Putting a human face on the risks at Muskrat Falls: Behrens

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Supporters of the Labrador Land Protectors were met by police and a locked door when they gathered outside Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKennas office in Ottawa on May 28, said Matthew Behrens, spokesperson for the Ontario-Muskrat Solidarity Coalition.

There were about eight police officers and 15 protestors at the demonstration, Behrens said.

The demonstrators, some of whom were constituents of McKennas riding, were there to voice their concerns over the Muskrat Falls megadam project.

They had planned to present McKenna with bottles of water labeled “10% methylmercury” and pictures of Labradorians who live downstream from the project who are at risk of flooding and water contamination.

Although the protestors arrived during regular hours and the lights were on at McKenna’s constituency office on Catherine Street in Ottawa, it appeared nobody was home.

 “They knew we were coming,” said spokesperson Matthew Behrens during a phone call while at the Parliament Hill office. “They called the police and the RCMP because they were afraid of an outbreak of democracy,” he said.

Eventually, the group was told that it was a training day for McKenna and her staff.

In addition to bottles of Muskrat Falls water and pictures of Labradorian families, they brought with them a copy of the Minamata Convention, a legally binding United Nations Environment Programme treaty, that McKenna signed on behalf of Canada last April. The treaty is named for a town in Japan, where 600 people were killed by methylmercury poisoning from industrial wastewater in the 1950s and mercury poisoning is often referred to as “Minamata disease.” The treaty was created to limit the amount of mercury and mercury compounds released into the environment as a result of industrial activities, in order to protect ecological and human health. In ratifying the treaty, the federal government stressed its commitment to the protection of Indigenous peoples, who it says are “being exposed to elevated levels of mercury that are among the highest in the world through the consumption of their traditional foods.” Because methyl-mercury bioaccumulates in predators, it remains in ecosystems and communities for generations.

An investigative report by The Star released last week highlights the devastating long-term effects of mercury poisoning in the Indigenous community of Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario. For Labradorians, its a stark reminder of the dangers that they would face after the dam is flooded, causing an unknown amount of methylmercury to enter their water supply, and subsequently the country foods that they depend on for sustenance. Although the Independent Expert Advisory Committee released a report last month on how to best mitigate the toxic chemical, the provincial government has not yet made a final decision on an action plan.

Behrens says that hes “profoundly disappointed” that they were unable to meet with the minister, but that the group is determined to hold McKenna and the federal government (that has approved 7.9 billion dollars in loan guarantees) accountable for their actions, which the group says violates the international treaty. “This is a government that ran a campaign on evidence-based decision making, on a belief in science, on respectful nation to nation relationships with Indigenous peoples, transparency, and on accountability,” he says. “And on every single one of those levels, theyre failing people downstream of Muskrat Falls.”

This is the third demonstration this month organized by the Ontario-Muskrat Solidarity Coalition. On May 6, 15 people, including three Labrador Land Protectors, were detained during a rally at Parliament Hill, after trying to enter the House of Commons to place pictures of the people living downstream of the dam on the desks of MPs. Last Thursday, they were at Emeras annual general meeting in Toronto to share those pictures, as well as information on methylmercury poisoning with shareholders. There, Behrens says, they placed the photos on the floor, telling the shareholders that if they want to make a profit poisoning people, theyll have to symbolically walk over the lives of real people, something nobody seemed willing to do.

Although security asked the group to remove the pictures, they were unwilling to do it themselves.

 “Theres a real power to putting a human face on what is otherwise this very nameless and faceless bureaucracy of genocide,” Behrens said. “I think theres something that really scares politicians when they see them. They want to be separated and insulated from the human impact and human suffering of their policy decisions.”

When it became clear that nobody would be emerging from McKennas constituency office to speak with them, the allies began taping pictures of Labradorians, along with factsheets about methylmercury, to its windows and doors—some facing the street and some facing inwards, so that the faces would be visible from inside the office. When Behrens returned five hours after the demonstration, the pictures were left untouched.

Photos courtesy of Matthew Behrens

As the federal government continues its involvement in controversial mega-projects, such its announcement in late May that it will purchase the Kinder-Morgan Trans-Mountain pipeline and expansion (which has already caused a spill and is expected to run into Neskonlith First Nation traditional territory), it’s likely that we can expect to see more demonstrations like this one in Ottawa and across the country.

Stacey Seward is a freelance writer who splits her time between her hometown of St. John’s and Halifax. She is a fourth year student working towards a bachelor of journalism degree (honours) with a combined honours in political science at the University of King’s College and Dalhousie.