On Friday in St. John’s Premier Dwight Ball met with leaders and representatives from Indigenous governments and organizations within Newfoundland and Labrador as part of the province’s first annual Indigenous Leaders Roundtable.
The delegation discussed a need to bring consultations for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to Newfoundland and Labrador, support for Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe’s effort to repatriate the remains of Demasduit and Nonosbawsut from the National Museum of Scotland to their homeland, and the need for greater support in addressing mental health and addictions in Indigenous communities.
“This new roundtable allows us to share ideas, experiences and insights across all Indigenous communities that will help us stand together and to try to advance and make progress on some common issues,” Ball said during a press conference after the event, adding he “look[s] forward to incorporating the feedback from today into actions that we take into the future.”
Promise of truth and reconciliation
The meeting comes a year and a half after Ball was elected premier, at which time he appointed himself minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs and promised to “lead the implementation” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action.
In 2015, after seven years of collating interviews with residential school survivors and input from Indigenous Peoples across Canada about how their families and communities have been impacted by colonization, the TRC released its final report, compelling governments and other institutions to take specific steps to end institutionalized discrimination of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people.
Reconciliation is “an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships,” a critical part of which “involves repairing damaged trust by making apologies, providing individual and collective reparations, and following through with concrete actions that demonstrate real societal change,” the TRC wrote in the report.
To date, Ball has not said how the Liberals plan to follow up their promise of reconciliation, only that they are working on 20 of the 31 calls to action that fall under provincial jurisdiction.
Amid ongoing efforts by Indigenous people and communities to protect their water, food and way of life from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, repeated warnings from Innu chiefs of housing crises in their communities, and the continued overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care, and of Indigenous adults in correctional facilities, members of the Indigenous communities in this province hear political leaders speak of reconciliation while assimilation and other forms of systemic violence — intentional or not — continue against Indigenous Peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Some say that while reconciliation won’t happen overnight, if he’s serious about his promise Ball must do more to understand the truth component of truth and reconciliation.
Ossie Michelin, an Inuk journalist from North West River and former APTN reporter, says reconciliation cannot happen in Newfoundland and Labrador without first acknowledging and understanding the truth of Indigenous Peoples’ lived experiences here. Any government that desires true reconciliation, he says, must deal with “the hard part” first.
“[Premier] Ball has never been one for the truth, he has never listened to us intently. The most truthful thing he has ever done for us is ignore us,” Michelin says, citing the premier’s handling of the Indigenous-led Muskrat Falls protests.
“It took three people on a hunger strike and 50 people occupying the dam site for this man to speak to our Indigenous leaders. [It took] that much for him to hear our truth.”
Roots of the struggles
In an effort to gauge Ball’s understanding of Indigenous struggles The Independent recently interviewed the premier by phone.
Asked if he knew why so many Innu and Inuit children were in foster care, and why suicide rates in Indigenous communities in Labrador are so disproportionately high, Ball said “there’s a lot of lessons we can learn from history.”
He then veered away from discussing the historical roots of Indigenous struggles and instead cited a recent announcement of federal funding for prevention-based programming in Innu communties.
“What it means is intervention, making sure we have the communities to the point where we inform, in some cases, the parents,” he continued, addressing the issue of Indigenous children in foster care. “So the intervention is not about removing the child, it’s putting in place proactive measures and working with the families [is] where we need to be.”
Ball said addressing the high rates of Indigenous children in foster care, and high rates of suicide in Indigenous communities, “in a lot of cases…comes down to education.
“As we meet and talk with Indigenous leaders in all those communities, it is not lost on any of us that it really comes down to a very grassroots level of working with those families, putting in place measures that will actually prevent those interventions,” he said.
Residential schools in both Labrador and Newfoundland have been cited by survivors as major government and church-sponsored efforts to colonize and assimilate Indigenous children and communities.
