Nalcor’s use of court injunctions and the government’s approval of RCMP deployment to quell resistance to Muskrat Falls are common tactics used to remove Indigenous people from their lands and facilitate resource development, says Shiri Pasternak.
While having so many police officers around may be a new experience for many in Labrador, the recent deployment of additional RCMP resources to Cartwright, Happy Valley-Goose Bay and other communities along the shipment route of transformers headed for Muskrat Falls is concerning, says a Ryerson University professor who has been following the Muskrat Falls conflict.
Shiri Pasternak, an assistant professor of criminology and author of the new book Grounded Authority: the Algonquins of Barriere Lake Against the State, says police are often sent to “pacify” Indigenous resistance to resource development projects.
RCMP are often the go-to resource when court injunctions do not work against Indigenous people who threaten corporate interests in attempting to defend their land and rights.
“You can look at the buildup of RCMP forces, I think, as a response to the failed legal tactic that’s been tried in order to clear Indigenous people from the land,” Pasternak told The Independent in a recent interview.
Pasternak said injunctions are often used in order to “clear the path for development,” that judges are “more and more willing to grant injunctions to corporations,” and that when corporations apply for injunctions provincial governments “always side with the corporation, and not with Indigenous people.”
Then, when political solutions to land disputes have not been adequately pursued and injunctions aren’t respected by locals, the RCMP are often brought in as a “sheer show of force” in an attempt to quash resistance.
Locals, including Indigenous leaders, say Nalcor Energy, the crown corporation building the dam, and the government have not adequately consulted with them on Muskrat Falls, and that they do not consent to the threats the dam poses to their health and safety.
Construction at the project site, now in its fifth year, has been met with ongoing protests, including hunger strikes, blockades and an occupation of the workers’ camp in October 2016. Nalcor has been granted four injunctions intended to keep people—most of them Innu and Inuit who say the project threatens their traditional food source, safety and way of life—away from the project site.
As a result, upward of 60 individuals, including elders, youth and an Anglican minister, are now implicated in the court system and trying to defend themselves against a government, corporation and police force they say are working together to suppress their rights as Indigenous people, and as Labradorians.
The recent temporary incarcerations of Indigenous elders and land protectors who refused to promise a Supreme Court of N.L. judge they would obey the Nalcor-initiated injunctions has prompted backlash from people across the province and country, including five Canadian senators.
In an open letter to Premier Dwight Ball last week, Senators Wanda Thomas Bernard, Lillian Dyck, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, Kim Pate and Murray Sinclair implored Ball to intervene in the matter, saying Canada is “struggling with a colonial legacy that continues to disproportionately marginalize, criminalize and deprive Indigenous Peoples of political agency,” and that in such a context “the decision to imprison Indigenous men and women for using protest to assert their right to determine how their traditional lands are used is particularly abhorrent.”
Protests were held in St. John’s, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Rigolet, Halifax and Ottawa in recent days, where people called for the release of NunatuKavut elders Jim Learning and Eldred Davis and Nunatsiavut elder Marjorie Flowers.
On Monday provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons responded to those calls, reiterating his position that “the judiciary is completely independent of the legislative and executive branches of government,” and that the government “must respect our democratic system and the rule of law and allow the process to proceed without political interference.”
Davis went 10 days without eating while in custody as his “own little way of not succumbing to the pressure,” he told The Independent in a phone interview from prison last week. In court on Monday Davis said his mind was “tested to the limits” in prison, and that he didn’t know if he could last another month in custody without eating.
“I feel I have no choice, for my sanity…my health,” Davis said, according to APTN News, as the elder reluctantly agreed to sign an undertaking limiting his ability to resist Muskrat Falls.
Flowers and Learning are now under house arrest for at least one month after refusing again to sign an undertaking promising to stay away from Muskrat Falls.
