After months trying to get a face to face meeting with Premier and Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Dwight Ball, land protectors in Labrador finally got to sit down with Ball to share their concerns and intentions regarding Muskrat Falls.
On Friday, after Ball had reportedly turned down an invitation to join the land protectors in a sharing circle, the premier extended an invitation for land protectors to participate in an impromptu round table discussion with himself, Labrador’s four MHAs and Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Deputy Minister Ron Bowles while the officials were in Happy Valley Goose Bay for the annual Combined Council of Labrador meetings.
With about 12 land protectors at the table and more standing behind them, protector Denise Cole started the discussion in a traditional sharing circle format, where only the person holding the talking stick could speak.
“Welcome to our land. This is Innu, Inuit and settler territory. We’ve been here for generations. We’ll be here for generations,” said Cole, who promised a respectful meeting and explained that the land protectors standing behind those at the table were “bearing witness…a traditional practice, that when there is relationships being built or decisions [being made], or conversations happening that people come to bear witness and give support.
“This is not a consultation — this is the beginning of dialogue. We believe the only agreement that can come out of today that we can all walk away and say it’s a win is if you’re here to tell us you’re shutting Muskrat Falls hydro project down to protect Labradorians and our land and our water.”
Land protectors speak
Inuit Elder Shirley Flowers, who has been present throughout the protests against Muskrat Falls in recent years, announced she is “number 26” on the land protectors’ list of more than 50 locals who have been summoned to court for violating injunctions during the Muskrat Falls protests.
“I can’t talk about what’s happening without talking about our colonial history,” Flowers, a residential school survivor, told the premier.
“I know and I believe that our lives have value. We’re not the savages that people believed we were, or thought that we were, or though that we were less than so—it gives other people authority over us.
Flowers then shared a poem she wrote, You Dare to Call us Savages, in which she described the ravages of colonization.
Jennifer Hefler-Elson of Happy Valley was one of several on Friday who criticized the Labrador MHAs and called for Ball to step down as minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs.
“I am requesting that you, premier, step down as minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs and appoint someone who is elected within Labrador.
“I sometimes sit in my living room and wonder, how do you bring concerns to the premier as the minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs? How can you do that? How can you have a conversation with yourself, and say ‘I have a concern about the people in Labrador’?”
John Learning, a NunatuKavut elder who was arrested in 2012 for defying an injunction when he and two other elders set marten traps in the woods near the Muskrat Falls site, called the situation “ridiculous,” saying in order “to get a meeting and save our people from being drowned or poisoned — we had to get arrested.
“I’m totally disgusted with our MHAs,” he continued. “When we first came out with the methylmercury [concerns] not one of you publicly come out and said, ‘No, we gotta stop, we gotta look at this seriously.’ Our so-called minister of environment said we’ll cut a few more trees…which is ridiculous.”
Learning then called on Ball to “step away from Aboriginal Affairs — you’re too busy for this, you haven’t got time to come and meet with us, step away.”
Mud Lake resident Craig Chaulk, who has been vocal in his concerns about the North Spur, which experts have projected would put his entire community underwater in the event of a dam breach, said he fears elected officials don’t fully appreciate the dangers he says the Spur poses.
“What boggles my mind is that a lot of you ministers seem to be not very knowledgable on the North Spur. Without the North Spur you have nothing. If it fails, lives will be lost, properties will be lost, and you will have no power for yourselves or anybody else.”
Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Peggy Blake introduced herself as “one of a lot of people who are going through the court system” due to her involvement in resisting Muskrat Falls.
“How you can sit there and look at us and know that you are putting us through this?” she asked. “We’re only doing this to protect our lives, to protect our homes and our families. I’m wondering how you can sit there and let this happen?
“There are so many things that are wrong with this project, yet you choose to turn a deaf ear to everything, to turn a blind eye, to ignore everything that’s going on, that’s being said to you,” she continued, as Ball kept his head down, taking notes. “I think it’s very arrogant of people like you to come here and expect that you can just take from us once again and just destroy our land. We have people going to bed in fear because of that dam.
We’re only doing this to protect our lives, to protect our homes and our families. –Peggy Blake
“Yet you sit there and look at us and say, well we have to keep going because of the money we’ve already put into it? I’m telling you, our lives are worth more than $12 billion, or if it’s going to go up to $15 billion or $20 billion. It’s not the monetary aspect that’s important to me — it’s the humanitarian aspect. You have to sit back and think about it: we are humans. We deserve better than this.”
