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Transgressive resistance to Muskrat Falls

By: | March 27, 2017

Which side are you on?

Jon Parsons
Power and Dissent offers a critical take on culture, society and politics in Newfoundland and Labrador

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Land protectors, including elders and youth, blockaded the Muskrat Falls work site last October. Nine were arrested by the RCMP, prompting more people to join the movement to halt the project and protect locals' water, food and way of life in the absence of political will to do so. Photo by Justin Brake.

Among the most important lessons to learn from the ongoing debacle of the Muskrat Falls project is that the political establishment in Newfoundland is immune to reason.

Before the project was even sanctioned in 2012, many people were saying it was a bad idea and resisting in various ways. Some of these people were specialists: economists, lawyers, journalists, scientists, and even a few politicians. But most of these people were just regular folks from communities throughout Labrador and Newfoundland.

These regular folks that resisted the project didn’t have a pile of axes sitting next to their grinding wheel or a specific political agenda. Rather, they saw that the project was a threat to their families and their way of life, and a threat to everyone else in the province too. Some recognized that it represented an ecological disaster, others that it represented an economic disaster, others that it represented the further extinguishment of Indigenous culture, and others recognized different threats as well.

Everyone resisting the project recognized it as an injustice, that it is good for only a small number of people and would create hardships for everyone else, and of course that is precisely what is happening.

So people got organized. They got together in their communities and talked things over. They contacted their MHAs, MPs, and other elected officials. They consulted experts, wrote letters and editorials, held demonstrations and marches and boil-ups to bring attention to the injustice.

But the political establishment didn’t listen and didn’t budge. The establishment said things like “least cost option” and other ridiculous slogans. They mocked and derided anyone who asked reasonable questions. They produced flyers and mail-outs and ads that could only be dreamt up in overpriced PR consulting firms.

And so regular folks started to escalate their forms of resistance. What else can be expected when the political establishment won’t listen to reason? Resistance to the project has all along remained peaceful, even as there has been some property destruction and economic damage.

And people continued to organize towards a large-scale social movement. However, as the resistance escalated it became transgressive. People involved in the resistance began to cross the line drawn in the sand.

It’s not that being transgressive always meant breaking the law, though sometimes that was the case. Transgression, rather, meant to employ tactics that go beyond trying to convince the political establishment through reason, since reason had no effect whatsoever.

Lots of people continue to try to use reason. Actually, it’s not that there is anything wrong with reason or that the resistance should stop attempting to reason with the political establishment and informing the general public; indeed, as the polling data indicates, the general public, at least, has slowly come to its senses such that now the project is not supported by a majority of people.

However, it is a paradox that many people who have obviously recognized the failure of reason on the political establishment will never contemplate tactics other than reasoned discussion. They will keep doing the same thing over and over, continuing to try to use reason to change the mind of those in government or running Nalcor, and this potentially is a failure of tactical and strategic thinking for resistance.

The simple fact is, many people that are opposed to Muskrat Falls will never cross the line in the sand over into transgression. They will never go on hunger strike. They will never put themselves in a position to be arrested. They will never occupy a work site (or, as journalists, will never follow the story of the resistance onto a work site). Many people will simply never transgress.

Transgression, rather, meant to employ tactics that go beyond trying to convince the political establishment through reason, since reason had no effect whatsoever.

And that’s okay. Not everyone involved in resistance is able to transgress. It’s no small thing to put oneself in harm’s way or to get in a situation where one may be arrested or face criminal charges. But not everyone involved in resistance needs to cross the line — there are plenty of things that have to be done (including continuing to try to reason with power and to inform the public) that are not at all transgressive.

What everyone who considers themselves part of the resistance needs to recognize, though, is that since reasoned discussion has on the whole failed, transgression is justified. If you consider yourself part of the resistance, then you must (1) support those people who transgress, or (2) at the very least not say that transgression is unjustified.

It doesn’t make any sense for someone to say the project is bad and to recognize the obvious fact that the political establishment is immune to reason, but then go on to say that transgression is not justified.

Such a position is essentially the same as supporting the project, because reasonable discourse can continue ad absurdum, as far as the political establishment is concerned, as long as the project continues on. Such a position is not resistance, but resignation.

Meanwhile, the land is destroyed and the water is poisoned and money is poured into a hole in the ground in Labrador.

Right now, there are dozens of people facing charges for transgressive forms of resistance to the Muskrat Falls project. These are regular people who recognized reason was having no effect, and so they crossed the line, doing what they felt they needed to do in order to protect their families and their way of life.

All these brave people need support and solidarity now more than ever. You don’t personally have to cross the line over into transgression, but you can still be on the side of those brave people that transgress.

Which side are you on?

Jon Parsons is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on cultures of resistance. He recently published his book, Everyday Dissent: Politics and Resistance in Newfoundland and LabradorCatch up with Jon on Twitter @jwpnfld

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