“This is the most beautiful place in the world, and this is the land that built my ancestors,” Billy Gauthier explains proudly, seated at the kitchen table of his small bungalow tucked away on a lane in the Central Labrador community of North West River.
It’s been barely more than 12 hours since the 38-year-old Inuk ate what could be his last meal, a plate of fried salmon harvested from Lake Melville. And possibly only 24 hours from the time provincial Crown energy corporation Nalcor begins flooding the reservoir at Muskrat Falls.
Situated just upstream on the Churchill River—known to many locally as the Grand River—the hydroelectric megadam’s reservoir will produce methylmercury, a dangerous neurotoxin that scientists have projected will flow into Lake Melville, a 3,000 square kilometre estuary, and into the fish and other wild foods that residents of several communities depend on for sustenance.
The rise in methylmercury levels will also threaten a traditional way of life practiced by Innu and Inuit since time immemorial.
And for these reasons Gauthier has stopped eating.
On Thursday evening the father and artist, whose stone carvings are inspired in part by the land and waters around him and are celebrated across Canada, posted a video to Facebook announcing his hunger strike. Following his plate of salmon, he vowed, he “will not be eating anymore until somebody can guarantee me that these here organic materials will be removed.”
Please watch this video and share it as much as you can!
Billy L R Gauthier on Thursday, October 13, 2016
Since Muskrat Falls’ environmental assessment process five years ago Indigenous groups and others have urged precautionary measures be taken. An independent panel tasked with reviewing the project recommended the reservoir be fully cleared to minimize the risks associated with methylmercury. And most recently a peer-reviewed scientific study led by researchers at Harvard University projected hundreds of Inuit would be be pushed above safe levels of methylmercury exposure if the dam’s reservoir is not fully cleared.
But Nalcor and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador have maintained in recent weeks and months that it’s too late.
“Given the contractual and legal obligations, we must proceed with the project and the initial flooding of the reservoir,” provincial environment minister Perry Trimper, who also represents most of the people who will be exposed to methylmercury, announced in a Sept. 29 press release.
Gauthier says the claim flooding cannot be delayed “is a foolish thing to say, because it’s not financially feasible for them not to remove the trees, because the long term effects will be incredibly horrible. It’ll ruin so much, and it will in the end cost the government a lot of money, and cost taxpayers a lot of money,” he says, adding the social and cultural impacts of taking away people’s ability to harvest country food and engage in traditional cultural practices could have psychological effects, too.
“In Nunatsiavut we already have 20 times the national rate for suicide. That’ll go up. Sheshatshiu, it’s 14 times the rate of suicide than the rest of the country. That’ll go up, I guarantee it,” he says. “If they don’t cut these trees and you take people away from their natural, healthy practices, they become depressed. And with depression there comes all kinds of problems.
“It’s not cheap or easy to send people to psychologists and psychiatrists because they’re depressed,” he continues. “It certainly isn’t cheap or easy on a person’s heart and soul when they find out that their family member or friend has just committed suicide. And unfortunately I truly believe that those things are going to happen if we don’t make the changes.”
If they don’t cut these trees and you take people away from their natural, healthy practices, they become depressed. — Billy Gauthier
Although large hydro dams have long been known to produce methylmercury, during the environmental assessment process Nalcor proposed there would be “no measurable effects” beyond the mouth of the river approximately 25 kilometres downstream in Lake Melville.
In recent weeks a grassroots movement has taken root in Labrador and St. John’s that is calling for flooding to be stopped until the reservoir is fully cleared. Some have called for the project, which is behind schedule and roughly $4 billion over budget, to be stopped altogether. Many locals, and some engineers, have said the North Spur, which anchors the dam on the north side of the river, is unstable because it’s comprised primarily of sand and clay.
With the first phase of flooding possibly hours away, Gauthier says he had no other choice but to launch a hunger strike.
“This is our main watershed in Labrador and we’ve already done some destruction to it before, and I don’t want to see that happen again — especially if the methylmercury rises to a level that we can’t do our traditional practices.
“One of the most wholesome things you can do in Labrador is to take your children to the cabin, and to teach them about nature and just enjoy the beauty of the area,” he adds.
Though his 15-year-old daughter lives in New Brunswick, according to Gauthier “if you were to ask her what her favourite thing to do is when she comes home, it’s to go fishing with me on Lake Melville, right around the Mulligan area where Nunatsiavut land starts. That’s my favourite place in this world,” he explains, his voice beginning to crack.
“And my favourite memories are with my daughter there,” Gauthier adds, his eyes welling up.
“I love my family with all my heart, and my little girl is the most important thing to me.”
“Fight. I need people to fight.”
Gauthier wants all Labradorians to join the grassroots effort to stop Muskrat Falls before it’s too late.
“I want them to fight for the land,” he said.
He returned to Labrador a few years ago and now makes his home not far from the water’s edge on Lake Melville, where he fishes and hunts, not only for food but also for the healing and inspiration he says practicing the ancient ways of his ancestors provides him.
And Labrador’s biggest river, now in the process of being dammed for a second time, is a big part of the sense of belonging he feels there.
“The Churchill River is a river that my great uncle Horace Goudie trapped on for so many years. My grandfather also trapped on the river,” he explains. “So without this river, I might not even be here. This river has given me life, it’s given me enjoyment. The whole Lake Melville area has done the same, and there’s a chance that it could all be taken away from us. And I can’t stand by and let that happen.”
