Melissa Best, leader of the remote community of Mud Lake, which sits along the banks of the Churchill River about 30 kilometres downstream of the controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Central Labrador, was arrested Friday evening alongside the Trans Labrador Highway outside the project’s main gate.
Randi Linstead, Best’s 27-year-old daughter, told The Independent moments after the arrest that her mother had joined a small protest in the Labrador Land Protectors’ Peace Camp across the highway from the main gate as the group gathered in anticipation of the arrival of the final transformer shipment from Cartwright.
With reportedly seven land protectors present in the designated protest area across the highway from the project’s main gate, and an estimated 15-20 RCMP officers guarding the main gate, Best, who become a vocal anti-Muskrat Falls critic after her community was flooded and its residents evacuated on May 17, reportedly crossed the highway to ask police for a copy of a Nalcor-initiated court injunction that outlined restrictions on where individuals could or could not stand near the project site.
Linstead said her mother, a 47-year-old Metis grandmother originally from Cartwright, crossed the highway to make her request; she then crossed the highway back to the Peace Camp.
A short time later, Linstead recounted, “an RCMP truck showed up with two uniformed officers, and then two more showed up, and then [Best] walked over and they handed her the second injunction that she requested, and then she walked down the [highway] back towards Goose Bay on the Muskrat Falls side of the road about 200 metres away from the gate.
That was when Linstead said she heard her mother yell out, ‘They’re taking me!'”
“I ran down to her and they had her in handcuffs.”
Linstead told The Independent her mother was arrested by Sheriff’s Officers who were supported by RCMP officers, and that she learned her mother will appear in Supreme Court at 11:30 a.m. Saturday morning. She says her mother is being held at the RCMP lockup in Happy Valley, but the RCMP did not confirm Best’s whereabouts by the time of publication.
“It puts the fear of God in us”
Linstead said her mother joined the protest Friday because “she wanted to show her support and solidarity with the land protectors” as Nalcor’s final transformer arrived.
Kim Campbell-McLean, an Inuk land protector from North West River who, along with dozens of others in Labrador, faces charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests, was present at the Peace Camp when Best was arrested.
She said the transformers have been a focal point for land protectors “because without the transformers the project can’t go ahead.
“So knowing the transformers are making their way to their final resting place, it puts the fear of God in us that that’s what [Nalcor] needs to finish this project, which means potential drowning deaths, communities wiped out. So it’s because we fear it so badly is why we’re here — we just need to see it.”
Last fall the Cartwright town council voted to block the transformers if Nalcor or any of the crown corporation’s contractors tried to land the equipment by boat at the town’s port.
But the town recently changed its tune, allowing NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) to enter negotiations with Nalcor on its behalf in an effort to get future benefits for the community of 300.
NCC President Todd Russell has not granted The Independent an interview on the matter despite multiple requests in recent weeks.
Mud Lake victims say government relief inadequate
The May 17 flooding of Mud Lake left many homes damaged, and some uninhabitable, in the community of 50-60 people.
After an emergency evacuation in the early morning hours of May 17, residents were housed at the Canadian Forces Base in Goose Bay, while others stayed with family and friends in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Nalcor initially denied responsibility for the flooding, but later changed its tune and acknowledged a possibility the Muskrat Falls facilities may have caused what locals, including elders with a deep knowledge of the Churchill River and its behaviour, called unprecedented water level rise.
In June, Mud Lake residents announced they were planning to launch a class action lawsuit against the crown corporation.
The government has since announced it will allocate $2.96 million in disaster relief for those affected, but many in the community, including Best, have said the amount won’t help cover the cost of the damage caused by the flood.
In a Facebook post on Aug. 23, Best called the provincial government’s handling of the house assessments in Mud Lake a “joke” and said she is still working to prove her residency in the community.
“14-15 weeks later…did the government really not have enough time to sort through their paper work?” she wrote, adding Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper had not responded to requests to speak with Best.
Best said some residents now “fear living in Mud Lake” but don’t have the resources to move and are “being forced to stay” because government legislation related to relocation requires that 90 percent of a community’s residents must vote in favour of a full community relocation.
“In a community of 50 people, that would be 47 people wanting to leave. That’s quite ridiculous,” she wrote.
Linstead said people in Mud Lake are saying government relief “may be enough to fix their foundation, may be enough to fix their wiring,” and that they’re concerned they won’t be able to fully repair their homes.
She called the government assessments unfair and said not all residents have received their assessments.
“Today, she actually helped my aunt and uncle with some more paperwork because the government is still not convinced they reside in Mud Lake,” Linstead said of her mother. “She had to help them prove that they are residents of Mud Lake, because they still are up in the barracks on base.”
Best herself is fearful that the dam is not stable. She has joined many others in Labrador and across the province in calling for an independent study of the North Spur, which Nalcor is using as a “natural dam” as part of the Muskrat Falls project.
Innu elders and others with local knowledge have cautioned the Spur is unstable. Independent experts, including world renowned engineers, have warned Nalcor and the government that the studies that have been conducted to determine the nature of the geographical structure and ways to stabilize it fail to consider important variables about the marine clay that sits underneath vast areas of the riverbanks.
“Mom actually said, minutes before she was arrested, that she goes to bed every night praying to God that she don’t wake up with her ankles in water,” said Linsteead. “When she wakes up and there isn’t water, she thanks God every day, because it is a matter of time, and May 17 was proof of that.”