Indigenous rights and economic inequality dominated The Independent’s coverage of Muskrat Falls and Budget 2016.
As 2016 draws to a close, we take a look back at The Independent’s coverage of two of the biggest stories of the past year: the Indigenous-led grassroots resistance to the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador, and the public response to the Dwight Ball Government’s austerity budget.
In September Independent reporter Justin Brake traveled to Labrador to report on locals’ concerns around the impending megadam at Muskrat Falls, just 30 kilometres upstream from Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Lake Melville, an estuary home to several Indigenous communities whose residents rely on country food like seals, fish and seabirds.
Despite years of pleas from the Nunstsiavut Inuit to address environmental and health risks posed by methylmercury contamination as a result of reservoir flooding—a worry substantiated by a peer-reviewed scientific study led by researchers at Harvard and Memorial Universities—the provincial government and Nalcor proceeded with the project without following recommendations by scientists to fully clear the dam’s reservoir of vegetation and topsoil to minimize the risk to Indigenous people living in the area.
As Oct. 15 approached—the earliest date Nalcor said they would begin flooding—anxiety and fear grew in local communities, who were also concerned about the nature of the geology around Muskrat Falls. Many, including Innu elders who have ancient knowledge of the area, believe the dam will not hold once the reservoir is flooded. People began organizing rallies in Goose Bay and practicing peaceful civil disobedience by organizing group walks to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the north side of the dam construction site.
On Oct. 16 protestors who identify as land protectors blockaded the main entrance to Muskrat Falls, turning away transport trucks and busloads of workers and partially shutting down work at the site. Nine of them were arrested in the early hours of Oct. 17 after Nalcor obtained a Supreme Court of N.L. injunction prohibiting individuals from trespassing on or blocking access to the site.
The arrests, documented exclusively by The Independent, spurred outrage among people in Labrador and across the province and country, prompting support for the movement to grow. Days later the blockade was reinstated, this time with growing support from members of the Innu Nation.
During an Oct. 22 protest outside the main gate, as the blockade continued, a land protector cut the lock on the gate and approximately 60 protectors entered the site and headed down the 20-plus kilometre road toward the construction area. Between 40 and 50 people occupied the worker’s camp that evening, prompting some companies to send workers home amid messages from Nalcor that land protectors had created a “significant safety risk” for workers and that everyone on site should “exercise extreme caution”.
Meanwhile, The Independent’s exclusive coverage of the occupation showed a peaceful group of concerned, mostly Indigenous locals working together in what was frequently described as an act of self-defence to protect their traditional food and way of life.
Brake’s Facebook live streams reached tens of thousands of people across the province and country, drawing attention to the Indigenous rights aspect of the Muskrat Falls story.
On Oct. 25 the public learned through media reports that Nalcor had obtained a new injunction from the Supreme Court ordering the arrest of land protectors occupying the Muskrat Falls camp. The court order also specifically named Brake, the only journalist on the ground inside the worker’s camp to document the historic event.
Indigenous leaders claimed the occupation prompted N.L. Premier Dwight Ball to call an emergency meeting in St. John’s while land protectors remained inside the Muskrat Falls camp. The leaders reached an agreement that satisfied the demands of three Inuit who were on hunger strike and prompted the land protectors to end their occupation.
The Supreme Court injunction and its threat to the constitutionally-protected right of press freedom sparked outrage across Canada, prompting organizations like the Canadian Association of Journalists, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and Reporters without Borders to condemn Nalcor and the N.L. Supreme Court. The move also garnered strong condemnation from media outlets across Canada, which argued the attack on press freedom could set a dangerous precedent and have a chilling effect on journalists nationwide.
Meanwhile, not one media outlet in Newfoundland and Labrador publicly criticized the attack on press freedom. The Telegram instead published an op-ed by TC Media columnist Russell Wangersky that argued against press freedom and compared Brake’s coverage from inside the occupied worker’s camp to reckless driving.
On Nov. 3 APTN Executive Director of News and Current Affairs Karyn Pugliese cited Brake’s reporting from the occupied Muskrat Falls site as the best story of the last year in Canada, and Brake was subsequently shortlisted for the N.L. Human Rights Award for that same work. He will appear in court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Jan. 25.
Meanwhile, Labrador land protectors, including many from the dozens who are being forced to navigate the legal system as a consequence of defending their Indigenous rights, continue to protest the Muskrat Falls dam, which is at least two years behind schedule, billions over cost, and many say still threatens reconciliation with the Innu and Inuit. Their latest protest is scheduled for New Year’s Day outside the Muskrat Falls main gate.