Marjorie Flowers, a resident of Goose Bay originally from Rigolet who has been arrested twice protesting Muskrat Falls, had pointed criticism for Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds and Cartwright — L’Anse au Clair MHA Lisa Dempster.
“We were balling for you, yelling for you, we wanted you to support us. We wanted you, Lisa, to come here and show your face and tell us everything was going to be okay. We wanted you, Randy, to come here and tell us that you supported us and you were going to stand up against your own government and say the people are more important, people’s safety against methylmercury poisoning is more important, and more important than possible drowning. But you didn’t come here, and you didn’t come here.
“I’ve been arrested twice, because I have a strong conviction that this is f—ing wrong,” she said, apologizing for her language. “This is one of the reasons I didn’t want to come, because I get really, really, really emotional about it.
“Randy, when Aunt Shirley [Flowers] was reading that poem—you’re one of us. Lisa’s one of us. This is your home, too. Why aren’t you standing up for the people? It just blows my mind that this has carried on this long without someone having a voice for us. We’ve had to take it upon ourselves to create our own voice, to beg for a meeting….somebody listen to us, somebody hear us. What the hell is wrong with this picture? I suppose we all know what it is — it’s money and power. We’re not that naive, not that ignorant, that we don’t know what’s happening here. Money and power.”
Randy MacMillan identified himself as one of the workers who drilled on the North Spur.
“I need you to look at me as a father, a husband…I’ve been on that Muskrat Falls project since day one. I’m the guy that drilled them holes. Don’t tell me that North Spur is safe. Look at me. Look at me,” he said to Ball, commanding his attention.
“I need you to realize that we drilled 420 feet in the most crucial spot on that North Spur…[and] I also worked on that cofferdam all summer long, everyday that I was there. I realized it was going to break before it even broke. I was there. I seen the damage. I seen the coverup,” he said, referring to the leak in the temporary cofferdam that forced Nalcor to release water from the reservoir, which raised water levels downstream upward of one metre in the early morning hours of Nov. 18.
“I never seen such an anomaly in all my life,” he said, urging the premier and MHAs that they “gotta see those core samples,” referring to the material dug up during the North Spur drilling.
Roberta Benefiel of Grand Riverkeeper Labrador has been opposed to the dam for years. Speaking directly to the premier, she said, “I voted for [Lake Melville MHA and Environment and Climate Change Minister] Perry Trimper, and I voted for you. I voted out the Conservatives, and I thought that what you said, that you would have the books on Nalcor opened—I thought, okay, what choice do I have? You didn’t open the books on Nalcor. You had a change the legislation to take care of the ATIPP problem. You had a chance to change the legislation that the [Public Utilities Board] could look at Nalcor properly…but you didn’t do either one. You promised to do that and you didn’t do it. You will never get my vote again.”
Ball responded to the concerns, including the repeated calls for him to step down as minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs, saying he appointed himself to that position because it enabled him to directly participate in “government to government relationships”.
Ball also said he grew up next to a hydro dam his whole life, referring to the dam above Deer Lake built in 1925 to power the paper mill in Corner Brook. The dam recently made headlines over concerns around its stability and the anticipated flooding and other consequences related to a hypothetical dam breach.
Ball’s brother Dean is the mayor of Deer Lake. In 2013 he issued a warning to residents living downstream from the dam that there could be flooding as the company that operates the dam had to release water from the reservoir due to high levels of precipitation.
An NTV investigation into the dam last November revealed the province has no legislation in place to monitor its integrity, and that Corner Brook Pulp and Paper, the private corporation that operates the dam, is responsible for monitoring and oversight.
Asked by NTV News reporter Colleen Lewis what would happen in the event of a catastrophic failure, the mayor said “that piece of information isn’t readily available to us today.”
Documents obtained through access to information requests reveal “a rush of water would strike the town of Reidville, Nicholsville and continue through the Humber Valley, taking several sections of the Trans Canada Highway with it,” NTV reported.
“And also shocking, Deer Lake airport would be lost, along with parts of Pasadena, Little Rapids, Humber Valley Resort and Steady Brook,” Lewis reported.
Premier Ball told land protectors Friday “it’s never acceptable to put someone’s health at risk, so you do it with the evidence you have.”
