Protests in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, St. John’s, Rigolet and Ottawa cap off a week of calls from across Canada for the release of incarcerated Inuk grandmother and land protector.
Support for Beatrice Hunter is growing across Canada.
A protest in St. John’s Thursday, and another planned in Ottawa Friday, will cap off what a grassroots group in St. John’s is calling a ‘week of action’ aimed at having the Inuk grandmother and land protector released from prison.
A national phone campaign Thursday was also organized to lobby Premier Dwight Ball and show support for Hunter in advance of her next court appearance Friday.
Hunter, who is from the Nunatsiavut community of Hopedale but now lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, was taken into custody on May 29 after refusing to promise a Supreme Court of N.L. judge that she wouldn’t go near the Muskrat Falls site in Central Labrador. Last fall she and dozens of others were part of an Indigenous-led occupation of the hydro dam site in what many described as a last-resort act of self-defence to protect their water, food and way of life from projected methylmercury contamination.
Hunter and dozens of land protectors now face civil and criminal charges for that protest, but have continued resisting the project after a meeting between the premier and Indigenous leaders rendered what they say were inadequate results.
On May 22, days after the community of Mud Lake, downstream of Muskrat Falls, flooded and residents had to be evacuated, Hunter and others returned to the main gate of the project site despite having signed a recognizance promising not to go within one kilometre. They believe the flooding that destroyed many families’ homes was a result of the hydro facilities.
That protest brought Hunter back before the court, where she refused to promise she wouldn’t go back to the Muskrat Falls site. As RCMP tried to take Hunter into custody, land protectors outside the courthouse laid down on the pavement in front of the police van, delaying Hunter’s transfer to the local detachment until police threatened them with arrest.
The following day Hunter’s family tried to visit her in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay RCMP detachment during visiting hours, but Hunter’s sister told The Independent last week the RCMP said they were understaffed and couldn’t accommodate a visit.
Two days after being taken into custody, and without any notice to her or her family, Hunter was transferred to St. John’s, where she says she spent one night in the Supreme Court of N.L. lock-up before being transferred to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, a maximum security men’s prison, where she has spent the intervening time ahead of her June 9 court appearance back in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Hunter’s incarceration has sparked outrage across the province and country, including among Indigenous leaders, academics, lawyers, artists, Indigenous rights advocates and land defenders.
Meanwhile, the chorus of voices calling for Hunter’s release continues to grow.
On Thursday Ottawa-based organizer Matthew Behrens coordinated a “National Call Ball Day,” where he invited those troubled by Hunter’s incarceration to call Premier Dwight Ball’s office to express their concern.
Behrens is also leading a protest on Friday outside the Prime Minister’s Office in downtown Ottawa in an effort to pressure Justin Trudeau to “withdraw the federal government’s support of the Muskrat Falls project.”
A longtime Indigenous rights activist who says he was arrested alongside Elizabeth Penashue and hundreds of others in the late 1980s during the Innu-led NATO low-level flying protests, Behrens said he hopes this week’s protests will “help awaken the conscience and open the minds of a lot of people in our neck of the woods to what is going on at Muskrat Falls.”
He thinks others resisting megaprojects in Canada that pose serious threats to people and the environment could learn from land protectors in Labrador.
“We think that the work of the Labrador Land Protectors is not only a fantastic example of the kinds of non-violent direct action that all of us are looking at engaging in when it comes to other projects, from Kinder Morgan to Site C to Line 9, we also need to look at the fact that any negative precedents that are developed against the protectors will be used against other land and water protectors across Canada as well.”
The actions Behrens is coordinating coincide with a protest at Colonial Building in St. John’s Thursday, and ongoing protests in Labrador, where land protectors and others supporting Hunter have rallied in the streets of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Rigolet.
About 100 people gathered outside the Colonial Building in downtown St. John’s on Thursday to show their support for Hunter. Supporters have been gathering outside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary on Forest Road every day since Hunter’s arrival to show their support. Jodi Greenleaves, a Labradorian living in St. John’s, helped organize the daily presence.
“Traditionally, Indigenous women have always shared a spiritual connection to the water,” the Indigenous land and water protector said Thursday. “It comes as no surprise to me that strong, Indigenous Labrador women have been a major part of the resistance to the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
“Beatrice is an Indigenous woman who stands by her principles and has so bravely stepped forward to defy the colonial justice system, Nalcor and the government of this province,” she continued. “She has done so because she knows in her heart and soul that protecting the water and the land is far more important than a corporation and a government exploiting the land and the water that belongs to the Indigenous people of Labrador.”