The systemic violence perpetrated against Indigenous children in those schools, among other forms of assimilation at the hands of settlers and colonial governments, have created cycles of intergenerational trauma largely to blame for social and health epidemics in Indigenous communities, like substance abuse and high suicide rates.
“Many of these problems stem from the intergenerational legacy of residential schools. The destructive beliefs and behaviours of many students have been passed on to their children and grandchildren as physical and mental health issues,” the TRC wrote in its final report.
“Governments in Canada spend billions of dollars each year responding to the symptoms of the intergenerational trauma of residential schools. Much of this money is spent on crisis interventions related to child welfare, family violence, ill health, and crime.”
Present day assimilation and colonization
Other forms of assimilation continue today. According to one Native Studies scholar from the University of Manitoba, megaprojects like Muskrat Falls developed on Indigenous land against the will of Indigenous people is one example.
Last year Peter Kulchyski, who has studied the impacts of large hydro dams on Indigenous communities for almost two decades, told The Independent that “once you start tallying [the pros of large scale hydro dams for local Indigenous communities, versus the cons] you see that it’s hurting more than it’s helping.
“When politicians talk about reconciliation they will say they’re giving jobs and money, but that looks more like assimilation than reconciliation,” he said, citing loss of access to traditional lands, loss of traditional subsistence practices, and the erasure of traditional economies as examples of how hydro dams contribute to assimilation.
At an anti-Muskrat Falls rally last fall in Labrador Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident and Nunatsiavut Deputy Minister of Health and Social Development Michelle Kinney said the government’s promise to “compensate” those whose ability to harvest country food from Lake Melville will be diminished by methylmercury contamination amounts to a form of colonization.
Inuit, she said, “have had relocation and compensation. We’ve had residential schools and compensation. And now we’re looking at methylmercury and then compensation. Money doesn’t pay for any of it. In the midst of all of it, we have lives that are devastated. We have social issues, and we’re just contributing more to them. I think it’s time that we just need to put our foot down and say enough is enough and stand up to some of the colonization.”
Binky Andersen, a 20-year-old Inuk student at Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook from Nain, Nunatsiavut, told The Independent in a recent interview that if Ball is serious about reconciliation he and the Indigenous communities “need to get to a level where we’re meeting each other halfway,” and that she wants Ball “to get to know us.”
Andersen, who recently won Grenfell’s second annual Indigenous Leadership Award for her efforts to help Indigenize the university campus, said meeting with the province’s Indigenous leaders isn’t enough if Ball is sincere about building relationships with Indigenous communities based on understanding and mutual respect.
“The reality is he meets with our Indigenous leaders but he never meets with us,” she said. “He meets with Indigenous leaders in Newfoundland — he don’t come to Labrador. I want to suggest to him to come and see us.”
The young mother, second year business student and niece of Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds said the fact Ball is “not Labradorian and…not Indigenous” puts the premier at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the lived experiences of Indigenous Peoples in this province.
“There’s only so much you can read, there’s only so much you can hear,” she explained. “I want him to be passionate enough to come to our communities and give us the proper representation, and care about us.”
Silence around progress on calls to action
The Independent recently filed an access to information request to the Office of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs asking for all correspondences and records between April 14, 2016—the date of the Ball Government’s first budget—and Feb. 8, 2017 related to the government’s implementation of the TRC’s calls to action.
The query returned 202 pages, 170 of which were entirely redacted. Many of the remaining 30 pages revealed bureaucrats from various departments trying to figure out how to respond to a question from The Independent to provincial Finance Minister Cathy Bennett about why there wasn’t any money allocated in budget 2016 to implementing the calls to action.
Asked for an explanation of the secrecy around the Liberals’ response to the TRC, Ball said in a statement to The Independent earlier this week that his government “maintains an open and continuous dialogue with Indigenous governments and organizations on all issues of concern to Indigenous governments and organizations in the province.
