A community leader in Labrador who was arrested last Friday for allegedly breaching an injunction initiated by Nalcor Energy says she confronted Muskrat Falls security and police with the intention of being heard.
Melissa Best, chair of the Mud Lake improvement committee, told The Independent she breached an injunction stating individuals cannot enter the Muskrat Falls site when she crossed the Trans Labrador Highway from the land protectors’ Peace Camp to the main gate.
She said she wanted to obtain a copy of an injunction that was posted on the outside of the gate, which she said was only legible by approaching the gate, which required breaking the injunction.
Best told The Independent the gate was closed when she first approached it, but that once security opened it she “went inside and asked the security for a copy of the injunction.”
“In my mind I wondered, would they arrest me?” she said. “I didn’t think they would, because they already gave me the ultimate penalty by flooding my community.”
She said “within minutes” of her crossing the road “the RCMP started showing up,” and that she counted at least 16 officers.
“May 17 came flooding back again, and I said to them, who are you here to protect? And they wouldn’t answer me,” she recounted, referring to the flood last spring that resulted in an emergency evacuation of her riverside community and left some homeless, pending government assistance and housing repairs.
“I said, I’ll find out who you’re here to protect — and they said, ma’am, don’t do that, and I just kept going,” she continued, explaining she crossed the highway a second time.
Best said she walked along the shoulder of the north side of the highway confronting police officers and asking them to arrest her. She also asked them what they would do in her situation.
She said Nalcor and the provincial government have not adequately responded to the Mud Lake flood, explaining the event has caused significant anxiety in the community of 60 people and has even forced some with deep family ties there to consider whether it’s safe to continue living downstream of Muskrat Falls at all.
Several RCMP officers refused to arrest Best, she said. Then she encountered one who told her, “Just wait right there, you’re going to get your wish,” she recalled.
“I didn’t think they would [arrest me], because they already gave me the ultimate penalty by flooding my community.”
Moments later Sheriff’s Officers showed up and arrested her, Best said, adding she recognized one as an individual who had helped with a Mud Lake relief fundraising effort.
Best said she thought to herself at that moment: “This is not us against the RCMP. This is not us against the Sheriff’s Office. This is us against Nalcor.”
Nalcor has pursued charges against dozens of people, most of them Inuit and Innu, who have resisted Muskrat Falls and said the project threatens their traditional food supply, their way of life, and their families’ and communities’ safety.
Best, a member of NunatuKavut originally from Cartwright, was held in custody overnight Friday and appeared before a judge Saturday morning. She signed an undertaking agreeing to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site, with the exception of the Peace Camp across the highway from the main gate.
“I’m kicking myself for signing the undertaking because I could have made a stronger stand if I didn’t,” she told The Independent, but said she was forced to choose between one health risk and another.
Best lives with two autoimmune diseases, lupus and fibromyalgia, and said being put in jail would have made her more susceptible to serious illness. On the other hand, she said, the stress from living downstream is affecting the health of her and other Mud Lake residents, and a dam breach could potentially claim the lives of people in her community.
Government assistance to Mud Lake residents “a joke”
Best said on Friday she and others were at the Peace Camp to watch the final of several transformers arrive at the Muskrat Falls site via Cartwright.
She said the transformers represent the “final doom…because it is inevitable [that] once this dam is complete, Mud Lake will be no more.”
She said she’s disappointed that the Town of Cartwright and NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) changed their position on the transformers. Last fall NCC President Todd Russell and Cartwright Mayor Dwight Lethbridge vowed their people would block the transformers if Nalcor or its contractors tried to land the supplies at the Cartwright or other NCC ports en route to Muskrat Falls.
Best said once the project is complete and the reservoir flooded, she believes the North Spur, a peninsula on the Churchill River that Nalcor will use as a “natural dam” as part of the Muskrat Falls facilities, may not hold.
“What if the North Spur let go when [the reservoir is] at its maximum capacity?” she said. “Or what if they had to let the water go, or the dam breaks?”
In the early morning hours of May 17, 2017 water levels in the Lower Churchill River rose quickly, flooding most homes in the remote community of Mud Lake, which sits downstream of Muskrat Falls. Photo: Melissa Best / Facebook.
Best said on May 17 Mud Lake residents “had enough time to watch the water rise and then get out” of their homes. “What happens if we have 18-plus meters of water coming down? We have no time, and the Lower Valley is gone.”
Since May 17 Nalcor has changed its tune on the potential cause of of the flood. The crown corporation initially denied any responsibility, but after significant public backlash acknowledged the Muskrat Falls facilities may have contributed to what locals described as unprecedented water level rise.
The following week Premier Dwight Ball announced the government was accepting applications for potential compensation from homeowners whose houses were damaged by the floodwaters, and that the government would hire an independent consultant to investigate the cause of the flood.
Days later Mud Lake residents announced they were preparing to launch a class action lawsuit against Nalcor for the flooding of their community.
“What happens if we have 18-plus meters of water coming down? We have no time, and the Lower Valley is gone.”
Best said that she hasn’t yet signed on to the lawsuit because as community leader she’s not making a decision until she knows the results of the investigation, though she said she’s “99 percent certain” Muskrat Falls is to blame for the flooding.
“Until the independent study comes out I’m remaining on the fence, because when it comes out I will know then that Nalcor is at fault and has no choice but to pay out of their ears, without [us] having to sue them,” she said.
In July Uncle Gnarley blogger Des Sullivan published a leaked letter that appears to be written by an employee of Barnard Pennecon, the subcontractor responsible for constructing the dam, to a Muskrat Falls Corporation project manager.
The letter states that a blockade of part of the Muskrat Falls site by land protectors was due to Barnard Pennecon’s “release of water or failure to properly manage the downstream flows which resulted in the flooding of the Mud Lake community.”
The company, responding to the letter’s publication, told media the letter “[does] not represent an official company statement, and [does] not accurately reflect BPLP’s position on the project.”
A Barnard Pennecon spokesperson refused to elaborate on the comment when questioned by The Independent.
Earlier this month the province announced it had set aside $2.96 million for victims of the flooding.
Best called the money the government has already offered some residents “ridiculous,” and “a joke.”
“I’ve been arguing and fighting and begging and pleading with them to give my people their assessments,” she said, explaining many are still awaiting the results of the government’s dollar value estimates of the damage done to their properties.
“My residents have the right to know what damage is done to their properties so they can make a conscious choice about what their next step is going to be.”
“Guarantee us that it will hold”
Best said the government should heed the calls of land protectors, experts who have chimed in on the matter, opposition parties and others who have joined the call for an investigation into the North Spur.
“Get the North Spur checked and guarantee us that it will hold,” she said. “Guarantee us that this is the safest thing.”
She said prior to the Mud Lake flood she hadn’t followed the warnings of hydro engineers and others not associated with the Muskrat Falls project, and that she “had faith in [Nalcor] and faith in the Gilbert Bennetts of the world that this was not going to happen.”
Bennett is the Vice-President of Nalcor Energy in charge of the Muskrat Falls project. Over the past few years he has repeatedly assured locals that the project is safe and does not pose a significant threat to their health or well-being.
“Ideally, they would stop the project all together,” said Best, explaining that she no longer has confidence a dam can be built that would not put her community at risk. “We don’t have a big river, but she’s a mighty river. We’ve always said that — she can be nasty.
“Churchill Falls already done some damage and we were able to live with that, but this time I don’t think we can.”
At the very least, she wants the project shut down “until they secure the North Spur, and until Nalcor can “prove to us that this is not going to happen again, that this was a once in a lifetime freak accident.”
Melissa Best, leader of the remote community of Mud Lake, which sits along the banks of the Churchill River about 30 kilometres downstream of the controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Central Labrador, was arrested Friday evening alongside the Trans Labrador Highway outside the project’s main gate.
Randi Linstead, Best’s 27-year-old daughter, told The Independent moments after the arrest that her mother had joined a small protest in the Labrador Land Protectors’ Peace Camp across the highway from the main gate as the group gathered in anticipation of the arrival of the final transformer shipment from Cartwright.
With reportedly seven land protectors present in the designated protest area across the highway from the project’s main gate, and an estimated 15-20 RCMP officers guarding the main gate, Best, who become a vocal anti-Muskrat Falls critic after her community was flooded and its residents evacuated on May 17, reportedly crossed the highway to ask police for a copy of a Nalcor-initiated court injunction that outlined restrictions on where individuals could or could not stand near the project site.
Linstead said her mother, a 47-year-old Metis grandmother originally from Cartwright, crossed the highway to make her request; she then crossed the highway back to the Peace Camp.
A short time later, Linstead recounted, “an RCMP truck showed up with two uniformed officers, and then two more showed up, and then [Best] walked over and they handed her the second injunction that she requested, and then she walked down the [highway] back towards Goose Bay on the Muskrat Falls side of the road about 200 metres away from the gate.
That was when Linstead said she heard her mother yell out, ‘They’re taking me!'”
“I ran down to her and they had her in handcuffs.”
Linstead told The Independent her mother was arrested by Sheriff’s Officers who were supported by RCMP officers, and that she learned her mother will appear in Supreme Court at 11:30 a.m. Saturday morning. She says her mother is being held at the RCMP lockup in Happy Valley, but the RCMP did not confirm Best’s whereabouts by the time of publication.
“It puts the fear of God in us”
Linstead said her mother joined the protest Friday because “she wanted to show her support and solidarity with the land protectors” as Nalcor’s final transformer arrived.
Kim Campbell-McLean, an Inuk land protector from North West River who, along with dozens of others in Labrador, faces charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests, was present at the Peace Camp when Best was arrested.
She said the transformers have been a focal point for land protectors “because without the transformers the project can’t go ahead.
“So knowing the transformers are making their way to their final resting place, it puts the fear of God in us that that’s what [Nalcor] needs to finish this project, which means potential drowning deaths, communities wiped out. So it’s because we fear it so badly is why we’re here — we just need to see it.”
Last fall the Cartwright town council voted to block the transformers if Nalcor or any of the crown corporation’s contractors tried to land the equipment by boat at the town’s port.
But the town recently changed its tune, allowing NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) to enter negotiations with Nalcor on its behalf in an effort to get future benefits for the community of 300.
NCC President Todd Russell has not granted The Independent an interview on the matter despite multiple requests in recent weeks.
Mud Lake victims say government relief inadequate
The May 17 flooding of Mud Lake left many homes damaged, and some uninhabitable, in the community of 50-60 people.
After an emergency evacuation in the early morning hours of May 17, residents were housed at the Canadian Forces Base in Goose Bay, while others stayed with family and friends in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Nalcor initially denied responsibility for the flooding, but later changed its tune and acknowledged a possibility the Muskrat Falls facilities may have caused what locals, including elders with a deep knowledge of the Churchill River and its behaviour, called unprecedented water level rise.