Similar to its reporting on the Muskrat Falls resistance, The Independent’s coverage of the 2016 provincial budget last spring contributed important perspectives and insight lacking in mainstream media reportage.
In the lead-up to the April 15 budget announcement the Liberals claimed austerity was necessary to address the province’s projected $2 billion deficit and burgeoning debt expected to reach nearly $15 billion.
During the province’s oil boom the previous PC government implemented neoliberal policies such as corporate tax cuts and lower tax rates for high income earners in the province. The lost government revenues could have helped pay down the province’s debt, many argued.
So when in its 2016 budget the newly elected Liberal Government announced it was raising fees, closing libraries and cutting other social services that would disproportionately impact lower income earners and those living in poverty in the province, it became apparent to thousands in Newfoundland and Labrador that while not everyone enjoyed the benefits of good economic times, everybody — especially the poor — would be footing the bill during periods of recession.
The Independent was the first news outlet to focus on the impact the 2016 budget would have on the province’s most vulnerable groups, and consistently gave voices from those communities an outlet as an anti-austerity movement swelled across the province.
From St. John’s to Gambo and Corner Brook to Labrador, people took to the streets to defend the province’s health and education systems, the justice system, and access to services integral to maintaining a healthy society in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Government “definitely does have a choice” in NL Budget 2016: economist
By Justin Brake
There are alternatives to austerity, say federation of labour president and an independent economist. They just have to be sought out.
Liberals’ austerity budget will hit most vulnerable hardest
By Justin Brake and Hans Rollmann
Despite reassurances by government that all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will share the burden of addressing the province’s $1.83 billion deficit, critics say the Liberals’ first round of austerity is disproportionately targeting the marginalized and least privileged first.
Residents take anti-austerity fight to streets of St. John’s
By Justin Brake
Province-wide, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are concerned and angry about the devastating consequences the Dwight Ball Government’s austerity budget will have on the most vulnerable people in the province and even the working class.
A movement is born
By Justin Brake
The provincial government’s 2016 austerity budget has sparked province-wide outrage and politicized a “whole new generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians [who are] not going away.”
Latest anti-austerity protests “only the beginning”
By Justin Brake
Saturday’s “NL Rising” protest in St. John’s was more than just a warning from the unions. It was a show of solidarity with an explicit message for the Liberal government.
A budget for the rich, by the rich
By Hans Rollmann
Budget 2016 was not about making tough choices. It was about taking from the poor to protect the rich.
Is there a democratic alternative to austerity?
By Robert Sweeny
Other places have experimented with austerity, so we don’t have to. Here’s how Newfoundland and Labrador can avoid known mistakes and put itself on a path to a brighter, more equitable, future.
Austerity an easy out for elites
By Joshua Keep
Sneering elites believe the public is ignorant and in search of easy answers, but we see the broad strokes of immorality and unfairness.
As the wave breaks: NL budget 2016
By Jon Parsons
Solidarity is our only weapon against austerity.
Something very different is happening in Newfoundland and Labrador
By Hans Rollmann
For all the negative things it will do to our province, the Liberals’ austerity budget is bringing people together in a very meaningful way.
Budget 2016 “an attack on families”
By Natasha Blackwood
“We both work full-time. We both have ‘good’ jobs, and we don’t spend. But on this current budget, we simply will not be able to make ends meet. It is impossible.”
Dear people of Newfoundland and Labrador…
By Ashley Byrne
“I’ve seen many blue and red governments come and go, taking turns at the reins, going around in the same cycles of boom and bust, hope and loss.”
Open letter to the People of Newfoundland and Labrador
By Adam Pitcher
“Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.’ Every act of resistance counts against this province-killing budget and this government’s destructive policies and ignorant behaviour.”
An Open Letter to Cathy Bennett Concerning Anxiety
By Iain McCurdy
“Respectfully, Minister Bennett, the anxiety that you are currently witnessing pre-exists this budget. Your budget has inflamed it.”
Open letter to Paul Lane
By Rick Stanley
“Your decisions Wednesday have stoked the flames and given the movement courage and hope.”
All of our stories in 2016 were made possible by our readers, who afforded us the opportunity during Budget 2016 and the Muskrat Falls protests to offer a glimpse at the kind of impact independent journalism can have in our province. This can only happen if our media outlet is adequately supported, so please consider joining the grassroots effort to make The Independent sustainable.