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Innu Nation wants flooding suspended as Muskrat Falls protest grows

By: Justin Brake and Hans Rollmann | October 24, 2016

More Innu join Muskrat Falls occupation, but leadership withholds endorsement.

Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue spoke to around 200 people gathered for a rally and walk to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the Muskrat Falls construction site two weeks ago. Photo by Justin Brake.

As more Innu join the ongoing occupation at Muskrat Falls, in an interview with CBC Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee called on the provincial government to suspend flooding of the reservoir until an independent panel can study the environmental implications, particularly the risks of methylmercury poisoning.

Qupee said the Innu share concerns expressed by other Indigenous groups and by those occupying the Muskrat Falls main site.

“We’re just as concerned,” she told the CBC in an interview Monday morning. Qupee said she was pleased with government’s announcement last week that they would require Nalcor to clear more of the reservoir, but said it doesn’t go far enough.

“We’re still looking for further solutions…That’s positive but in addition to that we requested that the flooding be postponed until more research is done.”

But Qupee said the Innu Nation could not endorse the occupation. The Innu Nation has an Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) in place that outlines processes for dealing with disputes.

“We have our own process to deal with in terms of sorting out the concerns and issues that people have raised. We share the concern…with the methylmercury issue but will be pursuing our own processes that we have in place under the IBA.”

Support for occupation growing amid bitter memories of the Upper Churchill

As more Innu join the occupation, pressure is building for the leadership to openly support it as well. Qupee said she hears those calls, and explained to CBC that the Innu still have bitter memories of the flooding of the Upper Churchill in the 1960s.

“Our message is that I hear those concerns, and I’ve been bringing those concerns to the government for the past couple of weeks, since June, and I’ve written letters, so I’m just as concerned.

“We’ve had our experience already with the flooding of Upper Churchill that impacted our people with no consultation. And I know that…they have many memories of that. I grew up with those stories from my mother too. So this is what pushes me forward as well, to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to make sure that there’s no harm brought to [our] food.”

The Innu Nation has hired its own researchers and is asking the provincial government to suspend flooding until further research has been done.

Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue reacted emotionally to the ongoing situation, and said she hopes the Innu Nation will join the growing movement to stop the imminent flooding.

“I’m not happy…I really, really want to cry,” she said, when reached by phone. “What’s going to happen if the Innu Nation doesn’t support us, and the people?

“The people protesting together, it’s the first time I see it in my life like that,” Penashue continued.

“When I had a protest [against NATO low-level flying], in 1989, the government didn’t say nothing…just talking, talking, meetings far away, there were all kinds of meetings but nothing happened.

“Today the people stand up, and the people protest, and now the government has heard from the people what they want. Many people are concerned with Muskrat Falls, with what is going to happen.”

Penashue said she and others have been working for many years to “try and protect the land and river, and protect the animals, everything in the environment, Innu medicine and berries, all kinds of berries, and animals, and my people, and the children. And they’re hurting. Everywhere, more and more young children, what’s going to happen if everything’s all gone?”

Penashue also remembers the flooding of the Upper Churchill. She says it’s a precursor of what will happen at Muskrat Falls.

“What happened [with] Churchill Falls when the government made [the] dam…I seen what’s gonna happen. One time when I went on a canoe trip, we put up a tent, me and my husband and the other people.

“When I finished canoeing in the evening we put a tent, and then my grandchildren [were] playing on the beach, and then she found a fish. A little small fish, dead. And then she [said to me] me, ‘Grandma, what happened to the fish I found in the water dead?’ and I was very, very saddened. I put the fish in my hands. It was very, very hard to explain to my grandchildren and the other kids. She watched me when I put the fish in my hands. I don’t know what happened to that fish, must be something, maybe mercury. And my grandchildren found the fish on the beach, dead,” Penashue continued.

“And when they finish with Muskrat Falls, there’s going to be more mercury. What’s going to happen to the animals? I heard a lot of people say fish, but no, it’s not only fish that are going to die…I’m very concerned.

If I were tomorrow’s Innu Nation, I’d be so worried, I’d be so sad [about] what happened, and worry about the people in Muskrat Falls. — Elizabeth Penashue, Innu Elder

“If I were tomorrow’s Innu Nation, I’d be so worried, I’d be so sad [about] what happened, and worry about the people in Muskrat Falls. I’ve been thinking I’ve got to support the people, what they’re doing. And it’s not only Metis, a lot of people protest, Nain, Halifax, Wabush, everywhere, big protests. This is very, very important. I’m very, very happy.”

Penashue reiterated her suspicion of government commitments, and said that it’s the protests that are making things happen.

“The government, they don’t do nothing when the people just talk, talk, big meetings. No, nothing. When the people go to the protests, the government says ‘Look!’ The people are very concerned with Muskrat Falls, with what’s going to happen.”

Penashue became very emotional, sobbing evident in her voice.

“Next time when I go to Muskrat Falls, I want to stay by myself inside my tent. I’m going to cry. I really want to [stay in] my small tent, I really want to pray by myself, a couple hours. And I’m very concerned with what’s going to happen with Muskrat Falls.

“When they’re finished there’s going to be more mercury. How many animals are going to die? I remember when I was young, my parents, and not only my parents, the people were hunting for a thousand years. I just can’t say any more.”

At this point Penashue, in tears, had to end the call.

Remembering those lost

At the Muskrat Falls occupied camp today, Elder and former Innu leader Bart Jack, joined by Anglican Minister Doreen Davis-Ward, led a ceremony in memory of Neil Andrew, one of several tragic deaths from the community of Sheshatshiu in recent days.

Twenty protectors, many of them Innu, arrived from the community last night. Andrew was the nephew of Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee, and the father of Jack’s grandchildren. His funeral took place in St. John’s today.

“I just wanted to say that I am so very much with my two grandchildren here in spirit while they’re mourning the death of their father,” said Jack.

“There’s going to be a little bit of a ceremony here for the family of Neil and his kids. We’re going to remember Neil and we’re going to remember his kids and we’re going to remember the tragic history of his illness. He died very young.

“He probably would have done what I’m doing right now, standing up for his own people and fighting for the rights of the Innu people.”

One of Andrew’s children was named Shipu.

“In the Innu language, [that] means ‘River’, and that’s what we’re fighting for today,” said Jack.

More to come. Follow @JustinBrakeNL and @IndependentNL on Twitter for further updates, and follow our Facebook page for Livestream coverage by editor Justin Brake who is at the scene.

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