In June, Mud Lake residents announced they were planning to launch a class action lawsuit against the crown corporation.
The government has since announced it will allocate $2.96 million in disaster relief for those affected, but many in the community, including Best, have said the amount won’t help cover the cost of the damage caused by the flood.
In a Facebook post on Aug. 23, Best called the provincial government’s handling of the house assessments in Mud Lake a “joke” and said she is still working to prove her residency in the community.
“14-15 weeks later…did the government really not have enough time to sort through their paper work?” she wrote, adding Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper had not responded to requests to speak with Best.
Land protectors showed their support for Melissa Best outside the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador courthouse in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Friday evening. Photo: Janet Cooper / Facebook.
Best said some residents now “fear living in Mud Lake” but don’t have the resources to move and are “being forced to stay” because government legislation related to relocation requires that 90 percent of a community’s residents must vote in favour of a full community relocation.
“In a community of 50 people, that would be 47 people wanting to leave. That’s quite ridiculous,” she wrote.
Linstead said people in Mud Lake are saying government relief “may be enough to fix their foundation, may be enough to fix their wiring,” and that they’re concerned they won’t be able to fully repair their homes.
She called the government assessments unfair and said not all residents have received their assessments.
“Today, she actually helped my aunt and uncle with some more paperwork because the government is still not convinced they reside in Mud Lake,” Linstead said of her mother. “She had to help them prove that they are residents of Mud Lake, because they still are up in the barracks on base.”
Best herself is fearful that the dam is not stable. She has joined many others in Labrador and across the province in calling for an independent study of the North Spur, which Nalcor is using as a “natural dam” as part of the Muskrat Falls project.
Innu elders and others with local knowledge have cautioned the Spur is unstable. Independent experts, including world renowned engineers, have warned Nalcor and the government that the studies that have been conducted to determine the nature of the geographical structure and ways to stabilize it fail to consider important variables about the marine clay that sits underneath vast areas of the riverbanks.
“Mom actually said, minutes before she was arrested, that she goes to bed every night praying to God that she don’t wake up with her ankles in water,” said Linsteead. “When she wakes up and there isn’t water, she thanks God every day, because it is a matter of time, and May 17 was proof of that.”
While having so many police officers around may be a new experience for many in Labrador, the recent deployment of additional RCMP resources to Cartwright, Happy Valley-Goose Bay and other communities along the shipment route of transformers headed for Muskrat Falls is concerning, says a Ryerson University professor who has been following the Muskrat Falls conflict.
Shiri Pasternak, an assistant professor of criminology and author of the new book Grounded Authority: the Algonquins of Barriere Lake Against the State, says police are often sent to “pacify” Indigenous resistance to resource development projects.
RCMP are often the go-to resource when court injunctions do not work against Indigenous people who threaten corporate interests in attempting to defend their land and rights.
“You can look at the buildup of RCMP forces, I think, as a response to the failed legal tactic that’s been tried in order to clear Indigenous people from the land,” Pasternak told The Independent in a recent interview.
Pasternak said injunctions are often used in order to “clear the path for development,” that judges are “more and more willing to grant injunctions to corporations,” and that when corporations apply for injunctions provincial governments “always side with the corporation, and not with Indigenous people.”
Then, when political solutions to land disputes have not been adequately pursued and injunctions aren’t respected by locals, the RCMP are often brought in as a “sheer show of force” in an attempt to quash resistance.
Locals, including Indigenous leaders, say Nalcor Energy, the crown corporation building the dam, and the government have not adequately consulted with them on Muskrat Falls, and that they do not consent to the threats the dam poses to their health and safety.
Construction at the project site, now in its fifth year, has been met with ongoing protests, including hunger strikes, blockades and an occupation of the workers’ camp in October 2016. Nalcor has been granted four injunctions intended to keep people—most of them Innu and Inuit who say the project threatens their traditional food source, safety and way of life—away from the project site.
As a result, upward of 60 individuals, including elders, youth and an Anglican minister, are now implicated in the court system and trying to defend themselves against a government, corporation and police force they say are working together to suppress their rights as Indigenous people, and as Labradorians.
The recent temporary incarcerations of Indigenous elders and land protectors who refused to promise a Supreme Court of N.L. judge they would obey the Nalcor-initiated injunctions has prompted backlash from people across the province and country, including five Canadian senators.
In an open letter to Premier Dwight Ball last week, Senators Wanda Thomas Bernard, Lillian Dyck, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, Kim Pate and Murray Sinclair implored Ball to intervene in the matter, saying Canada is “struggling with a colonial legacy that continues to disproportionately marginalize, criminalize and deprive Indigenous Peoples of political agency,” and that in such a context “the decision to imprison Indigenous men and women for using protest to assert their right to determine how their traditional lands are used is particularly abhorrent.”
“You can look at the buildup of RCMP forces, I think, as a response to the failed legal tactic that’s been tried in order to clear Indigenous people from the land,” says Shiri Pasternak. Photo: shiripasternak.com
Protests were held in St. John’s, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Rigolet, Halifax and Ottawa in recent days, where people called for the release of NunatuKavut elders Jim Learning and Eldred Davis and Nunatsiavut elder Marjorie Flowers.
On Monday provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons responded to those calls, reiterating his position that “the judiciary is completely independent of the legislative and executive branches of government,” and that the government “must respect our democratic system and the rule of law and allow the process to proceed without political interference.”
Davis went 10 days without eating while in custody as his “own little way of not succumbing to the pressure,” he told The Independent in a phone interview from prison last week. In court on Monday Davis said his mind was “tested to the limits” in prison, and that he didn’t know if he could last another month in custody without eating.
“I feel I have no choice, for my sanity…my health,” Davis said, according to APTN News, as the elder reluctantly agreed to sign an undertaking limiting his ability to resist Muskrat Falls.
Flowers and Learning are now under house arrest for at least one month after refusing again to sign an undertaking promising to stay away from Muskrat Falls.
Dozens of hearings since the Indigenous-led occupation of Muskrat Falls last October have been marked by frustration. Land protectors and their families and supporters have stood by those willing to defy the court’s orders, and protested when police and judges have enforced them.
On July 21, as people in a packed Happy Valley-Goose Bay courtroom cheered on Learning, Davis and Flowers as the ‘Labrador Three’ openly refuted Justice George Murphy’s request to respect the court oder to stay away from Muskrat Falls, Murphy, who was presiding over the hearing by videoconference, reportedly showed signs of frustration and requested that adequate police resources be in place to enforce the injunctions.
A “frightening record of police brutality in Canada”
Blame for the criminalization of land and water defenders has been directed at politicians, the courts and the RCMP.
According to Pasternak, who has been watching the Muskrat Falls resistance from afar, none of these parties are absolved of responsibility for Indigenous people winding up in the court system.
“There’s enough blame to go around,” she said, explaining the repetition of Indigenous people resisting resource extraction projects that threaten their land, waters, and Indigenous rights, and the subsequent use by corporations and colonial governments of legal mechanisms to quash any resistance, followed by the deployment of police as a tool to pacify remaining resisters, is a pattern seen throughout Canada’s ongoing colonial history.
Pasternak cited the 1989 Innu protests against NATO low-level flying in Labrador, the 1990 Mohawk resistance to a golf course in Kahnesatake, the Secwepemc resistance to the Sun Peaks development in 2011, and the Mi’kmaq-led anti-fracking protests at Elsipogtog in 2013 as examples of land defense efforts that resulted in the criminalization of Indigenous people trying to protect themselves, their families and communities.
“Burnt Church. Grassy Narrows. The Algonquins of Barrier Lake. Six Nations at Douglas Creek,” she continued, emphasizing the frequency with which resistance to policies and projects that threaten Indigenous land and rights are met with police force.
“If you don’t want to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ rights…then the first thing you do is deny those rights,” says Shiri Pasternak. “And the second thing you do is try to mitigate those rights.” Pictured above: Land protector Marjorie Flowers is arrested during a peaceful blockade outside the main entrance to the Muskrat Falls site on Oct. 16, 2016. File photo by Justin Brake.
Canada’s federal police force in particular, she said, has a long history of violence against Indigenous Peoples, dating back to the late 19th century when the North West Mounted Police “pacified and repressed” the Métis rebellions, including the one led by Louis Riel.
“There’s case after case of these targeted arrests and incarcerations of leaders of these movements where people are simply asserting their legal [rights], both in the sense of [those affirmed by] the Supreme Court of Canada, but also in terms of their inherent Indigenous rights and jurisdiction to their traditional territory.”
Pasternak worked with Arthur Manuel, the Indigenous intellectual and political leader who passed away earlier this year. Manuel saw criminalization of Indigenous land defenders as a “form of risk mitigation,” she explained. “If you don’t want to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ rights—especially as they expand in the Supreme Court of Canada to increasingly recognize more, and more substantially, the underlying title and proprietary interests of Indigenous people—then the first thing you do is deny those rights. And the second thing you do is try to mitigate those rights.
“So criminalization is one of those tactics that, just with brute force—threats of incarceration, arrests, sentencing conditions that keep community members off their lands—you clear the path for development.”
Pasternak said the experience of Labrador Land Protector and Inuk grandmother Beatrice Hunter, who was jailed for 10 days in June after refusing to promise Murphy she would stay away from Muskrat Falls, was a case in point of the kind of fear people have when apprehended by the police.
In an interview from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, a maximum security men’s prison in St. John’s, Hunter said when she was put aboard a plane with RCMP officers and flown out of Labrador and away from her family and community, she wondered: “What if I go murdered or missing, like so many of our aboriginal women?”
“There’s such a frightening record of police brutality in Canada, and deaths of [Indigenous] inmates in prisons across Canada, that I think people are intimidated,” she said, explaining the RCMP’s recent expansion in Labrador “acts as a pacification technique to warn people of what they will face if they do assert their legal right to their lands.”
Nalcor’s transformers and a “police state” in Cartwright
In mid-to-late July residents of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Cartwright began noticing more RCMP officers in their communities.
The increased police presence coincided with the imminent arrival of four 200-ton transformers by boat to the Cartwright port, where residents, including the town’s mayor and council, vowed last year to block that same infrastructure, which was headed for Muskrat Falls.
Unless and until Nalcor and the provincial government addressed concerns around methylmercury at Muskrat Falls, the overwhelming majority of Cartwright’s residents agreed last October that the transformers were “not welcome to come through the port of Cartwright until all vegetation and soil is removed from the reservoir area,” the town council announced on Facebook.