“Government is in the process of preparing to report on the TRC Calls and will engage Indigenous governments and organizations on that report before any release. In the meantime, Government continues to further reconciliation in its ongoing engagement with the Indigenous governments, organizations and people of the Province.”
The TRC’s calls to action include, among other things, modernizing health, education and justice systems federally, provincially, and municipally.
Kelly Anne Butler, Grenfell Campus’ Aboriginal Resources Officer and Vice-chair of the Bay St. George Mi’kmaw Cultural Revival Committee, says reconciliation is a “process,” and that there are two central problems evident in governments’ attempts to achieve reconciliation.
“We are still arguing about truth in our province,” she continues. “Speaking of Mi’kmaw people in particular, we still have to educate [people] about the various myths of our existence here on the island of Newfoundland.”
Butler says she also sees an issue of motivation with governments who’ve promised reconciliation with Indigenous nations and communities.
“Governments and institutions often see [reconciliation] as a burden, something they have to satisfy. It’s all wrapped up in negative connotations, and that is really unfortunate. Once you look at something as a burden, it’s a chore—it’s not fun, and it’s not positive,” she says.
“It’s unfortunate that reconciliation is not viewed instead as an amazing opportunity—an opportunity to incorporate Indigenous principles and perspectives into current structures because they are recognized as being beneficial—not as a chore that someone thinks they need to complete because it’s 2017. There is actual, real benefit to society to attempt genuine reconciliation.”
Muskrat Falls as impediment to reconciliation
The TRC report states “establishing respectful relationships requires the revitalization of Indigenous law and legal traditions,” and that it is “important that all Canadians understand how traditional First Nations, Inuit, and Metis approaches to resolving conflict, repairing harm, and restoring relationships can inform the reconciliation process.”
Land protectors and others in Labrador and across the province have repeatedly cited Muskrat Falls as an impediment to reconciliation.
The dam, they say, threatens an important traditional food source, destroys culturally and historically significant trapping grounds, transportation routes and sacred sites, and leaves hundreds of people downstream living in fear of a dam breach and potentially fatal flooding.
Upward of 60 people in Labrador, most of them Indigenous, face civil and criminal charges for blockading and occupying the Muskrat Falls site last year in what many of them have repeatedly described as a last-resort act of self-defence to protect their food, families, communities and way of life from imminent and irreparable harm after political and legal institutions failed to ensure their safety.
The TRC report highlights dispossession from traditional lands and loss of access to language, traditional hunting and fishing practices, among other things, as contributors to the colonization and assimilation of Indigenous Peoples.
Asked if he disputes the claim by some that colonization of Indigenous Peoples and lands continues today in Newfoundland and Labrador, Ball did not give a straight answer but did acknowledge the importance of maintaining Indigenous languages and access to cultural activities like hunting.
“We must make sure those cultural activities are protected as best we can,” he said.
“And we also know, with economic development, there is a way we must share, with impacts and benefits agreements and those things. We cannot basically proceed with economic development without including our Indigenous groups, and [making] sure that their cultural activities are protected as best we can — but always in conjunction in working with those leaders.”
Asked if he thought Muskrat Falls in particular demonstrates ongoing colonial policies and assimilation, the premier said “there’s no doubt that when you look at what’s happening in Labrador, the impact on land, the impact on some of the cultural activities that our Aboriginal groups have been able to participate in over the years, [they are] impacted by this.”
Ball emphasized that as opposition leader he did not support Muskrat Falls, and that there “were lots of questions from me when I was in opposition, and there’s no doubt right now that, as I find myself in this role as premier of the province, I’m going to manage my way through this. I will do this in conjunction within those Indigenous communities.”
The TRC report says governments must consult with Indigenous communities and get their free, prior and informed consent before developing on their lands.
In 2012, before Muskrat Falls was sanctioned, former provincial Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy repeatedly responded to concerns around Muskrat Falls raised in the House of Assembly, arguing that the province had fulfilled its duty to consult the Innu and Inuit of Labrador.
