Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue is back outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project following the flooding of one downstream community.
Elizabeth Penashue is not done resisting Muskrat Falls.
On Thursday the respected Innu Elder from Sheshatshiu First Nation embarked on a 10 km walk from the Goose Bay–Cartwright junction along the Trans-Labrador Highway to the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project site.
Joined by supporters and land protectors, upon arriving at the government-designated protest area adjacent to the Muskrat Falls entrance Penashue set up a tent, where she plans to spend at least the next few days.
Shortly after arriving at the protest site Penashue told The Independent by phone she is “very concerned about Muskrat Falls,” because “so many things are going to die.
“Water is going to die. What’s going to happen to the animals? What’s going to happen to our medicine on the ground? And what’s going to happen to my people — young children?” she asked.
“They’re not going to be able to hunt anymore. Innu people, the children are always hunting, always. Where are our children and our grandchildren—where are they going to hunt? I feel so sad about Muskrat Falls, and Muskrat Falls is not finished yet. There’s too many problems, all kinds of problems.”
Penashue also said she’s concerned about the people of Mud Lake, whose community, which is downstream from Muskrat Falls and accessible only by snowmobile or boat, flooded earlier this week.
The situation, which has forced many Mud Lake residents to choose between rebuilding their homes or abandoning their home community altogether, is “very, very sad,” said Penashue.
Nalcor Energy has said the Muskrat Falls facilities, including the cofferdam and the spillway, had nothing to do with the flooding downstream.
“The increased water inflows from upstream as a result of the natural spring thaw are passing through the Muskrat Falls spillway and to the river downstream,” Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill said in a statement Wednesday.
Penashue fears the consequences for Innu may be similar to those facing Mud Lake’s approximately 50 residents at present.
“Mud Lake people are always hunting, every spring and winter — always hunting,” she added, expressing sympathy for the families displaced by the flood.
“That’s why I walk — I want to walk with my people. And maybe the young children are going to be here [outside the Muskrat Falls main gate] tomorrow. That’s why I walk. I’m very, very concerned.
“The government should think about this — this is our land, this is our river,” she continued. “[For] thousands and thousands of years Innu people have hunted here — and where are the people going to hunt anymore?”
Asked if she has sought the support of Innu leaders, Penashue said “I think [they’ve] seen me; I put [notice of my walk] on the computer,” she said, referring to numerous posts on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that advertised her walk in advance.
“I will wait to see what happens. They should be here, one of them — Innu Nation or band council [representatives]. It’s very, very important; everybody — Innu Nation and band council — have father and grandfather always hunting here [on] Churchill River. That’s why I walk. I cry sometimes when I look [at] what happens. Everything’s such a mess.”
In 2014, as part of her well-known annual trek in nutshimit — the backcountry, or the bush — Penashue said she wanted to “see [Muskrat Falls one] last time.”
In an interview with The Independent that winter she recalled trips up the Churchill River — known to the Innu as Mistashipu — with her late husband Francis, as well as childhood trips with her parents to hunt and pick berries.
“I want to say goodbye…and I want to see [Muskrat Falls one] last time,” she said.
Penashue asked Nalcor permission to let her walk to the falls, but the crown corporation turned her down.
Last fall, as Muskrat Falls protests in Central Labrador grew in anticipation of the first phase of reservoir flooding by Nalcor, Penashue joined land protectors, elders and others in prayer and for a walk along the Trans Labrador Highway on Oct. 15, the first potential day of flooding.
Days later, after nine land protectors involved in a blockade of the Muskrat Falls site were arrested, she and other Innu elders and members of Sheshatshiu First Nation set up tents alongside Inuit and settler Labradorians in the protest area outside the project’s main gate.
On Oct. 24, as she remained outside the main gate while dozens of land protectors occupied the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp, Penashue told The Independent she was concerned that Innu Nation leaders weren’t supporting their people, and that October 2016 marked the “first time I see it in my life like that…[when] the people [are] protesting together.
“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 says she plans to spend several days with her tent outside the Muskrat Falls main gate.
“I’m thinking about the animals, and Innu medicine, berries, blueberries, red berries — everything’s going to die,” she told The Independent Thursday. “Everything.”