The protests ultimately stalled the shipment of the total of seven transformers, though the first four have now been landed and, with the protection of the RCMP, were transported by road from Cartwright to Muskrat Falls last week.
Amy Stoodley, communications director for provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons, told The Independent in a written statement that Parsons “authorized additional RCMP resources in Labrador, in accordance with with article 9.1 (a) of the Provincial Police Services Agreement,” and that he authorized them “to use the resources necessary to exercise their broad discretion in maintaining public safety.”
Asked what the cost of the additional police presence would be to the province, Stoodley said “there is no estimate available on how much this will cost.”
Residents of Labrador say the increased police presence is offensive; some say it’s an affront to their dignity and freedom. Estimates of the number of additional officers brought in from outside Labrador have ranged from 150 to 400.
RCMP spokesperson Laura Hepditch said “for operational reasons” she could not provide details on the number of officers brought in to Labrador to facilitate the transportation of Nalcor’s transformers, or on whether or not they had mobilized the RCMP’s paramilitary arm, the Emergency Response Team (ERT) — though Cartwright resident Robyn Holwell reported seeing police in “tactical gear and military style clothing.”
On July 19 Cartwright Mayor Dwight Lethbridge took to Facebook to air his frustration with the new police officers in his community, saying he finds the “excessive show of force downright insulting.”
In an interview with The Independent Lethbridge called the police presence “a ridiculous amount of overkill” and a “waste of resources.”
Hepditch said the RCMP’s “primary goal throughout this move is to keep people safe and secure,” and that it is “also our job to uphold and protect the right of Canadians to peacefully and lawfully express their opinions and views while ensuring public order so that businesses and their employees can safely carry out their lawful work.”
Last fall RCMP officers arrested land protectors who blockaded the Muskrat Falls site in what they described as a desperate, last-resort effort to protect their traditional food source as Nalcor prepared to initiate the first stage of reservoir flooding. A peer-reviewed scientific study led by researchers at Harvard University projected that within a few days methylmercury levels in the water would increase in the downstream marine ecosystem, where it would bioaccumulate in wild foods and expose Inuit to unsafe levels of the neurotoxin.
Nalcor had announced that reservoir flooding could begin on Oct. 15 or shortly thereafter. After years of attempting to resolve outstanding issues with Nalcor and the government diplomatically—including participating in the environmental assessment process, signing petitions, writing letters to politicians, and holding peaceful demonstrations—land protectors began their blockade on Oct. 16. The next morning RCMP moved in and arrested nine people.
Nine months later in Cartwright, police officers are reportedly stopping, carding and questioning residents of the quiet coastal community.
Robyn Holwell told The Independent he went down to the dock one evening last week, as he often does, to “take pictures of the boats and scenery.”
He said he took photos in various spots, including a shot of three RCMP zodiacs tied up to the wharf.
“I turn around to leave and here is an RCMP officer recording my plate numbers,” he recounted. “I confronted him and asked why he was taking my plate numbers. He was vague, just said he was taking information, same reason I was taking pictures. He asked me my name, date of birth, who owned the vehicle,” Holwell continued. “I know my rights — I could have refused, but it’s just not my way to be confrontational even though I deeply resented what he was doing.”
Jeannie Ward, another Cartwright resident, said if the RCMP presence in her tiny community “wasn’t so serious it would be funny,” and that it demonstrates “what’s more important — not the people of Labrador, or our lives and culture or safety, but a terrible project that’s only hurting us.”
It’s “one thing to be proactive,” said Lethbridge. “It’s another thing to just put [in place] what seems to be a police state.”
RCMP triggering historical, intergenerational trauma: land protectors
Denise Cole, a spokesperson for the Labrador Land Protectors, says it’s “very obvious that government is bringing in police forces so they can protect [Nalcor’s] equipment and assets,” and that “they’re willing to sacrifice us in doing so.”
Cole described a conversation she had with two police officers last week.
“They were telling us they are here for public safety, and we told them our safety is being threatened — we’re at risk of being poisoned, at risk of being drowned, and we no longer feel safe in our communities because there’s a lot of outsiders here telling us that their work and their lives are more valuable than ours.”
The officers said they “can’t speak to” land protectors’ concerns with Muskrat Falls, she recounted.
“So we said, let’s be honest about why you’re here. You’re not here for public safety, you’re here for Nalcor security.”
Land protectors have reported being pulled over by police, carded, and even visited at their homes and workplaces.
Throughout the Muskrat Falls protests no land protector has been charged with a violent offence, but many say they feel they are being treated like criminals in their own land.
Cole said while she “always thought that I couldn’t feel any more ignored by my country or by the people who claim to represent me, either as an Indigenous woman, a person of this province or a person of this nation,” that changed on July 22, when two RCMP officers visited her at her home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“I don’t feel safe anymore, that this country will protect me,” she said, explaining that while the officers were “courteous and polite” she felt vulnerable and singled out.
Cole said the RCMP presence around Goose Bay and the Muskrat Falls site has triggered “shock,” “stress” and “tension” in land protectors.
She said land protectors “started noticing this energy was happening” that brought a “heaviness” to their resistance.
“All of a sudden you’re looking over your shoulder all of the time and you feel you’re being watched,” she explained. “It creates a tension more so than a fear, I think, and it creates a stress that we’re not used to having.”
In response, land protectors held a sharing circle, where they spoke openly about how the RCMP were making them feel.
“We put that energy out into the circle,” Cole recounted. “We were imagining that there’s a fire in the middle of that circle and we’re just going to put it in the fire and let it go.”
She said many land protectors realized their emotional and visceral response to the RCMP presence “triggered trauma” in them.
The RCMP presence is “re-triggering that old trauma [that goes] as far back as when the Moravians first came, or when the merchants first came, or when the soldiers first came — when the outsiders first came and told us what the new rule of law was and we had to obey,” says Denise Cole. Pictured above: RCMP officers surveil land protectors at their peace came as transformers arrive at the Muskrat Falls site. Photo by Janet Cooper.
The police officers are “human beings the same as we are, but they’re triggering trauma in people that have dealt with intergenerational trauma,” Cole explained. “We talked about the trauma that has been passed down from our parents and grandparents about authority figures, and when they come to town and they tell you what the new law is.
“We’re realizing that what’s happening with this colonial government sending in the RCMP — it’s re-triggering that old trauma [that goes] as far back as when the Moravians first came, or when the merchants first came, or when the soldiers first came — when the outsiders first came and told us what the new rule of law was and we had to obey.
“Now that we’ve seen that, we can overcome it,” Cole added, explaining the group made a collective decision to “refocus and talk intently about non-violence.”
Land protectors assemble in their newly named “Peace Camp” outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project. Photo by Janet Cooper.
Cole said land protectors feel the government and Nalcor have ignored their concerns, and instead of dealing with locals in good faith they’re “using the RCMP to try and trigger a reaction out of us that would lead to more arrests, that would lead to a justification of their injunction and of their actions.
“It’s like a declaration of war…and we have decided to answer their war with peaceful resistance,” she said.
Land protectors have renamed the protest area across the highway from the Muskrat Falls main gate the “peace camp,” and have begun issuing statements ahead of protests to reiterate their commitment to peaceful, non-violent resistance.
“I really admire how brave people are, because I know from listening to Beatrice too, and from watching things unfold last fall, just how much people are operating out of a place of love,” Pasternak said of the land protectors’ resistance to Muskrat Falls. “It’s so beautiful to watch the resistance unfold and see these live Facebook feeds of what’s happening there, because you can just feel the love for the land. It’s been really incredible and inspiring.”
Cole said land protectors are “getting much more creative” in their resistance.
“It’s not just boots on the ground, it’s using our own intelligence, it’s reaching out and telling our story,” she said.
“We’re learning that our story is powerful, and our tears are powerful, and our reality is powerful — that when we ask for help from the outside world, the outside world is listening and hearing us,” she added, citing the letter from the five senators as an example.
“We’re having to learn to ask for help, which is a humbling experience for all of us.”
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball says the federal government could be doing more to subsidize the cost of food for residents of isolated northern communities, but three incarcerated elders and land protectors say the premier is being disingenuous, and that if Ball cared about food security in Inuit communities in Labrador he would do more to help prevent the contamination of their traditional food supply.
At Council of the Federation summit in Edmonton earlier this month Ball joined other provincial leaders in calling on the federal government to “take steps to ensure the Nutrition North Canada subsidy program is as effective as possible in reducing the cost of food for residents of isolated communities,” according to a press release issued by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador on Friday.
“Through close collaboration between our provincial governments, northern communities, and our Federal Government, we can ensure comprehensive supports exist to make healthy foods available to people who need it, and healthier outcomes possible across Canada,” Ball said.
Speaking to The Independent Friday and Saturday Jim Learning, Eldred Davis and Marjorie Flowers, who have been imprisoned over their attempts to protect a traditional food source for Indigenous communities in Labrador, called Ball’s statement “hypocritical,” “deceitful,” and a “slap in the face.”
The land protectors, who have come to be known as the “Labrador Three”, say if Ball wants Inuit communities in Labrador to have access to healthy food he will ensure crown corporation Nalcor Energy clears the entire reservoir of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project prior to the final stage of flooding, or stop the project altogether.
A peer-reviewed scientific study led by researchers at Harvard University projected last year that, once flooded, the Muskrat Falls reservoir would lead to increased levels of methylmercury in the downstream marine environment, bioaccumulate in fish and other animals harvested by local communities, and expose Inuit to unsafe levels of the neurotoxin.
Indigenous-led protests in Labrador came to a head last year when upward of 60 people stormed the Muskrat Falls site, most of them occupying the worker’s camp in an attempt to force the government to address the threat of methylmercury contamination of traditional country foods.
Amid the ongoing occupation Ball met with Inuit and Innu leaders and struck a deal to mitigate methylmercury, but land protectors and others say nine months later the agreement has not led to any binding promises to protect their food, health and way of life.
One of the jailed land protectors, 66-year-old NunatuKavut Elder Eldred Davis, has not eaten since his incarceration on July 21. Davis called Ball’s criticism of the federal government on the issue “pure deceit” and said the premier is creating an image that he cares about food security in Inuit communities.
“He is trying to avoid commentary or criticism from people who know what’s happening here,” Davis said Friday. “He’s trying to probably prevent this condemnation of what he’s doing by suggesting government [cares about food security]. when in fact he’s acting against that kind of policy.”
NunatuKavut elder Jim Learning, who is in prison a second time since 2013 in relation to the Muskrat Falls protests, called Ball’s comments “doublespeak”.
“Leaving our Aboriginal food sources alone in nature is what we most depend on,” he said. “Our seafood is critical to taking up the slack that our cultivated foods and expensive brought-in foods can’t cover off. It’s really odd that he would say…we will take away one source of food but replace it with another — that’s totally hypocritical.”