Greenleaves said if the government doesn’t “work on repairing [its] relationship” with Labrador, the unrest will continue.
“No longer will we take being treated like we don’t matter, and that our lands and water don’t matter. We are awake. And it’s time that the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nalcor wakes up to that fact.”
She said the injunction obtained by Nalcor is a “colonial act” and called for the charges to be dropped against all the land protectors.
Stan Nochasak, an Inuk drum dancer from Nain who lives in St. John’s, performed a drum dance with a young girl before addressing the crowd.
“We’ve been in Labrador for thousands of years. Without being good together, without treating the land with respect and with sacredness, people like me, people like her, wouldn’t be here,” he said.
“No matter how small a pebble, no matter how big the boulder, we must stand together, and do it in order, do it peacefully, and stand tall with pride, just like the Inukshuk. And try to be as proud as possible. Dwight Ball and the government, it doesn’t matter what kind of government they are, as long as they see us, and that we’re proud, and that we’ll stand for the land, and we’ll stand for the water and they will see us across the province, and across the nation. The world will see.”
“Not only do I support Beatrice, I applaud her. She should be given an honourable medal for what she’s doing,” said Anne Hamel, another speaker who has attended the daily vigils. “She is our province’s first political prisoner, and her only crime is she’s being honest. She’s being civil. She’s protesting peacefully.”
“They thought by sending her out here they would silence her. They were wrong. We are her voice…I always thought when growing up, oppression happened in other countries. Not so. It’s happening right here.”
Angus Anderson, an Inuk man living in St. John’s, elicited cheers from the crowd when he called for Ball to resign as minister of Intergovernmental and Indigenous affairs.
“As long as he holds that post he’s holding hostage our rights, our freedom to speak, our freedom for representation. As long as he is Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs minister, we have no voice,” he said.
Meanwhile, prominent Indigenous rights advocates and land defenders have been speaking out, spreading the word across nations and expressing solidarity with Hunter.
On Tuesday Haisla First Nation novelist Eden Robinson issued a statement, saying “when non-violent grandmothers are imprisoned for protecting their land, the action speaks loudly about how Canada really feels about its Indigenous citizens. It speaks loudly about how we treat our elders. It speaks loudly about who we want silenced and how far we’re willing to go to silence voices we don’t want to hear. My prayers and thoughts are with you, Beatrice Hunter. I’m so sorry you have to endure this but I’m in awe of your strength and your spirit. Many hugs, much respect.”
From the Dene Nation in Northern Saskatchewan, land defender Marius Paul issued a statement saying “Denesuline People demand that Beatrice Hunter be immediately released and escorted back to her homelands.”
Last weekend Métis artist Christi Belcourt expressed her support for Hunter on Twitter.
— Christi Belcourt (@christibelcourt) June 4, 2017
On Wednesday Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe issued his second statement within a week, this one an open letter to Premier Ball, calling Hunter’s incarceration in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary “unnecessary and immoral”.
“Ms. Hunter is not a violent offender and is branded a criminal by the justice system simply because she refused to obey an injunction against protesting near the Muskrat Falls site,” the Inuk Elder and political leader wrote. “As an Indigenous person, and as a Canadian citizen, she maintains that she is not breaking any laws, but merely taking a stand against a project she feels will have devastating impacts on her culture, health and way of life.”
Ball and provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons have said they can’t interfere with a matter presently before the courts, but a number of people and organizations say they have other obligations related to the matter in light of the circumstances.
“I understand and appreciate the fact that elected officials, including you, cannot intervene in the judicial system,” Lampe wrote in his letter to Ball. “However, as the Minister Responsible for Indigenous Affairs, I believe it is your duty to advocate on her behalf and on behalf of all Indigenous people in this province. You may not be able to interfere with the justice system, but you can certainly show some real leadership and voice your concerns with respect to this unjust situation.”
In a statement this week NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell said “clearly the justice system is flawed [and] has not responded appropriately or fairly to those who have demonstrated their objections to the Muskrat Falls project and been charged as a consequence.”
Russell, the former Liberal MP for Labrador, went on to say “there is little or no indication the justice system has respected nor taken into account the Indigenous perspective and issues central to this situation. In so doing, the system has inflicted undue harm on individuals, families and communities.
“Today, we challenge the justice system to do better and find culturally appropriate alternatives and solutions. We challenge the justice system to respond in a manner wherein Inuit and other Indigenous peoples can have some measure of comfort that justice is indeed being done and is seen to be done fairly and justly. The system of justice that so many of our people find themselves embroiled in must find a better way.”