Dozens of hearings since the Indigenous-led occupation of Muskrat Falls last October have been marked by frustration. Land protectors and their families and supporters have stood by those willing to defy the court’s orders, and protested when police and judges have enforced them.
On July 21, as people in a packed Happy Valley-Goose Bay courtroom cheered on Learning, Davis and Flowers as the ‘Labrador Three’ openly refuted Justice George Murphy’s request to respect the court oder to stay away from Muskrat Falls, Murphy, who was presiding over the hearing by videoconference, reportedly showed signs of frustration and requested that adequate police resources be in place to enforce the injunctions.
Blame for the criminalization of land and water defenders has been directed at politicians, the courts and the RCMP.
According to Pasternak, who has been watching the Muskrat Falls resistance from afar, none of these parties are absolved of responsibility for Indigenous people winding up in the court system.
“There’s enough blame to go around,” she said, explaining the repetition of Indigenous people resisting resource extraction projects that threaten their land, waters, and Indigenous rights, and the subsequent use by corporations and colonial governments of legal mechanisms to quash any resistance, followed by the deployment of police as a tool to pacify remaining resisters, is a pattern seen throughout Canada’s ongoing colonial history.
Pasternak cited the 1989 Innu protests against NATO low-level flying in Labrador, the 1990 Mohawk resistance to a golf course in Kahnesatake, the Secwepemc resistance to the Sun Peaks development in 2011, and the Mi’kmaq-led anti-fracking protests at Elsipogtog in 2013 as examples of land defense efforts that resulted in the criminalization of Indigenous people trying to protect themselves, their families and communities.
“Burnt Church. Grassy Narrows. The Algonquins of Barrier Lake. Six Nations at Douglas Creek,” she continued, emphasizing the frequency with which resistance to policies and projects that threaten Indigenous land and rights are met with police force.
Canada’s federal police force in particular, she said, has a long history of violence against Indigenous Peoples, dating back to the late 19th century when the North West Mounted Police “pacified and repressed” the Métis rebellions, including the one led by Louis Riel.
“There’s case after case of these targeted arrests and incarcerations of leaders of these movements where people are simply asserting their legal [rights], both in the sense of [those affirmed by] the Supreme Court of Canada, but also in terms of their inherent Indigenous rights and jurisdiction to their traditional territory.”
Pasternak worked with Arthur Manuel, the Indigenous intellectual and political leader who passed away earlier this year. Manuel saw criminalization of Indigenous land defenders as a “form of risk mitigation,” she explained. “If you don’t want to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ rights—especially as they expand in the Supreme Court of Canada to increasingly recognize more, and more substantially, the underlying title and proprietary interests of Indigenous people—then the first thing you do is deny those rights. And the second thing you do is try to mitigate those rights.
“So criminalization is one of those tactics that, just with brute force—threats of incarceration, arrests, sentencing conditions that keep community members off their lands—you clear the path for development.”
Pasternak said the experience of Labrador Land Protector and Inuk grandmother Beatrice Hunter, who was jailed for 10 days in June after refusing to promise Murphy she would stay away from Muskrat Falls, was a case in point of the kind of fear people have when apprehended by the police.
In an interview from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, a maximum security men’s prison in St. John’s, Hunter said when she was put aboard a plane with RCMP officers and flown out of Labrador and away from her family and community, she wondered: “What if I go murdered or missing, like so many of our aboriginal women?”
“There’s such a frightening record of police brutality in Canada, and deaths of [Indigenous] inmates in prisons across Canada, that I think people are intimidated,” she said, explaining the RCMP’s recent expansion in Labrador “acts as a pacification technique to warn people of what they will face if they do assert their legal right to their lands.”
In mid-to-late July residents of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Cartwright began noticing more RCMP officers in their communities.
The increased police presence coincided with the imminent arrival of four 200-ton transformers by boat to the Cartwright port, where residents, including the town’s mayor and council, vowed last year to block that same infrastructure, which was headed for Muskrat Falls.