Learning, who is 79 and living with advanced prostate cancer, said an increase in methylmercury in wild foods will deter locals from harvesting and eating fish, seals, seabirds and other traditional foods in the region.
Land protector and Nunatsiavut Elder Marjorie Flowers told The Independent Ball’s comments on subsidizing food in the north are a “direct slap in my face, as an Aboriginal person, because [with Muskrat Falls] he is condoning stripping away a food supply that we’ve relied on for hundreds of years, and we still want to keep that in tact.”
Muskrat Falls and food insecurity in Labrador
In May Nunatsiavut Government released the results of a study that revealed more than 60 percent of households in the five Nunatsiavut communities in northern Labrador were food insecure, “experiencing worry about or difficulty in accessing food on a regular basis,” according to a press release issued at the time.
“The prevalence of food insecure households in our communities is over four times the level reported for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2012 and five times the level of food insecurity measured for households in Canada in 2014,” said Nunatsiavut Minister of Health and Social Development Greg Flowers.
The 2016 methylmercury study, Avativut, Kanuittailinnivut, projected that methylmercury exposure levels in some Inuit living downstream of Muskrat Falls who consume greater amounts of country foods could increase by up to 1500 percent.
The Nunatsiavut-led Make Muskrat Right campaign last year asked Nalcor and the provincial government to clear all vegetation and topsoil to minimize harm to people and communities downstream of the dam.
To date the government and crown corporation have not revealed how much organic material they will remove from the reservoir prior to final impoundment.
In its first provincial budget in 2016, the Ball Government slashed the Air Foodlift Subsidy for northern Indigenous communities, which helped grocery retailers lower the cost of food in their stores.
That cut, and others, would “add to the growing economic disparity that exists between Nunatsiavut and the rest of the province,” then Nunatsiavut President Sarah Leo said at the time. “Many of our people are not going to be able to adequately feed their families or have any quality of life.”
The Liberals have maintained since then that their new Labrador Aboriginal Nutritional and Artistic Assistance Program, introduced in Budget 2016, compensates for the elimination of the Air Foodlift Subsidy. It’s a $50,000 investment—$20,000 to each of the two Inuit groups and $10,000 to the Innu Nation—is intended for “nutritional programs, community freezer programs, food banks and promotion of artists and artistic endeavours,” according to the government’s website.
“To be talking about a food subsidy for store bought foods while taking away our traditional food source — how does that make sense to me as an Aboriginal person who depends on salmon, trout, char, seals and migrating birds?” Flowers said from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary Saturday. “How does that makes sense to me? It can’t.
“Our Inuit culture is defined by so many things…and food supply is a huge part of that. We grow up eating the same foods from the same area, we’ve become accustomed to that; our bodies are inclined to want that food. It’s just one part of our culture, but it’s a fundamental part.”
Flowers, Learning and Davis have been imprisoned at the maximum security men’s prison in St. John’s since July 21, when they refused to promise a Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador judge that they would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.
The three elders have been vocal critics of the project since before Muskrat Falls was sanctioned, arguing among other things that it threatens locals’ food supply and way of life.
They and other land protectors have repeatedly argued that if locals cannot eat country foods, people will stop harvesting to feed their families, an outcome they say will lead to further disruption to traditional ways of life and the transmission of traditional cultural practices to younger generations.
Last April the federal government ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a legally binding international treaty to reduce anthropogenic mercury emissions and releases to the environment.
“Exposure to mercury is known to cause negative health effects to those who are most vulnerable, particularly fetuses, infants, and young children. In addition, northern peoples are especially vulnerable to mercury as it tends to accumulate naturally in the Arctic, and it affects local food sources like fish and marine mammals,” said federal Environment Minister Catherin McKenna, announcing Canada’s ratification of the treaty.
Learning said the government and Nalcor have two options to mitigate methylmercury from Muskrat Falls.
“Clean out the reservoir, as was asked,” he said. “And the other of course is to not let the project go ahead.”
An elder and land protector incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s after refusing to promise a judge he would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site has not eaten since June 20, The Independent has learned.
During a phone interview from the maximum security men’s prison on Friday 66-year-old Eldred Davis of Happy Valley-Goose Bay told The Independent his decision to stop eating food the evening before his court appearance eight days ago as “a mini protest to the system.”
On July 21 Davis was brought before Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador Judge George Murphy after allegedly breaking an injunction and recognizance to stay more than one kilometre away from the Muskrat Falls site, where he and other land protectors have been protesting against a project they say threatens their traditional food supply, way of life, and the safety of hundreds of people living downstream.
When asked by the judge if he would obey an undertaking to stay away from the project site, Davis refused.
“Here I am, dragged away against my will for doing very little dishonesty and no crime,” Davis said on Friday.
A longtime member of Grand Riverkeeper Labrador, which has opposed Muskrat Falls for years, Davis said he is not on hunger strike.
He said it’s his “own little way of not succumbing to the pressure,” and that by not eating he doesn’t feel “completely owned” by the authorities and Nalcor, who initiated the injunction last fall.
“I’m accepting the fact that this is the way the law works,” he said. “I didn’t come here by choice. It’s not just an incarceration for a hold-over until a trial or another court session. It is punishment.”
Davis said during his first night in custody, while being held at the RCMP detachment in Happy Valley, he told a police officer “this is punishment — it’s basically solitary confinement in a very inhospitable cell.
“And he kind of agreed, and he walked me over to an area where we could open a door and get some fresh air, and it felt pretty good.”
The elder and land protector said he will eat again once he’s “back in Labrador” and can “eat a meal that I prepared, or that I purchased.
“I don’t really want this institutional food, not that it’s terrible. It’s probably a lot better than I cook,” he joked.
During the interview Davis reiterated the reasons he has been protesting Muskrat Falls and has risked being arrested.
“We are in great danger if Nalcor continues [the project] because they seem incompetent, and the design for the North Spur is basically lipstick on a pig,” he said, naming the projected methylmercury increases, the North Spur and downstream flooding as his primary concerns.
On the North Spur he says Nalcor “really doesn’t know for certain that it’s safe, and so many people figure it’s not safe. So if they are that confident, why would they not allow experts in the field of quick clay and different soils to really check it out?”
Davis said the flooding last spring of Mud Lake, a small remote community downstream of the Muskrat Falls facilities, is further evidence of Nalcor’s mismanagement of the dam.
“They didn’t even know they did it, as far as I know,” he said. “I don’t think they did it deliberately, and I don’t think they projected ahead what would happen when the spring freshet came on top of the water.”
“They were apparently trying to keep a steady level [of water] in the reservoir, but common sense says if you keep a steady level in the reservoir and you have spring freshet coming on top of it you do release a lot of water unhindered by ice flow downstream, because the big ice—a natural dam as they used to call it—wasn’t there after they had the spillway working. The big natural dam didn’t hold anything back — it just let it all go straight on down the river, and subsequently it raised the water levels more than anticipated.”
Immediately following the flooding of Mud Lake on May 17 Nalcor denied it had anything to do with the rapid water level rise, which locals have maintained was unprecedented. But after intense public pressure and refute the crown corporation quickly backtracked, admitting there was a possibility the dam facilities played a role.
A class action lawsuit against Nalcor is currently underway.
“We really don’t think Nalcor is capable of doing a good job of this. The location has always been rejected,” Davis said Friday from prison, referring to government-commissioned studies for a hydro dam on the lower Churchill river dating back decades, “and it hasn’t improved over the years.
“Why they continue throwing money at this knowing how terrible a situation it is, is just beyond me. It begs disbelief.”
Davis’ incarceration, alongside Inuk land protectors Jim Learning and Marjorie Flowers, has gained national media attention and marks the second time in as many months that Indigenous land defenders have been imprisoned after refusing to promise to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.
Last week five Canadian senators, including Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair Justice Murray Sinclair, sent a letter to Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball urging the prisoners’ “immediate release”.
“Our country is struggling with a colonial legacy that continues to disproportionately marginalize, criminalize and deprive Indigenous Peoples of political agency,” the letter said. “This context makes decisions to imprison Indigenous men and women for using protest to assert their right to determine how their traditional lands are used particularly abhorrent. Their incarceration flies in the face of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, which the province has committed to supporting, and the duty of our country as a whole to work toward a nation-to-nation relationship, grounded in respect, between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.
“We call on the province to release these three Land Protectors and to create effective spaces for them to address their concerns, in particular their demands for an immediate forensic audit of all aspects of the Muskrat Falls project. We call on the province to do its part to uphold the Indigenous and constitutional rights of the Labrador Innu and Inuit Peoples by ensuring that protest, with a risk of criminalization, is not the only means available to Indigenous Peoples to make their voices heard in decisions regarding their lands.”
Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut leaders have also called for the release of the land protectors, as has provincial NDP leader Earle McCurdy.
Three Inuk Labrador Land Protectors are speaking out from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, where they are being detained after refusing to promise a supreme court judge Friday in Happy Valley-Goose Bay that they would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.
Marjorie Flowers, Jim Learning and Eldred Davis all spoke with The Independent Monday from the maximum security men’s prison in St. John’s, where they say they were transported to late Friday evening.
Referred to as “The Labrador Three” by some, the elders and land protectors say they are doing what they feel must be done to stop Muskrat Falls and protect their people and land from destruction many, including experts, have projected will occur, including an increase of methylmercury in fish and other traditional foods and a potential dam breach to do the alleged instability of the North Spur.
Learning likened the recent increased RCMP police presence in Labrador to a “declaration of war” on the people of Labrador, while Flowers issued a call to Labrador Land Protectors and Labradorians to “step up to the plate” and follow in their footsteps in terms of being arrested in the effort to stop Muskrat Falls.
“Doing what we really have to do”
Davis, a 66-year-old NunatuKavut Elder, land protector and Grand Riverkeeper who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, told The Independent Monday that in Supreme Court of N.L. on Friday he told the judge “we are not a bunch of criminals, we’re people trying to protect our land,” but that Justice George Murphy “didn’t buy it and said I would have to be detained.”
Davis said he feels land protectors “are doing what we really have to do,” and that stopping Muskrat Falls is “a crucial situation.”
“If this process of building a dam at Muskrat Falls on the Grand River, in the method that they’re doing it now, comes to fruition, we are in great danger downstream,” he explained. “We are 100 percent certain now that the design and reinforcement of the North Spur is inadequate.”
Davis, Learning and Flowers were summonsed to court after allegedly breaking a Nalcor-initiated injunction and recognizances that mandated them to stay more than one kilometre away from the Muskrat Falls site.
