‘I don’t consider myself an activist… I feel responsible’: Beatrice Hunter

in Featured/Journalism/Q&A by

Beatrice Hunter is one of about fifty Labradorians who occupied Muskrat Falls in 2016. The Inuk grandmother continues to fight the resulting civil and criminal charges that were laid against her (and other land protectors) in court. In light of the recent provincial court ruling that allowed criminal charges to go ahead against Justin Brake, the former editor of The Independent who entered the Muskrat Falls site to report about the actions of the land protectors, I asked Hunter if she would talk with me. I asked her about the status of the charges she is facing, her thoughts on the charges against Justin Brake, and what the future of Labrador might look like for herself and for her children.

Hunter says that “the more the people know about the situation here in Labrador, the better.” She believes that Justin Brake’s coverage of the events changed the way the rest of the world saw the occupation and said “that’s exactly the reason why we’re not all in jail right now.”

And, she says she’s worried for the future of her people in Labrador. “I look into my granddaughter’s eyes and I do not want her, just because of  the way she lives and her way of life, to have to be sent to prison,” she said.

I talked with Hunter by phone. Here’s our conversation.

Q: Was your occupation of Muskrat Falls in 2016 the first time you were involved in activism?

I don’t consider myself an activist. It’s just that I feel responsible to try and help out my fellow Labradorians because of this hydro dam. It was the first time I’d actually spoke out. Because I grew up in an oppressive society I did not know I was conditioned to not speak out. I had only realized this when I had actually walked through the Muskrat Falls gate, that’s when I had realized how oppressed I was. It was the most freeing experience I had ever experienced in my life. I did not realize I could speak out.

Q: What are you doing now as far as speaking out? What is your focus?

My focus right now is the threat of the North Spur, since there is no independent study on it. And my way of defying the project after the flooding last year in Mud Lake when Nalcor had admitted to actually letting the gates open, which was obviously at the wrong time, I had broken my condition to stay one kilometre away from the Muskrat Falls site. And when I had said no to the judge [refusing to promise to stay more than one kilometre away from the site], he actually sent me to prison.

Q: Tell me about the experience of being in prison.

I never, ever thought that I would go to prison because I was a law-abiding citizen. I believe in keeping the peace. I believe in law and order. I’m not a violent person and I could never understand why I was sent to prison when all I was doing was saying no to this hydro dam that threatens to poison Labrador lives. I just don’t understand the legal system, and I’m glad I don’t. Because why is it that you can get away with all this reckless spending by the government, and with poisoning people, and now the threat of drowning. I’ll never understand it. And I’m glad and thankful I don’t.

But the experience was hard. It was the worst experience in my life, and I’ve been through a lot myself. I’ve been through an abusive ex-husband. I’ve been through a drug rape. This was the most horrifying experience in my life because I had no control over it. I couldn’t understand why are you sending me to prison. I haven’t done anything violent. I just couldn’t understand, and I still don’t understand today.

Q: What’s the status of the legal proceedings against you right now?

My case will probably not be resolved until late spring or early summer because there have already been land protectors that have given in to the conditions of a two-year suspended sentence and they have pled guilty. But I feel I haven’t done anything wrong because all I was doing was expressing my frustration with the provincial government, with Nalcor, and with this oppressive society, so I feel I was unjustly imprisoned.

Q: What are your thoughts on the civil and criminal charges pending against Justin Brake, The Independent’s former editor?

I’m thankful he came into the gate with us. I hope and pray he’s not sent to prison. He is also fighting for rights that were already supposed to be given to us. Why are we fighting for our own rights that are stated in the Canadian constitution?  These are rights. Why are we fighting for human rights that are supposed to be given in a democratic and free society.

I’ll always be loyal to The Independent, especially where Justin Brake came into the gate with us. If he wasn’t there, the truth wouldn’t have come out. There was the first day we occupied and CBC had published on their news that there was high tension between us and the workers inside the Muskrat Falls gate. I had to do a live stream video showing there was no tension just to quash their claims, so that misinformation wouldn’t get out. That’s exactly the reason why we’re not all in jail right now.

I’m hoping at the end of this legal battle that we will get the independent study on the North Spur and we will try to alleviate some of the mercury poisoning threat. This is Canada. It’s one of the most powerful nations in the world.

Q: I want to ask you about the future of where you live, your home, Labrador.  Do you need big projects to ensure a future for your children and your grandchildren there?

I had just posted on my Facebook this morning, I believe we need development in order for people to work. But aren’t we intelligent enough to manage it in a more environmentally friendly way? We’re the most intelligent species on the planet and we can’t manage it better? Can we spend money that won’t make the province poor, that won’t make people poorer than they already are since the recession five years ago? Aren’t we intelligent enough? I’ll never understand. I think that it’s greed that has taken over since the recession.

Q: How are members of your family and your community thinking about the future and building a future for themselves in Labrador?