Unless and until Nalcor and the provincial government addressed concerns around methylmercury at Muskrat Falls, the overwhelming majority of Cartwright’s residents agreed last October that the transformers were “not welcome to come through the port of Cartwright until all vegetation and soil is removed from the reservoir area,” the town council announced on Facebook.
The protests ultimately stalled the shipment of the total of seven transformers, though the first four have now been landed and, with the protection of the RCMP, were transported by road from Cartwright to Muskrat Falls last week.
Amy Stoodley, communications director for provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons, told The Independent in a written statement that Parsons “authorized additional RCMP resources in Labrador, in accordance with with article 9.1 (a) of the Provincial Police Services Agreement,” and that he authorized them “to use the resources necessary to exercise their broad discretion in maintaining public safety.”
Asked what the cost of the additional police presence would be to the province, Stoodley said “there is no estimate available on how much this will cost.”
Residents of Labrador say the increased police presence is offensive; some say it’s an affront to their dignity and freedom. Estimates of the number of additional officers brought in from outside Labrador have ranged from 150 to 400.
RCMP spokesperson Laura Hepditch said “for operational reasons” she could not provide details on the number of officers brought in to Labrador to facilitate the transportation of Nalcor’s transformers, or on whether or not they had mobilized the RCMP’s paramilitary arm, the Emergency Response Team (ERT) — though Cartwright resident Robyn Holwell reported seeing police in “tactical gear and military style clothing.”
On July 19 Cartwright Mayor Dwight Lethbridge took to Facebook to air his frustration with the new police officers in his community, saying he finds the “excessive show of force downright insulting.”
Hepditch said the RCMP’s “primary goal throughout this move is to keep people safe and secure,” and that it is “also our job to uphold and protect the right of Canadians to peacefully and lawfully express their opinions and views while ensuring public order so that businesses and their employees can safely carry out their lawful work.”
Last fall RCMP officers arrested land protectors who blockaded the Muskrat Falls site in what they described as a desperate, last-resort effort to protect their traditional food source as Nalcor prepared to initiate the first stage of reservoir flooding. A peer-reviewed scientific study led by researchers at Harvard University projected that within a few days methylmercury levels in the water would increase in the downstream marine ecosystem, where it would bioaccumulate in wild foods and expose Inuit to unsafe levels of the neurotoxin.
Nalcor had announced that reservoir flooding could begin on Oct. 15 or shortly thereafter. After years of attempting to resolve outstanding issues with Nalcor and the government diplomatically—including participating in the environmental assessment process, signing petitions, writing letters to politicians, and holding peaceful demonstrations—land protectors began their blockade on Oct. 16. The next morning RCMP moved in and arrested nine people.
Nine months later in Cartwright, police officers are reportedly stopping, carding and questioning residents of the quiet coastal community.
Robyn Holwell told The Independent he went down to the dock one evening last week, as he often does, to “take pictures of the boats and scenery.”
He said he took photos in various spots, including a shot of three RCMP zodiacs tied up to the wharf.
“I turn around to leave and here is an RCMP officer recording my plate numbers,” he recounted. “I confronted him and asked why he was taking my plate numbers. He was vague, just said he was taking information, same reason I was taking pictures. He asked me my name, date of birth, who owned the vehicle,” Holwell continued. “I know my rights — I could have refused, but it’s just not my way to be confrontational even though I deeply resented what he was doing.”
Jeannie Ward, another Cartwright resident, said if the RCMP presence in her tiny community “wasn’t so serious it would be funny,” and that it demonstrates “what’s more important — not the people of Labrador, or our lives and culture or safety, but a terrible project that’s only hurting us.”
It’s “one thing to be proactive,” said Lethbridge. “It’s another thing to just put [in place] what seems to be a police state.”
Denise Cole, a spokesperson for the Labrador Land Protectors, says it’s “very obvious that government is bringing in police forces so they can protect [Nalcor’s] equipment and assets,” and that “they’re willing to sacrifice us in doing so.”