Flowers said that on Friday morning before her court appearance she had planned to respect the undertaking from then on, but that she soon came to realize that approach “was a mistake.”
“I just felt that I had succumbed to the pressure of this whole crazy process of the skewed justice system, and the process unfolding under the so-called justice system,” the 50-year-old Inuk originally from Rigolet recounted.
“By afternoon, in seeing so many people say that they would follow the injunction, and after realizing that this was going to get us nowhere if everybody does that — and then I saw Jim get arrested. After hearing Jim’s speech to the judge I realized he was on the right path and I needed to follow him.
Flowers said shortly after she was detained at the courthouse she was transported with Learning to an airplane hangar in Goose Bay, where the two were “heavily shackled” by RCMP officers.
“There were about 10 cops there and they were trying to figure out how to put this new lock on,” Flowers said.
“We had new and improved, apparently, handcuffs and ankle locks that were double-locked. They were chained around first and then double-locked. The chain was weaved through top and bottom, just the way you see it on TV really, around our waists, and double-locked on. We couldn’t move an inch.”
Flowers said once she and Learning were put aboard a plane, “we had to sit on the plane basically unable to move.
“I could take the water into my hand, but I had to get help to push it up to my mouth if I wanted a sip of water.”
Neither Flowers, nor Learning, nor Davis have been convicted of a crime related to the Muskrat Falls protests, and none of them have been charged with a violent offense.
“I’m in jail now and so far I have not committed any offence,” Davis told The Independent Monday. “But apparently the way they have the laws written, if you don’t sign the undertaking you’re held in captivity.”
Inadequate responses from Nalcor and government
“They are trying to make criminals out of people who are trying to defend themselves from methylmercury poisoning of a thousands of year food supply that we’ve always relied on at a time when the rest of Canada is looking for food security,” Learning, who is 79 and living with advanced prostate cancer, told The Independent Monday. “This government has decided that we don’t deserve that.”
During the Indigenous-led occupation of Muskrat Falls last October Premier Dwight Ball struck a deal with Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders and agreed to take further steps to mitigate methylmercury in the hydro dam reservoir.
To date the details of an Independent Environmental Advisory Committee have not been made public, nor has a plan of action to protect individuals living downstream from methylmercury, which was projected in a 2016 peer-reviewed scientific study to expose Inuit communities downstream to unsafe levels of the neurotoxin.
As part of that agreement the provincial government commanded Nalcor to lower water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir in the spring. Nalcor initially agreed, but later announced it would lower water levels in mid-July. After public pressure was put on the government, Nalcor then announced, on the first day of summer, that it would lower the water levels to those “that would typically be seen at this time of year.”
According to federal government hydrometric data for the Churchill River above Muskrat Falls for the years 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, water level readings measured between 16 and 16.5 metres. At the time of publication, water levels above Muskrat Falls were measuring at approximately 20.4 metres, according to federal government hydrometric data.
On the North Spur front, land protectors and others living downstream have criticized Nalcor for not providing adequate assurance and evidence that people’s lives are not being put at risk.
In a July 2015 response to a number of concerns in a letter from lawyer and Muskrat Falls critic Cabot Martin, former provincial Environment and Conservation Minister Dan Crummell estimated a breach of the main Muskrat Falls dam would result in “a potential loss of life” of 136 individuals and an estimated $47 million “for the loss of residential homes plus additional infrastructure losses.”
Flowers said she “can only express frustration because of the resistance to transparency by Nalcor and the government, for nearly a decade.
“Here we are, on the ground people, demanding that. We haven’t gotten any response from anybody at any point, so it’s just clearly a railroad job of bulldozing everybody flat to the ground. But how does one back down from it? If one part of our culture is being threatened, and our lives are being threatened, how does one back down from that? I don’t know how we can. We have to remain in tact as a group — we have to.”
Land protectors “at a pivotal point”
Flowers echoed Davis’ comment that the present moment is an important time for Labradorians, land protectors and the Indigenous groups in Labrador.
“This fight has to stay ongoing,” she said, adding she doesn’t want to spend her entire summer in jail and that the resistance can be effective if enough land protectors and supporters are willing to be arrested.
“We have to encourage other land protectors now to step up to the plate, to start with their initial arrests or breakings of the injunction, and just continue through this process – keep moving people through that court system, keep the light on this issue. That’s the only way we’re going to do it.”
Davis said it “seems that the peoples of Labrador are secondary to getting Nalcor to complete this huge monumental mistake that they’ve begun,” but that the “repercussions to the peoples of Labrador are far more important, including the possibility of loss of life, the poisoning of the food supply, which would continue indefinitely, possibility the elimination of the culture of the Inuit of the Lake Melville area, and the huge bills that they’re going to accumulate in doing this which will mean more than likely people will have to go into poverty in some cases.
“People will have to leave the area to find a place that they can afford to live; it’s a huge mistake and it’s being done for political purposes as far as I can see,” he continued. “It’s a known money loser, it’s a pit which will never pay for itself, and yet it’s being continued for, as far as I can understand, no other reason than continue to pour money into rich white men’s bank accounts, people who are unknown and seem to have control of government.”
Davis said he’s “grateful for all the Labrador Land Protectors who have banded together and expressed their concern and their frustration with the way things are happening here.
“People, law-abiding citizens, are being thrown in jail, incarcerated for no reason other than trying to protect our land, and the peoples, and the wildlife and the fish of the land.
“[We] are considered, if not criminal then punished as criminals,” he continued. “I do not agree with it and I think any civilized society would look at this and say, these politicians and the people under them have to be out of their minds to be treating people [like this].”
In a message directed at Nalcor and Premier Dwight Ball, Learning said to “do the right thing and don’t try to drown us or poison our traditional food supply.
“They know they’re going to do that with the North Spur because they will not tell people what they’ve done to make that Spur secure. So do the right thing and stop the project,” the NunatuKavut elder said.
Elaborating on his war analogy, Learning said the government and Nalcor “intend to meet none of our demands,” and referencing the recent increased RCMP presence in Labrador added “they’re just upping the ante to confront us.”
Flowers said she feels land protectors are “at a pivotal point with this land protecting process at the gate,” and that “with the transformers coming in there’s high energy around that.
“With so many people now being hauled into jail for these non-crimes, I feel like this has become a critical juncture where people really have to stay focused on what we started out to do,” she continued.
“I would encourage everybody, anybody, who feels that we’re being undermined and being unjustifiably treated: we have to stand up now, we have to stay on the focused road to stopping Muskrat for the point of poisoning of our traditional food source, and also for the potential drowning that’s going to happen in Mud Lake and the Lower Valley. [Flooding has] already happened – and they’ve already been proven that they don’t care about the people.”
Flowers and Davis say their next court appearance is scheduled for July 31. Learning said he has not been told when he is due back in court but that he assumes it will be the same day as the others.
Neither Ball, nor Minister of Justice and Public Safety Andrew Parsons, have commented on the elders and land protectors’ incarcerations, though when elected in 2015 both promised to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s calls to action, including adopting Aboriginal systems of justice to reduce the number of Indigenous Peoples incarcerated in Canadian prisons.
Ball and Parsons also committed to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation, which mandates settler governments to obtain free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples before developing on their lands or in ways that negatively impact their ways of life.
I am thinking about how colonization and assimilation works. In Labrador’s history Indigenous people and the environment have been subjected to the devious workings of a colonizing system.
Colonists have perfected the use of silence as a weapon of control.
Let’s see; not so far back in history the government and other ‘authorities’ decided that relocating Inuit was necessary for the ‘authorities” convenience.
Who were the ‘authorities’ in Labrador? The government, the doctor, the minister, the police (Newfoundland rangers), the Justice of the Peace — those who had assumed control over the people. And those same authorities supported each other to do their work.
How did they do that particular work? They held a meeting in a place where they knew people would be silent and not express any anger or resistance. They took them to the church (the house of the lord), where the threat of eternal punishment for disrespecting God silenced them. Having announced their plan of relocation, no one spoke up in the church, giving the authorities ‘reason’ to say “no one objected.”
To this day in Labrador, not much has changed, except perhaps the method of silencing possible resistance.
Let’s look at 2017. In this day and age, silence is being used to the advantage of those who wish to quell any resistance to ‘development’ by the people.
How is this happening?
Again, some of it is happening in the house of the ‘lord’. In the courtroom. The judge is bowed down to and addressed as ‘my lord’. In a subtle way, the judge is referred to as one would refer to Christ or God. His authority is not to be challenged for fear of drastic punishment. Maybe even eternal punishment. So people are silenced again.
Again, the authorities work together to ensure the silence of the people by the work of the government, the justice system and their ‘armed’ and uniformed forces.
Silence is used in another way by the government, the elected representatives. When questioned, or requested for help, the elected authorities are using silence to deny and dismiss the calls. Never has there been such silence as the silence of these days.
The silence is not because they have not heard, but because they can use it to not have to tell untruths. They can use it to avoid, to look the other way.
Silence has been a survival tool in the past. It would have been to the advantage of the hunter to be silent while waiting for game, the much needed source of food and comfort.
Silence, it now seems, have become a weapon to be used against an already compromised situation. It has become a way of control and dismissiveness. And those who want to silence someone can support and get support from the means to make that happen.
Three Inuit elders have been incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s after refusing to promise a Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador judge they would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site in Labrador.
On Friday NunatuKavut Elders and land protectors Jim Learning and Eldred Davis, and Nunatsiavut Elder and land protector Marjorie Flowers appeared in court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay after allegedly breaking a recognizance to stay more than one kilometre away from Muskrat Falls. All three refused to sign a new undertaking and were subsequently arrested and taken into custody.
Learning, who is 79 and living with advanced prostate cancer, was arrested for protesting outside the project’s main gate in 2013 and launched a six-day hunger strike that ended once he was released from custody in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
All three currently in custody allegedly defied a court order and previous recognizances while participating in recent protests at Muskrat Falls.
Flowers is the second Inuk woman to be incarcerated at the notorious mid-19th century men’s maximum security prison this year after refusing to stay away from the Muskrat Falls project site. Last month Beatrice Hunter spent 10 days at HMP, prompting outcry from Indigenous communities and human rights groups across Canada. Provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons has said the province has no choice but to incarcerate women in a separate ward of the men’s prison due to overcrowding at the women’s correctional facility in Clarenville.
Vigils and protests have been held in Goose Bay, Rigolet and St. John’s in response to the latest round of arrests of Indigenous land defenders, who say they are acting in self-defence in trying to stop the controversial $12 billion hydro dam, which experts have projected will contaminate fish and other wild food that members of Indigenous communities downstream rely on.
