‘Things are not all right in Labrador’: Cole

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You probably know there were rallies and protests across the country in support of the Labrador Land Protectors yesterday, but it’s a good bet you don’t know exactly what they are asking for.

There are two things Denise Cole said they’d like the province to push for right away in order to reduce the risks identified by scientists: 1. remove the soil to reduce the risk of methyl mercury poisoning, and 2. cap the wetlands to prevent the spread of contaminants. 

Sure, they’d like to shut down Muskrat Falls, but, barring that, they’d really like the expert recommendations to be implemented. You know, the ones in the reports outlined in this linked story by Ashley Fitzpatrick. There’s not much time to get this done as another summer is coming, said Cole, the communications coordinator with the group. 

Government stalled on remediation efforts: Cole

“We have governments in the province that have very much stalled out because of their own internal implosion that’s happening,” Cole said. “Right now they should be focusing on the independent expert advisory committee recommendations and what they’re going to do to mitigate the risks. I mean, spring and summer is coming here so if they’re going to remove the soil as recommended then we need to start thinking what’s that going to look like. But there’s also supposed to be capping the wetlands, so there’s still a lot that needs to happen.”

I reached Cole in Labrador by telephone Monday evening, as she and others who took part in the rallies in were just wrapping up the day around a fire. 

Fifteen detained by police in Ottawa

I talked to Matthew Behrens by phone in Ottawa the hour after he and 14 others were released by police after being detained. 

“I was one of the 15 people who were detained,” Behrens said. Three of the people detained were Labrador Land Protectors Marjorie Floweres, an Inuk woman who travelled to the protest from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Eldred Davis from Goose Bay, and Jim Learning, a councillor for the NunatuKavut Community Council which represents Southern Inuit of Labrador. The others detained were allies and supporters of the group.

“We were attempting to place the pictures of the people whose lives are at risk downstream of Muskrat Falls on the desks of all 338 members of Parliament. We were prohibited from going into the House of Commons. We went as far as we could and once we stepped off the curb and onto the pavement in front of the main steps we were placed under arrest. We were taken behind the parliamentary precinct and processed and barred from being on parliament hill for 90 days,” he said.

Only the Indigenous woman handcuffed

The only individual who was handcuffed and searched was Flowers, Behrens said. “We saw a real  ugly face of racism from the RCMP who targeted an Indigenous woman to be handcuffed and arrested for doing the exact same thing a bunch of settlers were doing. We weren’t handcuffed and arrested,” he said. 

He feels Marjorie was singled out because she is an Indigenous woman. “And here’s an indigenous woman literally stepping off a sidewalk onto a pavement and walking forward and saying I’d like to come in. Doing nothing different than anybody else. She was targeted. As she said ‘I’m an Inuk woman and what am I supposed to do? My people’s culture, my people’s lives are at risk.’ And they had no respect for her,” he said. 

Rallies and protests took place in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Halifax, Winnipeg, and Ottawa as part of a coordinated effort called the Labrador Land Protectors National Day of Action Gathering. In Ottawa, Behrens said the group’s goal was to remind the federal government of the potential environmental damage the project could cause and make them re-think the federal government’s contributions to the project.  

Feds should take responsibility: Behrens

By attempting to deliver the pictures, Behrens said they wanted to show federal politicians the faces of “the folks whose lives are at risk [as a result of support] from the federal government in what is essentially an act of cultural genocide. And so we felt that we wanted the people who sit there so smugly in the House of Commons saying this is a great thing to see the children and the mothers and the sisters and the brothers and the fathers all the family who are at risk of drowning and who are at risk of methyl mercury poisoning. To actually see their faces. So far they’ve been ignored, largely by Ottawa,” Behrens said. “And we also want to put the focus on the fact that the only thing that is keeping Muskrat Falls afloat as a project is that 9.2 billion dollar investment. If you pull that out, the project comes to a standstill. And nobody in Ottawa seems willing to talk about their responsibility in this.”

When I talked to Behrens, he was at the human rights monument in Ottawa, packing up placards and getting ready to leave. 

“After people were arrested we re-gathered where we started this morning and had a de-brief where people talked about why this issue is important to them. A lot of the people here from Toronto, from Ottawa, from Guelph, and from various other parts of the province committed to doing further such action in the future, a number of them and expanding their scope. People thanked the Labrador Land Protectors for travelling 2000 km and then said ‘we’d love to continue working with you and continuing to walk this road with you,’” Behrens said.

Everything is not fine, says Cole

Later that night at the campfire in Labrador, Cole gave me a run-down of the day. 

“Everything is not fine in Labrador,” she said. “You know there’s a misconception when that deal got signed back in October 2016, that really sort of disarmed the movement, that made people feel who weren’t living here that everything had been mitigated but it certainly has not.”

She said about twenty people attended the event she was at. About 30 people came out for events in Winnipeg, led by the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition, and about 30 supporters gathered in Halifax she said.

Photo courtesy of Denise Cole

“But then you look at where they chose to gather. In Winnipeg they gathered by Manitoba Hydro, which was a big supporter of this Muskrat Falls project, but also has done many devastating hydro projects that are hurting their own people and lands up north. And then in Halifax they had it in front of Emera, which is touting this clean energy from Muskrat Falls that’s poisoning our food supply and putting us at risk and jeopardizing our culture.There’s nothing clean about any of that,” Cole said.

She said watching the livestream of events elsewhere, particularly in Ottawa, was inspiring. “How powerful was it to see so many people coming together in solidarity and to be welcomed onto the land by the Algonquin people? When you see all cultures come together to stand for the common cause, it’s always a powerful feeling. And to know that they were doing that for us. That was really humbling,” Cole said. 

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.