Embattled hydro megaproject is a test of the federal government’s commitment to reconciliation and internationally recognized rights of Indigenous peoples, say organizers.
As resistance to Muskrat Falls continues in this province, an opposition movement against the embattled project is also steadily growing far from Central Labrador, in places like Ottawa and Toronto.
In recent months, members of the Ottawa Muskrat Solidarity Committee have united with project opponents in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario, growing the network on a provincial scale. Many are Newfoundlanders and Labradorians living, studying or working away. They’ve found support among other Indigenous activist networks. Some are veterans of the Innu struggles against low-level military flying in Labrador in the 1990s, while others are Indigenous organizers engaged in land and water struggles elsewhere in Canada, like Site C and Grassy Narrows.
They’re united by a shared concern about the future of Indigenous communities and cultural practices in Labrador if Muskrat Falls goes ahead, and by a growing conviction that Muskrat Falls is a serious violation of internationally recognized Indigenous rights that the federal government needs to intervene and stop. It’s a clear test, they stressed during events in Toronto earlier this week, of the Trudeau Government’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada.
On Sunday evening, an awareness-raising forum was held at the Canadian Friends Service Committee House, and the following day a rally and march were held outside the office of federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett.
About 60 participants and local media attended the Sunday evening forum.
On Monday morning, about two dozen people gathered near Yonge and Eglinton with placards and banners opposing Muskrat Falls. They marched along Yonge, one of Toronto’s busiest streets, handing out pamphlets and speaking with passers-by. When the marchers arrived at Bennett’s office, they entered and demanded a meeting with the minister.
Bennett was in Ottawa, but after occupying the office for about an hour protesters were connected with one of Bennett’s senior policy advisors who had a discussion with them by phone about their concerns. The advisor committed to letting them know by Wednesday whether a meeting with Bennett will happen.
In May 2016, as minister of then-Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Bennett announced to the United Nations that Canada would fully comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) “without qualification.” The announcement marked significant progress after the Harper Government had resisted recognizing Indigenous peoples’ rights until virtually every other country in the world had signed on to the declaration.
Earlier this year APTN revealed documents questioning the federal government’s commitment to implementing the important international treaty, however. Last month Trudeau delivered a speech at the U.N. acknowledging Canada’s poor record on Indigenous rights and committed to change.
Indigenous organizers, however, say they’re still waiting to see signs of action from the federal government. They want to see the Trudeau administration prove its commitment by intervening on Muskrat Falls.
They’re not the only ones. Last month Stephen Marche, writing for the New Yorker, an American publication that reaches millions of readers in the U.S. and internationally each month, said the continuation of Muskrat Falls was evidence the Canadian government is not serious about reconciliation.
“To me, Muskrat Falls re-created the whole of the Canadian colonial project, with all of its evils, in miniature,” Marche wrote. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report of 2015 described Canadian colonization as a conquest with two major thrusts: the starvation of indigenous groups, and the attempt to erase indigenous languages and religious practices. In Muskrat Falls, it was happening all over again—disrupting food and culture.”
Kelly Morrissey is an Inuk land protector and social worker from Labrador currently based in Ottawa. She’s helped to build what began as the Ottawa Muskrat Solidarity Committee and is now growing into an Ontario-wide network. Morrissey, like other organizers, emphasized that the federal Liberals have an obligation to intervene in Muskrat Falls because of their stated commitment to supporting Indigenous rights.
“I’m here to implore MP Carolyn Bennett to speak up and to actually do something instead of sitting idly by while the Muskrat Falls megaproject continues to threaten the [people] of Labrador, both Indigenous and settler alike,” she said at Monday’s action.
Morrissey said that despite the serious dangers Muskrat Falls poses, resisting the project has been a key factor in unifying groups in the area.
“There’s three Indigenous groups in the Upper Lake Melville region and we saw them all come together—as well as settlers—in order to face the issues surrounding the Muskrat Falls mega dam project. It’s really a wonderful thing to see, and it is continuing.”
Morrissey encouraged people to reach out to their members of parliament to encourage them to speak out against Muskrat Falls and tell them the project is wrong.
“It is important that we talk to Carolyn Bennett today because she is the Indigenous minister and she needs to know that this isn’t going away, that this still needs to be addressed, and that she’s on the hook for it.”
Matthew Behrens, also based in Ottawa, got involved with the Ottawa Muskrat Solidarity Committee after watching the occupation of the workers’ camp and the hunger strikes by land protectors last year.
“I was very much inspired by those courageous actions,” he said.
Behrens says that 20 years ago there were strong solidarity networks built up across the country to support the Innu who were protesting the military air base in Labrador at that time. He said many of those networks are now being reactivated to support the renewed struggle against colonialism in Labrador.