Land defenders, elders and engineering experts have also said Nalcor Energy, the crown corporation building the dam, has not given sufficient evidence to prove it can adequately stabilize the North Spur, a small peninsula Nalcor is using as a “natural dam” at Muskrat Falls.
In a July 2015 response to a number of concerns highlighted in a letter from lawyer and Muskrat Falls critic Cabot Martin, former provincial Environment and Conservation Minister Dan Crummell estimated a breach of the main Muskrat Falls dam would result in “a potential loss of life” of 136 individuals and an estimated $47 million “for the loss of residential homes plus additional infrastructure losses.”
Last year the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay estimated that the damage to their community alone resulting from a dam breach would be in the range of $60 million.
Residents of Lower Happy Valley, North West River, Mud Lake and Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation have expressed anxiety over living and sleeping downstream. Many have said they have little doubt the dam will fail, and that it’s a question of when a breach will occur.
Injunction “immoral and unfair”
In a prepared statement shared with The Independent after Learning’s incarceration, which was written prior to the elder’s court appearance Friday, Learning said he refused to sign the undertaking “because I believe the injunction is immoral and unfair and it has taken away our rights as people to demand safety for our families and safe food for us to eat!”
Learning also said he believes crown corporation Nalcor Energy and the provincial government “have decided to sacrifice the few of us who will likely be drowned if the North Spur fails,” and that “their greed will bankrupt this province and take away many services that our people desperately need.”
In a video filmed outside the courthouse Friday prior to her court appearance and published on the Labrador Land Protectors’ Facebook page, Flowers said the court injunction “is telling me as an Aboriginal woman that I can’t protect my cultural rights around traditional foods.
“That’s wrong,” she continued. “That is fundamentally wrong, and against my constitutional rights as a Canadian. I feel like I have no choice but to tell the judge no, I’m not listening to you, I’m not abiding by that injunction. Somebody has to stand up.”
In a similar video Davis said the people of the province can “survive” the “financial danger” Nalcor and the government are creating with Muskrat Falls, but that “we will not survive the flooding of Mud Lake 10 times worse that what happened this spring.”
In May water levels rapidly rose downstream of Muskrat Falls, forcing an emergency evacuation of the entire community of Mud Lake. Some residents still have not returned to their homes due to damage.
Nalcor quickly denied responsibility for the flood but later backed off, admitting a possibility the Muskrat Falls facilities may have played a role. A class action lawsuit against the corporation is now underway.
“A lot of the Mud Lake infrastructure and possessions did not survive but the people did. That’s not going to be the case if the North Spur fails and the reservoir is at 39 meters high,” Davis said Friday. “We suspect Nalcor knows the North Spur will fail and they’re determined to press on anyway.”
All three elders pointed the finger at Nalcor and the provincial government, who they say are manipulating the justice system to quash dissent and locals’ Indigenous rights.
Last month Amnesty International Canada’s Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples told The Independent the Muskrat Falls controversy resembles others in Canada where corporations have greater access than Indigenous communities to the courts in protecting their rights.
Craig Benjamin said the 2007 Ipperwash Inquiry revealed a “bias against Indigenous Peoples at the injunction level, where it’s so much easier for corporations or crown corporations to show potential damage in a way the lower court can understand it.”
In the video posted to Facebook Davis said “in this day in age, when people are supposed to be having rights, and yet the Newfoundland government is sending Nalcor, the justice system, and the police system to squash our rights — this should not be accepted, and we will not take it lying down.”
“In [our] view, the Newfoundland Government has declared war on us here in Labrador,” Learning said in his written statement, referring to the recent increased RCMP police presence that coincides with the transportation of transformers from Cartwright to the Muskrat Falls site.
People demonstrated outside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary over the weekend to demand the release of Marjorie Flowers, Jim Learning and Eldred Davis. Facebook photo: Solidarity With Labrador.
“It really is odd how we in Labrador can stay at home and be invaded by the very police force sworn to protect, us and they claim they have come here to protect us. Protect us from whom?” Learning continued in his letter. “We have never been violent to anyone and up to now, no one has been violent to us. Why should that change? We certainly have no intention of changing how we act and we have said so many times and in many ways.
“We simply want reassurance that the lives of people in Mud Lake and the lower Valley are safe and that it will be safe to eat our country food in the future!Why is that so much to ask?”
People close to Learning have told The Independent the elder is contemplating another hunger strike, and that he has said he’s willing to risk his life in the fight to protect people’s safety, food and way of life.
The human cost and spiritual benefit of resistance
Inuk land protector Tracey Doherty was in the courtroom Friday when Learning and Flowers refused to sign an undertaking.
Describing the scene she said Justice George Murphy offered Learning an opportunity to protest at the designated protest area across the Trans Labrador Highway from the project’s main gate, but that neither Learning nor Flowers were interested in being restricted to what has been called “the pad”.
“They were saying we could still be on the protest pad, but as [Flowers] stated to the court, and as she has been communicating on Facebook, it’s just ineffective,” Doherty recalled.
“As Jim and Eldred said, too, the protest pad is this little place where there’s nothing effective about standing there and demonstrating. It’s not protecting anything, and really our goal is to stop the project.”
Land protector Denise Cole, a spokesperson for the Labrador Land Protectors, told The Independent that resisting Muskrat Falls has come at a considerable “human cost” due to the actions of the government, Nalcor, the police and the courts.
“The human cost is [the loss of] our rights and freedoms to be able to mount any kind of resistance to what’s happening on our lands, to our waters and to our people,” she said.
“We’re being treated like terrorists — that’s what it feels like. We’re feeling again this heavy handedness of the court, and we’re being completely ignored by our elected representatives. We feel they have turned their backs to us and we are here on our own at the mercy of the court, and now the RCMP and Nalcor. We feel that Nalcor has the control of both the court, the police services and the government, because it seems to be that what they want goes,” Cole continued.
“The priority here is certainly not people within democracy, it is the completion of this hydro project at all costs. When Dwight Ball says they have to complete this project, that nothing can slow this project, that includes taking the rights and freedoms of the citizens of this province who are in opposition to this project.”
Cole said land protectors feel they’ve been “very reasonable” in their approach. They have joined people across the province in signing petitions, writing elected officials, protesting peacefully, and only taking protests to the next level out of desperation because all diplomatic means have been exhausted without adequate response from government and Nalcor.
“We don’t understand why we’re being treated like terrorists,” she said. “When you have the courts mandate whatever police force is necessary to control [us]…it feels like we’ve had our democracy stripped away from us.
“Some of us are in fear, some of us are just in shock, and all of us are gravely concerned not only about our own health and safety, but now the health and safety of land protectors who are getting arrested and put into maximum security prison cells for not signing an undertaking.
“The province and country needs to seriously look and consider what exactly they’re in a maximum security for. They haven’t been convicted of anything, and yet they’re all sitting thousands of kilometres away from their home communities,” Cole continued.
“There’s something incredibly wrong about what’s happening here, and we need the nation to really understand and help us because we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. We’re watching our constitutionally-protected rights and freedoms being taken away from us and having a police state initiated around us.”
Hunter, who made national headlines when she was incarcerated last month, said she is “very proud” of Learning, Flowers and Davis “for standing up to the judge. But it’s heartbreaking at the same time, seeing your fellow land protectors trying to fight the destruction and save Labrador lives.”
Doherty said as she has joined the protests in recent months she has been feeling a growing connection to her Inuit ancestors. That connection, she said, has inspired her to speak out for the land and water and future generations who will depend on the outcome of the current resistance to Muskrat Falls and the effort to protect the natural environment and food that Indigenous communities in the area have depended on for thousands of years.
She said she has been inspired by 12-year-old water protector Autumn Peltier of Wikwemikong First Nation.
On Friday she stood up in the courtroom and made a statement to the judge before being escorted out by Sheriff’s officers.
“I just suddenly shouted out, ‘Nalcor should be in court! Nalcor is in contempt of Labrador!’ I said environmental assessments should have teeth. Then the guards were on me and I was hanging on to the bench. I said, ‘You’re not going to shut me up — I’m going to yell across the land [that] this isn’t right and Nalcor is in contempt of Labrador!’
“When I stood up it was just a force, like I have to do this. I’m grateful that I am connecting to these forces and these understandings — it’s an expansion of my awareness,” she explained.
“I can only hope that more people, in their own ways, [will too]. You don’t necessarily have to be Indigenous…we are all from the Earth.”
Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe did not respond to The Independent’s requests for comment by the time of publication.
On Monday afternoon NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell issued a statement calling for the “immediate release” of Learning, Davis and Flowers.
“We also demand that the Attorney General of Newfoundland and Labrador, who is responsible for the administration of justice in this province, do his job,” said Russell. “We expect the administration of justice in this province to respect the nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples and to live up to promises around reconciliation. It can, and must, do better.”
Doherty said “although I know people are impatient with Nunatsiavut and not feeling our leaders are doing enough, it’s in our constitution that we’re reaffirming our relationship to our ancestral territory. Treasure the land, sea, waters, resources, plants, animals. It’s at the heart of our agreement because it’s right at the heart of our identity.”
The three incarcerated land protectors are reportedly due back in court for a follow-up hearing on July 31.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Marjorie Flowers was the second Inuk grandmother to be incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary related to the Muskrat Falls protests. Flowers has two children but is not a grandmother and the story has been amended to reflect this information.
Rumours that the Muskrat Falls project was going over budget began early.
In June 2013, less than six months after the project was sanctioned, Nalcor held its annual general meeting, where then CEO Ed Martin was asked whether contracts and tenders were coming in over budget.
“On the cost estimate side…you’ve heard there have been some significant issues. Currently there’s not, I can say that for sure, because…we know the expenditures and what we’re finding is right now we’re on time and on schedule,” Martin responded.
“I’m confident we are on cost and on schedule,” he later reiterated at the same AGM.
We now know that wasn’t true.
According to an SNC-Lavalin report written more than a month before the AGM, and recently made public:
These reviews were performed in light of the actual [Muskrat Falls] project situation, and the increases in pricing received on some major construction packages, well above their original estimated budget and schedule […] The pricing tendency is showing signs of being well above their original set budget.
Martin claims not to have seen the report even though SNC-Lavalin has said they tried to hand it over to Nalcor. In any case, if bids were coming in way over budget, as the report seems to indicate, it is difficult to imagine that Martin was unaware of it.
The SNC report estimated $2.4 billion of “risk exposure” for the project. This concept was explicitly defined in the report using a mathematical formula that takes into account how likely to occur and how difficult to manage these various risks were. It is important to understand that $2.4 billion was closer to a prediction, than to a worst case scenario (they use the term “probable consequence”).
For Martin to declare the project “on cost and on schedule” when the main contractor overseeing the project was predicting a 39 percent cost overrun was either deliberately misleading or grossly incompetent.
