Inuk grandmother and land protector confronts premier as Nalcor delays plans to lower Muskrat Falls reservoir levels contrary to leaders’ agreement.
Beatrice Hunter, the Inuk grandmother and land protector who was recently jailed for 11 days after refusing to promise a judge she would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site, is calling out Premier Dwight Ball and Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders after Nalcor Energy announced it would not be lowering water levels in the hydro project’s reservoir as per an agreement reached between Ball and Innu and Inuit leaders at the height of last fall’s protests in Labrador.
On Monday Nalcor quietly announced that the crown corporation would not be following the provincial government’s order to lower water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir by spring, contravening one of the terms of the agreement reached between Ball and Indigenous leaders amid an ongoing Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls site in late October.
On Tuesday, just four days after being released from custody after vowing not to protest at the project’s main entrance, but instead in a designated protest area across the highway from the site, Hunter confronted Ball at an annual resource development conference in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Livestreaming the conversation on Facebook, Hunter asked the premier about the government’s progress on mitigating projected methylmercury contamination of traditional wild food harvested and consumed by Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians living downstream of the dam.
Ball said the government was waiting on Indigenous leaders to select an independent chair for the Independent Advisory Committee (IAC).
The formation of the IAC was one of the terms agreed upon seven and a half months ago. The agreement also included a provision that water levels would be raised in the reservoir for the winter, then lowered in the spring to reduce potential for methylmercury contamination of country foods.
Nalcor’s announcement on Monday said water levels would not be lowered until mid-July following the completion of a safety boom one kilometre upstream of the dam to keep river users out of danger.
Asked why Ball permitted the contravention of a term of the leaders’ agreement, the premier’s Director of Communications Michelle Cannizzaro acknowledged Nalcor’s change of plan and said the premier “remains committed to the terms that were agreed upon…regarding the health and well-being of the people of Labrador as it relates to the Muskrat Falls project.”
Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill told The Independent Tuesday that Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall informed Innu and Inuit leaders party to the agreement via a May 25 letter “about the required installation of the safety equipment on the lower Churchill River.”
The Independent reached out to Nunatsiavut Government, NunatuKavut Community Council and Innu Nation for comment Tuesday. None responded by the time of publication on Wednesday.
The Independent also asked Labrador MP Yvonne Jones for comment, as well as Memorial University researcher Trevor Bell, who participated in the methylmercury study that inspired Nunatsiavut’s Make Muskrat Right campaign and subsequently the protests that ensued in response to the projected threat to local communities’ water, food and way of life.
Neither Jones nor Bell responded to the requests for comment.
It is unclear whether the prolonged elevated water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir will pose increased risks to water, food and traditional ways of life for downstream communities via elevated methylmercury levels.
Hunter said news that the terms of the agreement are not being respected was “very upsetting, very heartbreaking.
“It’s like an open wound that Nalcor keeps picking at. It’s like this big crown corporate fist that keeps beating the people down in Labrador, and I’m praying and hoping our people will stand against it again.”
She also said she’s not surprised Indigenous leaders haven’t spoken out publicly since being informed reservoir levels would not be lowered according to the terms of the agreement.
Hunter said Jones and NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell tried to visit her while she was in prison, but that she declined to speak with them “because I probably wouldn’t be in here if [they] had done [their] job.
“I felt they had let me and all the Labrador people down.”
Though she promised to stay away from the project’s main gate, and despite the national media attention on her incarceration, Hunter told The Independent Monday that people “need to focus on our cause rather than my release because Muskrat Falls is still going, and I still believe that Muskrat Falls needs to be shut down because it’s doing more damage than good.”
“We have to think about the future, not ourselves.”
During her conversation with Dwight Ball Tuesday, Hunter asked the premier a number of pointed questions, including whether he would have charges against land protectors dropped.
Upward of 60 individuals face civil and criminal charges for participating in the protests that culminated in the premier’s decision to take extra precautions to protect locals’ health and well-being.