I don’t know if there’s a future. I don’t know. We don’t have control over Labrador. How can there be a future? Because already my oldest son has gone to Alberta for work. When we have this mega project here in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, he has to go to Alberta for work. And my first grandchild will soon follow. I’ve already heard people who’ve left the province because they don’t want to pay this expensive hydro bill. Aren’t we being treated like economic refugees because we don’t want to pay the costs of this hydro dam that the provincial government has forced upon us? And now there’s federal loan guarantees to finish the project. I feel they’re forcing us to leave. I love Labrador, but sometimes I wonder, am I going to be able to live here when those hydro bills triple?

Q: How are you coping with all that? Who are you talking to about it and who are your supporters?

My strongest supporters are of course my family and my children. I’m also glad and thankful that I went through the gate with my son because I can bounce issues and anything off him and he understands the situation. I also have [Innu elder] Dave Nuke and Sharon Gear, who had also occupied with me and went through the Muskrat Falls gate. I am currently trying to set up an informal get together with all the gate crashers because we had grown very close in those four and a half days we were together.

It was the first time I had seen all races work together, the people I had occupied with. I had seen settler, I had seen Innu, I had seen Inuit work together. And I had wanted that back so bad again. I had never seen that in Labrador in my life. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Settler, Innu, Inuit: we all had respect for each other. And I wanted it back again, I wanted it. It was like I craved for it and I still crave for it.

Because not everything is left on your shoulders. Like we’re actually working together. And I know oppressors, like Nalcor, want you to feel alone, they want you to give in.

Q: Decolonization: it’s a word we’re all hearing. What do you think of that word in this situation?

I think it’s a very important word. But I don’t think it’s Indigenous people that need to learn about decolonization. I think it’s the settlers in Canada that need to educate themselves about decolonization. They have to realize that the legal constructs, any construct whatsoever, any system, have been built and maintained by settlers. First Nations are sovereign nations in Canada, and why aren’t any First Nations involved in any process, in any government, in any system whatsoever? I can’t help but think that settlers want to keep control and power because it benefits the settler. It doesn’t benefit First Nations. We’re never given the opportunity to take part in any real change for the better because we’re always left out.

You hear all the time First Nations struggle with clean water. You hear about First Nations children being taken away. And it’s very frustrating. I don’t want to see my people struggle anymore. And why should we have to struggle when we have all these developments in Labrador?

Q: If settlers were to suddenly say okay we’re ready to try and decolonize our approach to Muskrat Falls, what might they do?

I would strongly suggest that they involve the gate crashers in any of the discussions about Muskrat Falls. It will take everybody speaking out. It will take all of us to solve this situation. It won’t just take the provincial government to solve this situation, it would take all of us, all of us partaking. Because I was very disappointed when Memorial University had the symposium in Happy Valley-Goose Bay a couple of weeks ago and none of the Mud Lake flood victims or the hunger strikers or the gate crashers were formally invited and I couldn’t understand that.

Why would you not include all these important voices in this symposium to solve this problem? I just couldn’t understand because there’s so many people being left out of the conversation when this is a big problem, a humungous problem. I can’t help but think, okay, they want to keep control, they want to keep power, they want to leave these people out of the conversation.

Q: This is question I ask a lot of people: What keeps you awake at night?

It’s the North Spur that keeps me awake at night. Even though there’s political issues in Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s just the North Spur that keeps me up at night because I don’t think that anybody can have control over that natural part of the dam, especially when it’s built on quick clay. I used to be able to sleep, but now I’m awake at 4 or 5 a.m. wondering if anything happened, if the North Spur broke.

I hope and pray every day that the North Spur holds. I’m trying not to get upset. It weighs on your mind every day and I miss the peace I had before Muskrat Falls. Because all I had to worry about before was the day to day things that everyday life brought you. But with the threat of the North Spur and the methyl mercury poisoning, it seems like the weight has gotten heavier. You try your best to focus on the positive. It now takes work for me to relax. It now takes work for me to focus. It now takes work to try and be happy.

All I’m trying to do is ensure that my family is safe. I had challenged the legal system because I was trying to protect my son, who was trying to do the right thing. Since I was sent to prison, everybody has turned this into a political issue when it’s what I think is the right thing to do. To protect your son, to protect your family from drowning. It’s just the right thing to do. Isn’t this the provincial government’s responsibility? To ensure that residents are safe? I look into my granddaughter’s eyes and I do not want her to, just because of  the way she lives and her way of life, to have to be sent to prison.

Photo by John Graham, Labrador.

Michelle Porter is the lead editor for The Independent. She holds a BA in Journalism, an MA in Folklore and a PhD in Geography. She is the recipient of 2005 Atlantic Journalism Award for feature writing and the recipient of 2016 NL Arts and Letters award for poetry. She has been long-listed for CBC Poetry prize in 2016 and 2017.