Incidentally, $2.4 billion is the same margin by which Muskrat Falls was declared the “least-cost option” in the Manitoba Hydro report used to justify the project.
Then Finance Minister Tom Marshall told The Independent that he had not seen the report at the time, but if he had it “would have rung all kinds of alarms”. Less than six months after sanction – and before the deal with Emera was signed – we could have paused and reassessed whether the project still made sense at a much higher price.
Instead, Martin — either intentionally or inadvertently — concealed the truth until it was allegedly too late to turn back.
This is not the first time Martin has been caught making false claims about cost overruns. At Nalcor’s 2015 AGM, the CEO was asked about the contract with Astaldi, the main contractor constructing the generating facility, a subject that had been debated in the House of Assembly.
“Is the Astaldi contract a fixed price contract?” he responded.
“The short answer is yes […] They get a unit amount for every bit of concrete they install […] Provided we don’t change the engineering specs, it’s in essence a fixed price contract.”
We learned a year later that this was false. According to a report by consultant Ernst-Young LLP, payment is “based on person-hours expended rather than [the amount] of concrete poured.”
The report went on to say:
This mechanism did not capture the potential for poor contract management of labour and the consequent decoupling of labour paid for from work completed (measured by [the amount] of concrete poured). As at December 2015, the proportion of contract value paid to the contractor is significantly greater than the proportion of the concrete that has been placed.
When questioned about this contradiction by Telegram reporter James McLeod, Martin claimed he didn’t remember saying it.
McLeod’s question was posed the same day Martin announced he was “stepping down” as CEO, and the issue hasn’t been pressed since.
These examples fit into a sustained pattern of misleading or false public statements about the Muskrat Falls project.
If Tom Marshall is to be believed, then senior cabinet ministers were kept in the dark as well.
Many people must have been complicit, including some who remain in positions of authority within Nalcor.
It is imperative that this matter be thoroughly investigated and that those guilty of wrongdoing be brought to justice.
A forensic audit is a good place to start. The sooner, the better.
Tom Baird was born and raised in Gander and spent several years in Ontario and England before returning to the island to work as a math professor at Memorial University. He has been involved with Occupy Newfoundland and Labrador since its inception in 2011. Tom enjoys analyzing socio-political issues using quantitative evidence. In addition to writing for The Independent, he also blogs at OccupyNL.ca and tweets under the handle @BairdTom.
As land protectors in Labrador block access to the Labrador Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay for a third consecutive week, a growing number of people around the province are joining them in calling for transparency and accountability around the multi-billion dollar Muskrat Falls hydro project.
On Monday dozens marched in the streets of St. John’s, amplifying the call for a forensic audit of Nalcor Energy, an investigation into the North Spur, and an independent inquiry into the entire project, which at $12.7 billion and rising has doubled from its initially projected costs. The project is at least two years behind schedule, and locals say it presents a major risk to the lives of people living in downstream communities.
Following the June 23 release of an April 2013 SNC-Lavalin report that, buried for four years, foreshadowed significant cost overruns and other problems with the controversial megaproject, Premier Dwight Ball and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady have changed their tone on an inquiry, saying they now agree with critics that investigation is warranted but not until the project is complete.
Critics say that’s not good enough, and that the people of the province want evidence that there has been no collusion between, or corruption within, government or industry. They are also demanding proof that continuing the project is in the province’s best interest and won’t result in greater financial burden.
“We demand that this province shut Muskrat down. Muskrat Falls is destroying us economically and environmentally,” St. John’s protest organizer Elise Thorburn of Anti-Poverty NL told a crowd gathered at Harbourside Park Monday. “It is time for us to respect Indigenous rights, respect the rights of poor and working people in this province and shut Muskrat down.”
A Facebook description for Monday’s protest called Muskrat Falls “a disaster that will amplify poverty across NL,” arguing the billions in cost overruns are “driving austerity and killing our social programs.
“The doubled rates will force us to choose between keeping our lights on and eating. The dam is poisoning Labradorians’ traditional food supply and its instability threatens to wash away their homes.
“We need to show that this is not okay. We need justice for the indigenous peoples, working families and folks living in poverty who are harmed by this project while the Provincial Government and Nalcor spend billions.”
A spokesperson from SNC-Lavalin recently told CBC the company “produced a report, in 2013,” and that they “attempted to hand it over to Nalcor.”
In 2013, amid ongoing investigations by the RCMP into the Montreal-based engineering and construction giant’s business practices centring around allegations of fraud and corruption, the World Bank blacklisted SNC and many of its affiliates from bidding on the bank’s global projects. SNC’s conduct, according to the World Bank, moved Canada to the top of the list, giving the appearance that Canadian companies are among the most corrupt in the world.
Former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin denies allegations he was made aware of SNC’s report. Ball and current Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall have called Martin’s claims into question, though no one in Nalcor or the government have agreed to an audit or investigation while the project is ongoing.
St. John’s lawyer Cabot Martin of the anti-Muskrat Falls group Vision 2041 and author of the book Muskrat Madness spoke at Monday’s demonstration in St. John’s.
He recalled taking part in a large anti-Muskrat Falls protest in St. John’s in 2012.
“Back then we were afraid that something might happen,” he told the crowd at Harbourside Park. “And now…we see that it has happened.”
Martin called the project a “massive blow to our economy and our society,” arguing a forensic audit should precede any inquiry and that one should be launched immediately.
“You cannot design a public inquiry until you know what went on,” he said. “We can still stop this project, and you must never, ever give up on that because we haven’t seen the half of what’s going to happen if we don’t.”
On Tuesday former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Brian Peckford published an open letter to Ball, calling for a forensic audit of Nalcor and a public inquiry “if circumstances warrant it as a result of the audit.
“No doubt it could be argued that this audit could slow down the project. I think not,” Peckford wrote on his blog. “To me, time is now the enemy of the good—to anyone ever finding out what happened.
“A number of years from now will be too late—new circumstances, different political dynamics will mitigate against the real answers being discovered.”
Broken promises on methylmercury mitigation
Last October, amid an Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp, Ball struck a deal with Innu and Inuit leaders that would see the government command Nalcor to lower reservoir water levels in the springtime to mitigate methylmercury production until further exploration of the possibility of full reservoir clearing was done.
On June 21, the first day of summer, and just a week and a half after Nalcor said it wouldn’t be lowering reservoir levels according to the terms of the leaders’ agreement, but rather in mid-July, Ball announced Nalcor had in fact begun releasing water.
In a statement that same day, Nalcor said it would “take several days to gradually and safely lower the water levels from the current elevation of 21.5m to levels that would typically be seen at this time of year.”
Asked for evidence Nalcor has in fact lowered water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir, a spokesperson directed The Independent to a federal government website that provides real time updates on stage levels in the Churchill River above and below Muskrat Falls.
At the time of publication, the government’s hydrometric data graph for the Churchill River above Upper Muskrat Falls showed a primary water level reading of approximately 21.58 meters, almost identical to the reading on June 20 before Nalcor reportedly began lowering water levels.
According to a 2015 report by Amec Foster Wheeler that documented certain baseline conditions in the river above and below Muskrat Falls, the median daily stage (water) level in the “Churchill River above Muskrat Falls” for the years 2012, 2013 and 2014 ranged from 16.119 to 16. 314 meters, meaning the current water level in the Muskrat Falls reservoir is more than five meters higher than in recent years prior to the construction of the cofferdam and spillway.
Hours after this story was published, Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill contacted The Independent and explained that some of the data on the federal government’s website, which Nalcor directed The Independent to for this story, was not accurate. O’Neill said the government’s “Churchill River Above Muskrat Falls” water level monitoring station cannot actually measure water levels below 21.6 meters and that the device is presently out of the water.
“Basically the water level is below where that monitor station is located, therefore it cannot record any water level because it’s not in the water anymore.”
The other monitoring station near the Muskrat Falls facilities in the reservoir, called “Churchill River Mid Pool,” shows a June 21 reading of approximately 21.7 meters and a reading of approximately 21.1 meters at the time of publication, meaning the water level in the Muskrat Falls reservoir, according to the only federal government monitoring device capable of monitoring water levels at the present time, had dropped approximately 60 centimetres since Nalcor announced it would gradually release water over “several days” to levels “that would typically be seen at this time of year.”
According to an information sheet O’Neill sent The Independent Wednesday afternoon prior to The Independent’s interview with O’Neill, the “Churchill River Mid Pool” monitoring station is only able to measure water levels above 19.8 meters. According to the federal government’s hydrometric data graph for that same monitoring station, last Nov. 11 and 12, when Nalcor had to release water from the reservoir due to a leak in the cofferdam, the monitoring station recorded an approximate 7.5 meter water level drop in just four to five hours.
Asked what Nalcor considers a safe rate of water release from the reservoir, O’Neill said she would have to get back to The Independent.
She did explain, however, that the “primary station that Nalcor uses for water level on the reservoir” is one that Nalcor installed itself on May 4 of this year on the upstream cofferdam. That monitoring station read approximately 20.9 meters on July 5. O’Neill said the data from Nalcor’s monitoring station is not publicly available in near real time as is the case with the federal government’s monitoring program.
Asked what Nalcor means when it says it will lower water levels in the reservoir to levels “that would typically be seen at this time of year,” O’Neill said she would look into it and get back to The Independent.
If Nalcor’s claim is true that the two federal government hydrometric monitoring stations just above the Muskrat Falls facilities are not capable of recording water levels below 19.8 meters, then the only source of information regarding water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir, should water levels drop below that depth, would be Nalcor itself.
Trevor Bell, a research professor at Memorial University and one of the authors of the 2015 methymlercury study that projected elevated levels of the neurotoxin would bioaccumulate in the food web of marine animals Inuit living downstream consume, told The Independent last month that the delayed lowering of water levels in the reservoir, “based on our understanding of methylmercury production factors and limited results from previous experiments on reservoir soils from Muskrat Falls, will lead to increased production of methylmercury in inundated soils,” though he said how much methylmercury levels would increase “is currently unknown.”
He said “peak methymercury production rates are usually reached only after several years of soil inundation and therefore there should not be immediate cause for public concern,” but it is “critical that the necessary science be conducted on local soils from the reservoir so we can address public concerns and inform ‘the independent, evidence-based approach that will determine and recommend options for mitigating human health concerns related to methylmercury throughout the reservoir as well as in the Lake Melville ecosystem,'” he said, quoting the leaders’ October 2016 agreement.
Bell said Nalcor’s current methylmercury monitoring regime is inadequate if it is to provide certainty around changes in methylmercury concentrations.
