’t use it?” she continued. “Be there to make sure that it’s worth claiming. People aren’t going to care very much if they’re part of that organization if that organization isn’t there when they need them.”
The Independent has made numerous attempts to reach NCC President Todd Russell, Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee and Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe and will publish a story once any of them respond to interview requests.
Another grassroots protest is scheduled to take place in St. John’s on Friday. According to a Facebook event page for the March for health, culture and human rights in Labrador, people will gather at 4:45 p.m. at the corner of Prince Philip Dr. and Allandale Rd. by the Arts & Culture Centre, and will then march along Prince Philip Drive, stopping for a “prayer for the water at Rennie’s River. We will finish our march at the Confederation building where we will raise our voices to the NL government and tell them that the poisoning of a vital tradtional food supply and the threat of flooding from potential collapse of the North Spur is not acceptable.”