Time is running out for the Labrador Land Protectors. As spring thaws the frozen ground, anxieties are escalating for those who live downstream from the widely-contested Muskrat Falls hydroelectric mega-project: without an independent review of the stability of the North Spur and with a final decision yet to be made made on the methylmercury mitigation recommendations put forward by the Independent Expert Advisory Committee, residents say that they are desperate for answers and solutions.
Last Monday, over 100 people gathered in Ottawa to send a message to the federal government, who have provided billions in loan guarantees to make the project happen: We’re still here, and we need support. Members and allies of the Labrador Land Protectors marched from the Human Rights Monument to Parliament Hill, where they intended to leave coloured pictures of Labradorians who currently live in fear of flooding and being poisoned on the desks of all 338 members of Parliament. Of course, they never made it that far: 15 of them were detained as soon as they stepped over a curb in front of the Parliament building, including Labrador Land Protectors Marjorie Flowers, Jim Learning and Eldred Davis, who made headlines last year when they were transferred from Labrador to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s after refusing to sign documents promising to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.
The three travelled from Labrador to Ottawa for the rally, fully aware they’d probably be arrested again. “Because,” says Flowers, “What options do we have left? No one is listening, no one is hearing what we’re saying here, as Indigenous people in Labrador, and we are running out of options. We’ve taken drastic measures to try and get our voices heard, because we haven’t been heard.”
Also detained were several members of the Ottawa chapter of the Raging Grannies— a group of senior women activists who regularly attend rallies and protests concerning human rights. They dress in loud clothing because “older women become invisible, so we’ve had to make ourselves visible, and we do that by dressing up as old ladies in silly hats,” member Bessa Whitmore says, adding that it’s also “really bad optics to rough up old ladies in silly hats.”
While that might have been true for the Raging Grannies, Flowers, as a 51 year-old Inuk woman, wasn’t so fortunate— she was the only person to be cuffed and searched by an RCMP officer, while the rest were escorted to an enclosed area by Hill security. Footage captured by the Ottawa Citizen shows Flowers with her hands against a police car and legs spread while the rest of the protesters were marched single file towards a detainment area. After being brought to the compound with the rest of the group, she was uncuffed, but says that the entire experience was “very demeaning.”
As the only dark-skinned, Indigenous woman there, Flowers can’t help but wonder if being Inuit had something to do with her arrest. “I don’t know for certain,” she says, “but I felt very singled out.” Jo Wood, a 79 year-old Raging Granny who was also detained, says that while it’s not unusual for protesters to be arrested and cuffed on the hill (it happened to her during a pipeline protest), it is unusual for one person to be treated differently, and she is very disappointed that it happened to an Indigenous woman from Labrador. Flowers was not given a reason why she was the only person cuffed and searched, but says that she intends to pursue the matter until she finds out why.
After being detained for half an hour, the group was released without any charges or fines, but were given trespassing notices and a 90-day ban from Parliament Hill.
Angus Andersen, originally from Nain, travelled to Ottawa from St. John’s to make his case to federal politicians. Andersen started the Muskrat Falls Water Bottle Campaign a year and a half ago, through which he tries to convince politicians to take a drink of water from bottles labeled “Muskrat Falls Water, %10 Methylmercury.” The 10 per cent is a symbolic number, Andersen explains, because the actual amount of methylmercury that will contaminate the water that Labradorians depend on will not be known for some time. Very rarely will politicians actually drink it, he says, but he felt that bringing the campaign and his message to Ottawa was important. Andersen raised the funds for the trip himself and was determined to make sure that prime minister Trudeau received a bottle— he wasn’t in his office, but staff assured Andersen that it would get to him.
“I’m not stopping just because I went to Ottawa,” he says. “I’m going to keep pushing with this water bottle campaign because, slowly, [the politicians] are starting to realize my message: that they have approved this project, therefore have approved poisoning Labradorians with methylmercury.”
Losing faith in politicians
He said that after some hesitation Yvonne Jones, MP for Labrador and parliamentary secretary to the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and Northern affairs, did eventually take a sip from one of his bottles. But Andersen and the Land Protectors do not believe that the gesture was sincere or that she is doing enough for the residents of her constituency. “I want to just give you assurance that we have listened today to what you have to say,” Jones said, after hearing the concerns of the Land Protectors outside of the Parliament building, shortly before they were detained. But for Flowers and the Land Protectors, that isn’t enough. “They heard us. And they’ve heard us many times before. But I feel like, once again, they’ve turned a deaf ear to it,” Flowers says. “They have done nothing to ensure that the people here in Labrador that they’re going to keep us safe and healthy. They have done nothing.”
Ossie Michelin is a freelance journalist from North West River who attended the rally to shoot footage for a documentary he’s creating about Muskrat Falls and to offer his support. He pleaded with Jones to help the people of Labrador. “You work so hard for Labradorians, and I believe in you, but I am loosing my faith in democracy,” he said to her on Parliament Hill. “You can say something. Please, just acknowledge us. This must be breaking your heart as well.”
Michelin says that Jones is in a position to help the people of Labrador—she has the ears of the prime minister and the minister of Indigenous and Northern affairs: people with the power to withhold federal financial support for the project until adequate environmental regulations are put into place. He also believes that Jones does care about the issue, because as a Labradorian, it affects her too. “But yet, to be a politician, she has to tow the party line,” he says. “And what we need right now is is a Labrador representative in Ottawa, not an Ottawa representative in Labrador. We need her public support.”
At this point, Flowers has little faith in politicians. “I am completely jaded. But I have to remain positive,” she says. “There is no time. We have to keep pressing on.”
And that’s what she and the Land Protectors intend to do, despite threats of arrest and resistance from political elites and law enforcement. Until they are satisfied that the health and safety of Labradorians will come before Nalcor profits, they say they will continue fighting.
“I think fear is gone. Fear is gone about about all of this,” Flowers says.
“If they want to take me to jail— do it. Take me to jail. If they want to fine me, do it. I’ve just had it, because I have my beliefs about this, and what is happening is wrong. What is happening is fundamentally wrong, and I know I’m on the right side of justice here. And there’s nothing they could do to take that away, absolutely nothing. I will stand, and I will protect as long as I possibly can. I have no fear about it.”