Last year researchers out of Harvard University released a peer-reviewed scientific study that projected methylmercury created by the dam’s reservoir would expose Inuit living downstream of the dam to unsafe levels of exposure to the neurotoxin. News of the dangers associated with methylmercury, downplayed by Nalcor and Minister Trimper, prompted a series of protests last fall, including two blockades and an occupation by land protectors of the Muskrat Falls site.
It’s never acceptable to put someone’s health at risk, so you do it with the evidence you have. –Premier Dwight Ball
On Oct. 25, during the occupation, Ball called a meeting between provincial and Indigenous leaders, who reached an agreement for further independent assessment of the dam’s impacts, the formation of a special committee to assess ways to reduce potential methylmercury contamination, and for potential further clearing of the dam’s reservoir.
While the agreement satisfied some, many land protectors have continued protesting the dam, calling for a complete shutdown of the project due to numerous other concerns, paramountly the North Spur and the risks a hypothetical dam breach poses to people and communities downstream.
During a community presentation in Happy Valley-Goose Bay last month engineers working on the dam assured land protectors and other concerned locals that the dam will not breach. Nalcor has repeatedly directed people to a trove of engineering and other documents archived on its website for evidence of the still incomplete dam’s integrity.
But many, including MacMillan, Innu elders and other locals, have said the riverbank’s high composition of sand and marine clay make the area permanently unstable for a large hydro dam.
MacMillan told the premier on Friday that he wasn’t informed by Nalcor that part of the drilling operations he undertook on the North Spur was atop a 1978 landslide.
“They had me drill…240 feet down on a landslide,” he said. “Like I said, I got three kids and four grandkids, b’y. I’m upset. The more I research–come on, we gotta go look at that.”
Ball told MacMillan the government “will ask [Nalcor] questions” regarding his concerns.
“The decisions we make as elected officials are not always easy,” he told the land protectors. “We do so with the evidence we have. And we try and make the best decisions as we can with the evidence we do have.”
Last November, after Nalcor had begun partial flooding of the dam’s reservoir, Trimper told The Independent that methylmercury monitoring had begun and results would be made available “as quickly as possible.”
On Friday Ball told land protectors the government is still working to make that information public. “We want to get that information out there,” he said.
The Independent has made multiple requests for a phone interview with the premier in recent weeks, but at the time of publication an interview had not yet been granted.
Trimper told land protectors on Friday that he “wake[s] up every morning making sure the evidence before me is accurate and that the people have looked under every stone.”
Responding to concerns around financial compensation in the event of a dam breach, Trimper said the “idea of compensation is there in the event everything else fails.”
But many locals don’t accept the promise of compensation.
“If I lose my husband and my three children, and my grandchild, there’s no amount of money that can cover that,” said Linda Cull.
“We are shutting Muskrat Falls down”
Cole said instead of “trying to fight for our lives and our land and our water,” residents of Labrador “should be here having a conversation about how we can have the best sustainable economy for our kids’ futures.
She pointed to the recently released National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy’s emphasis on creating cultural continuity as a priority area for reducing suicide among Inuit, citing the ability to “live off the land, to connect with culture, to eat traditional foods” as important means of maintaining good mental health and well-being.
Labrador Land Protectors on Friday, February 10, 2017
“What you’re doing [with Muskrat Falls] is threatening our ability to do that, in a time when we talk about relationships of government to government,” she continued. “How can we talk about truth and reconciliation in a meaningful way if we do not talk about how we protect tradition? I don’t think any of us want an apology 50 years from now on a mistake that was made today—we should know better now.”
Cole then read a prepared statement from land protectors: “We are shutting Muskrat Falls down. We would like to do it with your help. We will do it without it. And that is where we are,” she said. “As the Labrador land protectors we can no longer [meet] halfway on anything. We are prepared to go to jail. We are prepared to put our lives at stake, if that’s what it takes — because we have to be there for the next generations and be able to say that we did what was right. So we invite you to come over to the side of what is right, and we’ll all work together.”
She said land protectors are tired of “being treated like terrorists” for resisting the dam.
“You need to know that we are humans. We don’t want to lose our culture. We want to have safety, we want to have peace of mind, we want to eat our foods, we want to keep our identity. This is our home. This is our way of life. We would like to live it and stop doing this. We would like to get back to enjoying the river, enjoying the land and enjoying our families.”