“It’s important because Labrador is a part of this land which nobody really thinks about. It’s always the ‘and Labrador’, and I don’t think people really understand that we have a part of a province that’s being treated like colonial Guatemala. It’s there for the mining, it’s there for the resources, and Indigenous people and settlers who live there be damned. When people see it that way, I think it makes it easier for them to understand [that] it’s part of this web of colonial violence.”
Behrens said their group has had meetings with officials in the Ministry of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, in which land protectors in Labrador have participated by phone. But he says the response has not been encouraging.
He called the federal government a “$9.3 billion dollar player” in Muksrat Falls, adding they’re also “downplaying their responsibility. They say, ‘We only have one seat at the table.’ Well, you’ve got the biggest seat at the table and when you pull your seat away from that table, the table falls. But they’re not willing to actually use any of that leverage to put pressure on Nalcor and Premier Ball and the other players locally to actually stop the project, or at least put a pause on it until there is a truly independent study on the North Spur.”
Erica Violet Lee is a Cree organizer with Idle No More originally from Saskatchewan and currently studying at the University of Toronto.
“I’m here tonight to support folks who are doing on the ground struggle to support the fight for Muskrat Falls and the preservation of this land, recognizing that we’re facing similar struggles all across this land,” she said at the Sunday forum.
Lee’s work has taken her abroad and she says this helped provide an important perspective on local struggles.
“I got to meet Indigenous folks from all around the world, and whether they’re in the Amazon or New Zealand or Labrador or Saskatchewan, we’re facing similar struggles that are ultimately rooted in colonization, and fighting back against it for our right to a better life.”
Lee said she’s “really inspired by the actions of land defenders on the ground who are fighting to save their land and their right to life in Muskrat Falls and in Labrador.
“I think that a lot of us could learn a lot from the folks who are doing direct actions, and it’s a shame that it’s considered a crime to want clean water and land that gives us food, and to stay on our traditional lands.”
Lee said her message to land protectors in Labrador was one of solidarity and persistence.
“I think that this is one of those times in history where we’ll look back in 50 years and say, ‘I can’t believe we had to fight that, and I can’t believe that was illegal to fight for the water.’ So just know that there are laws that are more sacred than the laws of Canada.”
Organizers all drew attention to the federal Liberals’ espoused commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. According to Morrissey, the Liberals have fallen far short of their promises.
“It’s kind of the same as when you’re in a relationship and you’re trying to describe how you know that somebody loves you,” she said. “It’s not through words, it’s through actions. And I can very succinctly say that the Trudeau government is talking out of both sides of their mouth. They’ve been very clear with those who are in protector roles that their very first priority is implementing UNDRIP and I don’t know how [Muskrat Falls] fits into that. This is reconciliation with a ‘w-r’, they’re wrecking Canada’s north, and they are absolutely an assault on Indigenous rights in Canada.”
Behrens said reconciliation has been furthered more by the resistance against Muskrat Falls than by the federal government.
“The real reconciliation is the kind of thing that we see with the land protectors,” he said. “When the land protectors occupied the Muskrat site with settlers together, you had different Indigenous nations and settlers and workers themselves from Nalcor all sharing space together, breaking bread together, sleeping on the floor together. That’s reconciliation, because it’s everybody recognizing that we have a common interest in what is going on, not only in Muskrat Falls but in Site C and in all of these other places across the land. And during that week there was such an amazing connection. That’s what real reconciliation is about because real reconciliation depends on the truth. The reconciliation of the Trudeau Government is like a Hallmark card.”
“This project has to be stopped,” Behrens says. “We’re beyond the point where harm has begun. We’re not talking about the introduction of methylmercury, we’re talking about mitigation of methylmercury. The poison has started going in. How much will we allow to accumulate?”
Behrens says that like in any relationship, consent is an ongoing process. He says that obtaining full free, prior and informed consent means ensuring residents and communities on the ground retain the right to say no to a project when it crosses lines they’re uncomfortable with. He says that until further discussions and consultations are held, the project needs to be suspended.
“If you see a train going off a cliff, you don’t do another study on it, you put the brakes on the train,” he said.
“It’s not a question of how much you’ve invested now — you just have to let that go. There’s going to be amazing future costs that are still associated with this project, whether you stop it or not. So it’s better to stop it now, and you can at least mitigate those costs. Financial costs we can deal with…but you can’t deal with a poisoned food web. That’s different. You can’t deal with a community that’s been flooded and traumatized because 300 people were drowned in their sleep.
“Those of us who are not Indigenous I think are once again called to consider what we are willing to do. Are we willing to engage in civil resistance? Because it’s not civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the breaking of an unjust law. When you go and blockade a building in support of Muskrat Falls, that’s actually civil obedience. You are acting in concert with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and it is the government which is acting in contravention of treaty after treaty, of agreement after agreement.”