Meanwhile, the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) and Nunatsiavut Government both launched unsuccessful court challenges against the project and repeatedly argued they had not given free, prior and informed consent to the destruction of their lands and to a project they said threatened a traditional source of food.
“All these rights we fought for for years—to be able to hunt and fish and harvest what we need on a daily basis—will be impacted by this methylmercury coming into our settlement area [from Muskrat Falls],” Darryl Shiwak, Nunatsiavut’s Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, told The Independent last year. “That right is essentially being taken away.”
“The 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples noted that, historically, land and resource development activities, such as hydroelectric dams, mines, and agricultural and urban development activities, have had many adverse impacts on Aboriginal communities,” the TRC report reads.
“Aboriginal Peoples were economically marginalized in their own homelands when irreversible environmental damage was done in the name of ‘progress’. All too often, economic development has disrupted Indigenous peoples’ cultural, spiritual, and economic ties to the land, resulting in the devastation of traditional economies and self-sufficiency, community trauma, public welfare dependency, and poor health and socio-political outcomes.”
Though the TRC report and the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)—which the TRC advises governments to use as the framework for implementing the TRC calls to action—explicitly prohibit the kind of treatment of Indigenous Peoples that the province is presently engaged in around Muskrat Falls, Ball said he won’t intervene in the criminalization of land protectors and others who resisted the dam through protest.
Asked if he would advocate for amnesty on land protectors’ behalf in light of the fact their actions were a direct response to the government’s own failure to protect them from an imminent threat to their health and way of life, Ball said while his government “respects and abides by…the fundamental freedoms we have within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms…we also have the rule of law and we must respect that.
“Regardless of if it’s with our Indigenous communities, or if it’s with Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in a more general sense, the last thing we want is a premier, or any leader, interfering with our law, and interfering in justice,” he said. “Always protect our right of expression — we must always do that. But we must do it in a law-abiding fashion.”
Last fall a group of land protectors in Labrador drafted a letter to United Nations (U.N.) High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein with the hope the U.N. will intervene at Muskrat Falls since the project, they say, infringes on Innu and Inuit rights.
“The parties directly involved in this damming process…are committing actions that violate basic human rights, provisions of free, prior, and informed consent in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UNDRIP], as well as the protocols and natural laws of Indigenous nations,” the letter reads.
“The Indigenous nations of Labrador have not given free, prior, and informed consent, and the [federal and provincial] governments and Nalcor are not negotiating with transparency, clarity, and accountability. Therefore we ask you, Commissioner Hussein, to intervene and stop the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric damming project until these issues are addressed.”
Andersen said while the premier may cite his need to refrain from interfering with the legal process, Ball has “no excuse to stand by and allow” members of Indigenous communities to be criminalized for protecting themselves from harm.
The TRC explicitly calls for the province to “commit to the recognition and implementation of Aboriginal justice systems in a manner consistent with the Treaty and Aboriginal rights of Aboriginal peoples, the Constitution Act, 1982, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons recently told The Independent the Liberals are consulting with other provinces on the matter, though he did not say if he is engaging Indigenous Peoples on Indigenous justice systems.
Andersen said in addition to how history will remember a government that participated in the prosecution of Indigenous people who were defending themselves from that very government’s policies and inaction, the Ball administration may also be remembered as a government that failed to prevent serious human rights infringements on its own watch during a time of supposed reconciliation.
“There will be studies in the future [of] how Muskrat Falls affected people,” she said, citing the possibility of methylmercury contamination of traditional foods and the disruption of traditional aspects of life “influencing the health and development of our youth.”
Michelin said if Ball wants to achieve reconciliation, he must first develop a genuine understanding of their lived experiences.
“When people in power actually listen to the truths of Indigenous people, hear them, their struggles, pains, and triumphs, and connect and understand, that’s how we move forward as a nation, as a province, as neighbours.”
(With files from Hans Rollmann.)