NDP MHA Gerry Rogers issued a statement this week too, saying the Muskrat Falls protests are a consequence of “how both the previous and current governments and our own Crown Corporation Nalcor have not adequately addressed specific issues raised by the Environmental Assessment Panel and by the people living in the area of Muskrat Falls.”
Rogers cited the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’s calls to action, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, both of which the Ball government has promised to implement.
“I am fully aware that it is inappropriate for the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General or the Premier to intervene in a prosecution in a criminal matter,” wrote Rogers, who is the NDP’s justice critic. “However, there are overriding justice principles and processes that must be reviewed to more justly address the issues of protest and civil disobedience in our province and culturally appropriate approaches to justice systems by Indigenous peoples.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls on governments to commit to ‘eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody,’ and to ‘provide sufficient and stable funding to implement and evaluate community sanctions that will provide realistic alternatives to imprisonment for Aboriginal offenders and respond to the underlying causes of offending.'”
Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, who is also the Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Carolyn Bennett, issued a statement last week, pointing the finger at Nalcor Energy, who sought two injunctions from the Supreme Court of N.L. in under 10 days last fall at the height of the Muskrat Falls protests. The charges against upward of 60 people stem from Nalcor’s decision to seek injunctive relief from the court.
“There has been many summonses issued as it relates to the protection of the [Churchill] River, [and] these summonses are based on the fact that Nalcor has taken civil action against those that protest. Once that civil injunction is breached, it then becomes a criminal matter. I too, have asked that all of these charges be dropped through requests to Nalcor and the Province over the past few months,” Jones said in her statement.
“I am concerned about the level of unrest that continues in Labrador around the Muskrat Falls development and ask that the views and perspectives of all people be respected.”
But Behrens said Jones’ statement, like others issued by elected officials, doesn’t go far enough. He likened Jones’ statement to sentiments expressed by many who questioned Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement’s actions in the early ‘60s.
He said Jones’ comment about being ‘concerned about the level of unrest that continues in Labrador’ is “a funny statement to make when an Inuk grandmother has been thrown in jail by these incredibly powerful billion dollar forces.”
Behrens said King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail “basically responded to the kinds of statements that liberal church people were making at the time, which were very similar to Yvonne Jones’ statement — saying that the unrest that you’re seeing, we didn’t create it. That’s something that has been there for a long, long time and what you are seeing is in fact a very healthy democratic response to the social unrest which has been created by these forces.
“The same thing is happening with Muskrat Falls,” he continued. “King said, I’m not afraid of tension, I’m not afraid of unrest — these are things that actually move us forward as a species. It’s when we’re quiet in the face of injustice that we get into trouble. So Yvonne Jones’ statement seems to show that she’s more concerned about the fact that people are protesting an injustice than the injustice itself.
“Nowhere in that statement does she say, you know what, I’m really concerned about the methylmercury, I’m really concerned about the North Spur — she just wants to make sure all views are respected. Well, there are some issues in which there are not two [equally legitimate] sides of a story. In this case it’s been very clearly shown one side is a complete and utter disaster. And the other is, let’s stop it; you stop a disaster before it gets worse. And unfortunately she’s trying to have it both ways.”
Earlier this week Amnesty International Canada’s Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples Craig Benjamin told The Independent that the internationally respected human rights organization has written to Ball in an effort to gather more information about Hunter’s incarceration, but that from the outset it is evident that the “very actions” for which Hunter and others are being brought before the courts were “responding to the failure of the province and the federal government to uphold their obligations.”
Looking back at the process through which Muskrat Falls was sanctioned, and then developed against the will of local Indigenous communities, Benjamin said that “from a human rights perspective it was quite clear to us that the province and the federal government had really failed in their obligations to protect the health of downstream Inuit communities.”
He said that the premier’s emergency meeting with Indigenous leaders last October in the midst of an occupation of the Muskrat Falls site led by Innu and Inuit land protectors marked “an implicit acknowledgement…that in fact [the government] needed that reminder, that wake-up call from the grassroots, in order to bring them back to their obligations.”
Behrens said if Jones is “really concerned she needs to go back to the Trudeau Government, her boss in the Liberal Party, and say we’ve got to pull out the loan guarantee. The billions that the federal government put up to backstop this project should not be there if, A, we respect Indigenous rights, and B, if we’re committed to cutting down on emissions when it comes to climate change, and C, if we are committed to not poisoning another generation of Indigenous people the same way that we did at Grassy Narrows.”
Hunter is due back in court Friday in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
With files from Hans Rollmann.