Ball reiterated his position that he never supported Muskrat Falls when the project was sanctioned under the previous Progressive Conservative Government, that it is a “frustrating thing” that Hunter and others face charges, and that “none of us want a premier…who would interfere with a court process.
Ball said he was “very thrilled” that Hunter was released from custody on Friday.
Hunter fired back at the premier for his comment that he was frustrated.
“How do you imagine I feel, being in prison for 11 days for peacefully protesting for my people, for my land, for my children?” she asked.
On Monday Senators Murray Sinclair and Kim Pate published a joint open letter to Ball calling on the premier to review provincial legislation in the wake of Hunter’s incarceration, CBC reported.
In the letter the senators conveyed “extreme disappointment about the unjust incarceration,” and called it a “legacy of racism and colonialism in this country.”
Sinclair was chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which released its final report in 2015 and a set of 94 calls to action compelling all levels of government to make legislative changes to ensure the rights of Indigenous Peoples are upheld.
A recent access to information request by The Independent seeking information on the Ball Government’s progress on implementing the TRC calls to action that fall under provincial jurisdiction was returned with 170 of 200 pages entirely redacted.
Provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons recently told The Independent his department is committed to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador and that they are consulting other provinces on how to respond to the TRC’s calls to action that compel justice reform, including the implementation of Aboriginal systems of justice within provincial legislation.
Documents obtained by The Independent following the Muskrat Falls occupation show Parsons directing the RCMP—on Oct. 22, immediately after the occupation began—to redeploy officers to the site “to whatever extent necessary to ‘maintain law and order, keep the peace and protect the safety of persons or property.”
Most or all of those involved in the occupation now face criminal charges for what many have described as a last-resort act of self-defence when the political and legal institutions failed to protect them and their families and communities from imminent harm.
During her Monday interview with The Independent Hunter said she hopes to see Labrador people unite against Muskrat Falls the way they did last fall.
“The people of Labrador are going to have to come together again and show Nalcor that we do not want this project, we do not want this hydro dam, we do not want any more destruction of our land,” she said.
Immediately following Hunter’s release from prison, Nalcor publicly invited Hunter to meet with representatives of the crown corporation, but Hunter said that decision will rest with land protectors and other residents of Labrador.
“I’m not going to meet with Nalcor unless the Labrador people want us to,” she said, explaining meeting with them goes “against all that I believe in.
“I’m trying to let go of everything that I feel, but it’s kind of hard to meet with somebody who’s put you in jail. I’m trying to let go of all those feelings first, too, before I decide to do that,” she continued. “I would like to know what they have to say, but it’s kind of hard to listen when the trust has been broken so badly, especially after Mud Lake got flooded.”
Hunter said despite the national attention on her incarceration and the fact she has been made a “reluctant leader” among land protectors in Labrador, she won’t “do anything without the Labrador people’s approval, because the power needs to be put back to the Labrador people because it’s not only my fight, it’s all of Labrador’s fight as well.”
She also acknowledged that the Muskrat Falls resistance is part of a bigger struggle within Indigenous communities across Canada.
“I think the bigger fight is in earning our respect in Canada, earning [respect as Aboriginal Peoples],” she said. “I think what it comes down to is, the Aboriginal Nations across Canada are going to be the ones responsible for ensuring the land is going to be preserved for future generations.”
Asked if she will stay away from the Muskrat Falls main gate as she promised in court, Hunter said “all I’m going to say to that is I’m always going to stand beside my people, no matter what.”
I’m done with people telling me muskrat can’t be shutdown, anything is possible. Labrador lives matter!!
— Beatrice Hunter (@beatlhunter) June 13, 2017
She still wants the project shut down altogether and said she thinks land protectors will eventually return to the main gate to continue their protests.
“I think once the Labrador Land Protectors starts meeting again, hopefully we can help lead our people back to where we need to, and I feel that’s going to have to be at the Muskrat Falls gate again,” she said.
“Everybody knows we’re already being poisoned by methylmercury. Everybody knows about the flood in Mud Lake. I can’t understand [when there will be] more reason to go back to the gate than now.”