Cole described a conversation she had with two police officers last week.
“They were telling us they are here for public safety, and we told them our safety is being threatened — we’re at risk of being poisoned, at risk of being drowned, and we no longer feel safe in our communities because there’s a lot of outsiders here telling us that their work and their lives are more valuable than ours.”
The officers said they “can’t speak to” land protectors’ concerns with Muskrat Falls, she recounted.
“So we said, let’s be honest about why you’re here. You’re not here for public safety, you’re here for Nalcor security.”
Land protectors have reported being pulled over by police, carded, and even visited at their homes and workplaces.
Throughout the Muskrat Falls protests no land protector has been charged with a violent offence, but many say they feel they are being treated like criminals in their own land.
Cole said while she “always thought that I couldn’t feel any more ignored by my country or by the people who claim to represent me, either as an Indigenous woman, a person of this province or a person of this nation,” that changed on July 22, when two RCMP officers visited her at her home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“I don’t feel safe anymore, that this country will protect me,” she said, explaining that while the officers were “courteous and polite” she felt vulnerable and singled out.
Cole said the RCMP presence around Goose Bay and the Muskrat Falls site has triggered “shock,” “stress” and “tension” in land protectors.
She said land protectors “started noticing this energy was happening” that brought a “heaviness” to their resistance.
“All of a sudden you’re looking over your shoulder all of the time and you feel you’re being watched,” she explained. “It creates a tension more so than a fear, I think, and it creates a stress that we’re not used to having.”
In response, land protectors held a sharing circle, where they spoke openly about how the RCMP were making them feel.
“We put that energy out into the circle,” Cole recounted. “We were imagining that there’s a fire in the middle of that circle and we’re just going to put it in the fire and let it go.”
She said many land protectors realized their emotional and visceral response to the RCMP presence “triggered trauma” in them.The police officers are “human beings the same as we are, but they’re triggering trauma in people that have dealt with intergenerational trauma,” Cole explained. “We talked about the trauma that has been passed down from our parents and grandparents about authority figures, and when they come to town and they tell you what the new law is.
“We’re realizing that what’s happening with this colonial government sending in the RCMP — it’s re-triggering that old trauma [that goes] as far back as when the Moravians first came, or when the merchants first came, or when the soldiers first came — when the outsiders first came and told us what the new rule of law was and we had to obey.
“Now that we’ve seen that, we can overcome it,” Cole added, explaining the group made a collective decision to “refocus and talk intently about non-violence.”
Cole said land protectors feel the government and Nalcor have ignored their concerns, and instead of dealing with locals in good faith they’re “using the RCMP to try and trigger a reaction out of us that would lead to more arrests, that would lead to a justification of their injunction and of their actions.
“It’s like a declaration of war…and we have decided to answer their war with peaceful resistance,” she said.
Land protectors have renamed the protest area across the highway from the Muskrat Falls main gate the “peace camp,” and have begun issuing statements ahead of protests to reiterate their commitment to peaceful, non-violent resistance.
“I really admire how brave people are, because I know from listening to Beatrice too, and from watching things unfold last fall, just how much people are operating out of a place of love,” Pasternak said of the land protectors’ resistance to Muskrat Falls. “It’s so beautiful to watch the resistance unfold and see these live Facebook feeds of what’s happening there, because you can just feel the love for the land. It’s been really incredible and inspiring.”
Cole said land protectors are “getting much more creative” in their resistance.
“It’s not just boots on the ground, it’s using our own intelligence, it’s reaching out and telling our story,” she said.
“We’re learning that our story is powerful, and our tears are powerful, and our reality is powerful — that when we ask for help from the outside world, the outside world is listening and hearing us,” she added, citing the letter from the five senators as an example.
“We’re having to learn to ask for help, which is a humbling experience for all of us.”