Gauthier makes a point to say he doesn’t live with depression and is not suicidal, at the chance critics accuse him of having an ulterior motive for his hunger strike.
“If I end up passing from this, I truly do believe that it won’t be the end and it won’t be for no reason. I would never just give up my life for no reason — that makes no sense to me. I’m not depressed. I’m not suicidal. The depressing part right here in my life is the fact that I don’t know, right now, whether or not that river and the Lake Melville area is going to be safe. And I don’t know that my culture is going to be safe, and that the people of Labrador are going to be safe.”
Asked why he thinks more people aren’t joining the protests to stop the flooding, Gauthier says he thinks people feel disempowered.
“When it comes to speaking out some people realize that people have been speaking out for a long time and there hasn’t been any changes. Unfortunately [decision-makers] aren’t listening to words right now — it’s all about the dollar.”
He says he also feels guilty for not acting sooner, and that Muskrat Falls “is something that has bothered me for so long.
“I feel guilty…because I should have stood up for what I believe in,” he says, explaining he wants Labradorians to join the resistance to Muskrat Falls, whether it’s for him or for their own love for the land.
“My message is to fight. Fight! I need people to fight,” he urges. “And if you don’t have a connection to the land and you can’t fight for the land, then fight for me and for my daughter.”
Trudeau and Reconciliation
Last summer the provincial government confirmed it had requested a second loan guarantee from the federal government to complete the project.
Last week Labrador MP Yvonne Jones told The Independent she made Prime Minister Justin Trudeau aware that methylmercury created by the dam could poison the food supply in Lake Melville, and that there are serious concerns with the integrity of the North Spur.
She said she also “made the appropriate recommendations” to the Prime Minister’s Office regarding the loan guarantee, but that she would “prefer not to disclose” those recommendations to the public.
Prior to her interview with The Independent she told a half dozen constituents in her Happy Valley-Goose Bay constituency office 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.
Gauthier says he has “nothing but respect for the Trudeau Government,” and that he hopes they “back the people of Labrador…because this is an incredibly, incredibly important issue right now.
“This is something that’s going to affect countless generations in the future.”
If this project proceeds without changes, there will never be true reconciliation in this country. — Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe
He says he would like to see the federal government “put a hold on the monies until [Nalcor does] what’s right and cuts the trees.”
Last month national Inuit leader Natan Obed called on the federal government “to intervene and use its authority to require changes to the project” ahead of flooding.
On Friday Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe indicated that despite their requests, “those who have the authority to make changes, including the Prime Minister and the Government of Canada, to the scope of the project are not willing to do so, and would rather stand by and allow our people to be poisoned and destroy a way of life.
“If this project proceeds without changes, there will never be true reconciliation in this country.”
Gauthier struggles when he explains the phone conversation with his daughter was difficult, when he told her about his decision.
He speaks of her with a deep affection and chokes up when he explains he moved home to Labrador to reconnect with the land his ancestors walked on, to harness that spiritual connection for healing and for artistic inspiration, and to earn a living in a way that he could be true to himself — and that he did it for his daughter.
“I realized the best way for me to support her, and to help her through her life, was going to be by fixing myself and doing what I needed to do for myself and for my career so that I could help her out in the future.”
On Thursday evening Gauthier’s mother posted a message under the video on his Facebook page, saying she raised her children “to respect the land and to have pride in who [they] are and where [they] came from,” and that though she does not want to see him go on hunger strike she is “proud of him for his passion and love for the land and the people.
“I believe it is a pure [disgrace] that the so called government has put people in [a] position that they feel they have to go to this extreme to be heard,” she continued. “We the people need to make a stand and I for one know that this is pure hateful that industry has the power to tear our way of life and our land away from us. I love my son with all my heart and soul.”
Gauthier says if Nalcor doesn’t fully clear the Muskrat Falls reservoir to protect the waters, animals and people living in Upper Lake Melville, “I guarantee I won’t make it through this. And I’m willing to go all the way.”
The Independent asked Nalcor on Friday morning to respond to Gauthier’s hunger strike, but a response was not received by deadline.
On Thursday, after pressing Nalcor for days for an update on when they expect flooding to begin, even if just an approximate date, spokesperson Karen O’Neill said in an emailed statement that “work activities in preparation for impoundment are ongoing. Work activities related to Phase 1 of the impoundment of the reservoir are anticipated to continue through 2016. Creating the reservoir involves a number of steps over a period of time. Impoundment will take place when all facilities and equipment are ready for operation. The public has been advised that activities to raise water levels in the Churchill River above Muskrat Falls may begin anytime on or after October 15, 2016.”
She then said Nalcor has “no further comment.”
Gauthier says he believes “the only people who have the rights to use the land are those who respect it. Anybody else, if you disrespect the land, if you abuse the land, you are a thief — because you’re stealing. You’re stealing from the animals. You’re stealing from the land. You’re stealing from the peoples that live on that area. And if Nalcor wants to become a thief, I’m not OK with that. And I don’t think other Labradorians will be OK with that. I don’t like thieves, and I’m sure that other Labradorians don’t like thieves either.
“If they keep taking away from our lands, that’s taking away from our culture. And if they keep taking away from our culture, they take away our pride. And then what do we have left? Just a sad shell.”
According to a poster titled “Labrador United!” circulating on social media, a grassroots protest is planned for 12 p.m. noon Saturday on the north side of the river. “The walkers will meet on the highway and then head to the waters above Muskrat Falls!” it reads.