“With 43% of their data so far below the detection limit for their analysis procedure, it will be difficult to determine actual changes in concentration over time,” Bell wrote in a June 20 email to The Independent.
“We have been arguing without success that a different analysis should be used that can resolve much lower concentrations of [methylmercury] in water. In their guidelines to the table of monitoring data they reference drinking water guidelines for the public to interpret the data. As you know, we have argued that you could drink a swimming pool of the water and it would not necessarily affect your health (other than being very bloated). It is the bioaccumulation factor that leads to high [methylmercury] levels in the food that Inuit eat. So small changes in water concentrations can have big changes high up in the food web.
“Only methylmercury analyses capable of detecting such changes will be reassuring to the public and of practical use to scientists,” he added.
No comfort on North Spur
In May the 50-60 residents of Mud Lake awoke in the pre-dawn hours to flood waters inundating their homes and community. They were airlifted across the Churchill River to Happy Valley-Goose Bay in an emergency evacuation.
Some have since returned to their homes and have begun repairing the damage, while others have found their homes beyond repair.
Mud Lake sits about 30 kilometres downstream of Muskrat Falls, adjacent Happy Valley-Goose Bay on the Churchill River near where the river empties into Lake Melville. There are no roads to the community; it is only accessible by boat or snowmobile.
Most people living in the area attribute the flooding to Muskrat Falls and many have joined a class action lawsuit against Nalcor.
For several years now some Mud Lake residents have been calling on Nalcor to provide evidence their lives are not being put at risk by the dam, citing local knowledge of the river and its banks, which they say are largely composed of sand and marine clay. Others believed Nalcor when the corporation said they had no reason to be worried.
Following the May flooding there is virtually unanimous concern among Mud Lake residents that there is a continued risk to their homes, community and lives, and most have joined the growing chorus of voices calling for an investigation into what’s known as the North Spur.
Many say the North Spur, a geological formation on the north side of the Churchill River that Nalcor is using as a “natural dam” as part of the project, will not hold once construction is complete and the reservoir is fully flooded.
In a Facebook post Tuesday Mud Lake resident Craig Chaulk called the May flood “devastating,” but said a collapse of the North Spur “will be nothing short of catastrophic.”
Randy Macmillan, a mechanical engineer and technologist who says he was one of the drillers who worked on the North Spur, has repeatedly told locals and media that his drilling team was unsuccessful at hitting bedrock during their 2013 drilling campaign and that he can’t in good conscience remain silent on the matter.
“We went 420 feet down, we never ever hit bedrock,” he told VOCM Open Line host Paddy Daly last month. “The bedrock is 800-900 feet down.”
Many who live in the flood zone downstream, which includes Mud Lake, Lower Happy Valley, Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation and North West River, have said Nalcor has not provided them with adequate evidence and reassurance that their lives are not being put at risk.
Last November Nalcor told The Independent in a written statement that the engineering design for stabilization of the North Spur “has been undertaken by qualified geotechnical engineers and verified by third-party experts,” and that “extensive field investigations have been completed to support the engineering design.”
The crown corporation said that “methods used to stabilize the North Spur are well known and used in the past,” that the Muskrat Falls “design review was done by three different external expert panels,” and that the “North Spur stabilization design is the result of 50 years of engineering investigations and design work.”
They went on to say that “over 30 reports on the North Spur are publicly available on the Muskrat Falls Project website,” and that “while the reports are technical in nature, over the years Nalcor has undertaken extensive effort to provide accurate and up-to-date information to the media, municipalities, concerned citizens, and the general public about the extensive work completed on the stabilization design of the North Spur.”
Nalcor also shared a five-page commentary authored by retired hydro engineer Jim Gordon, who for the previous year and a half had detailed his expert concerns regarding the North Spur on Des Sullivan’s Uncle Gnarley blog, but had suddenly, in October 2016, arrived at the conclusion that the dam was “safe”.
In April 2017 Gordon resumed his guest posts on Uncle Gnarley, retracting his brief about-face and calling a review by engineering consultant Hatch Ltd. “superficial”. Gordon, who has won awards for his work on large hydro dams in Canada and around the world, had previously based his belief in the safety of the North Spur on that very review. But he then found that review, he wrote, to be “based on incomplete data.”
Gordon firmly believes that the concerns around the North Spur necessitate a “thorough review by a board of geotechnical engineers with experience in soft sensitive clays.”
He is joined by other engineers, local residents living downstream, and politicians from opposition parties in fearing that if an inquiry into the stability of the North Spur is not completed, and subsequently if any necessary adjustments to the project are not made, Nalcor could be putting lives at risk.
In a July 2015 response to a number of concerns highlighted in a letter from Cabot Martin, former provincial Environment and Conservation Minister Dan Crummell acknowledged that Muskrat Falls was classified as an “extreme” risk dam, based on the Canadian Dam Safety’s classification criteria according to a worst-case dam breach scenario.
“As noted in the Muskrat Falls Dam Break Study, 2010…should the main dam fail, there will be one to two hours of warning time in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, inundation down to Mud Lake will occur, economic damage is estimated at $47 million for the loss of residential homes plus additional infrastructure losses, and the estimated potential loss of life is 136.”
In October 2016 The Independent published a guest op-ed from Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Jamie Snook, who said the Town did a preliminary analysis that predicted a full dam breach “would affect over 250 properties in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and cause nearly $60 million in real property damage” in their community alone.
Snook said Nalcor’s draft Emergency Plan was presented to the town council, and “in the event of a dam breach, we have almost an hour and a half before the flood waters arrive. Mud Lake gets a few more minutes and North West River and Sheshatshiu have two hours.”
The mayor said when the Town’s Environment and Emergency Preparedness Committee met with Nalcor to voice their concerns with Nalcor’s plan, “we were essentially told we are on our own.
“How have we gotten to this point where the dam is about to be completed and such vital questions about public health and safety remain unaddressed?” Snook asked.
Chaulk said in his Facebook post Tuesday that some Mud Lake residents face a dilemma in determining whether to rebuild their homes after the May flood.
“That decision is not an easy one to make without the reassurance that the dam is safe. Only an independent assessment will give us a measure of confidence,” he said.
Land protectors stand firm amid further charges
On Tuesday Labrador Land Protectors resumed their vigil and blockade of the Labrador Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Wednesday marks the twelfth consecutive business day they have prevented government employees from working out of their offices.
They maintain their protest is in response to what they say is Ball’s broken promise to maintain open communication with the land protectors regarding their concerns around Muskrat Falls.
Land protectors continue to hold a vigil outside the Labrador Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, where they have blocked access to the government building for 12 consecutive business days since June 19. Photo: Labrador Land Protectors / Facebook.
“The Labrador Land Protectors are forced to start week 3 of our Vigil at the Labrador Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay,” they said in a July 3 statement published on the group’s Facebook page. “This is due to the lack of respect and no response on our concerns from Government, in particular self-appointed Minister of Labrador Affairs Premier Dwight Ball.
“We have been very respectful in our attempts to communicate with NL Government on our concerns and demands regarding the Muskrat Falls hydro project. We continue to remain peaceful and within our rights as Canadians to assembly and request answers from our elected representatives.”
On June 30 Ball sent a statement to The Independent regarding the ongoing protest in Goose Bay, saying his employees’ work has not been interrupted and that they are “continuing to fulfill their duties in alternate locations without interruption.”
The premier also responded to land protectors’ call for a public inquiry, saying it’s “vital that we stay focused on getting the project completed to avoid additional costs associated with delays,” and that delaying an inquiry until the project is complete “will help avoid having those additional costs downloaded onto the rate payers of the province.
“But I want to be clear,” he continued, “it is not a matter if, but when, a public review of the project will occur, and at all times, the safety of the people of the province is our government’s foremost priority. We continue to assert this to Nalcor as the project is completed.”
On Tuesday plain clothes RCMP officers showed up at the land protectors’ protest outside the Labrador Affairs office and issued court summonses to five individuals. Three of those served told The Independent the new civil charges they face are related to previous protests.
Marjorie Flowers, one of the land protectors involved in the Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp last October, was one of those served on Tuesday.
Flowers, who already faces civil and criminal charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests, took to Facebook to say she won’t back down.
“Labrador is my home,” Flowers wrote. “My ancestors walked the footpaths of Muskrat Falls and surrounding region. Who will stand up for Labrador and its people, for our children and grandchildren? If we must go through this unjust bullying and ‘non-democracy’ – then SO BE IT. I’m stepping up to the plate. WE MUST.”
To date upward of 60 people in Labrador face civil and criminal charges related to the protests.
Last month Amnesty International Canada said it was investigating the incarceration of Inuit grandmother and land protector Beatrice Hunter, who was jailed for 10 days last month after refusing to promise a Supreme Court judge she would stay more than one kilometre away from the Muskrat Falls site.
Hunter was eventually released after her lawyer, Mark Gruchy, negotiated a modification to the conditions of Hunter’s undertaking. The Inuk land protector is now allowed to be within one kilometre of the Muskrat Falls site, which means she can protest in the designated area across the highway from the main gate; in turn, she promised to adhere to the undertaking.
Hunter’s incarceration made national and international headlines, drawing condemnation from Indigenous leaders, land defenders, human rights organizations and politicians.
It also highlighted what Amnesty International Canada Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples Craig Benjamin called a “bias” inherent in court injunctions sought by corporations against Indigenous people.
Benjamin said the 2007 Ipperwash Inquiry concluded that “it’s so much easier for corporations or crown corporations to show potential damage in a way the lower court can understand it,” and that “when Indigenous Peoples see governments or corporations taking action that threatens the imminent destruction of a sacred site, of activities that contribute to a traditional way of life, the impacts on future generations, the courts have proven really resistant to implementing an injunction.
“At the end of the day you have a fundamental discrimination that’s created, where the court system is more responsive to the claims of economic impact on society as a whole than it is [in] protecting the rights of those who are really most at need.”
In one case last week regarding the civil charges against land protectors, Supreme Court of N.L. Justice George Murphy ruled that Inuk grandmother, Elder and land protector Shirley Flowers was not guilty of breaking an injunction during the protests.
In a written statement to The Independent Flowers said she “will continue to be present” in the Muskrat Falls resistance.
“My hope is that our message [and] my message will become clear to those who have the authority and the good sense to make the necessary changes or moves to stop the project before it’s too late.
“If and when a life is lost, or the water is too toxic for traditional food sustenance, then it is too late,” she continued.
“To me, making Muskrat right is stopping the Muskrat project entirely and then to try and restore as much as possible from the damages.”
Last month Corporate Research Associates released the results of a recent poll that alleges four in 10 people in Newfoundland and Labrador support Muskrat Falls, and that support for the project has been trending downward for the past two years.
Premier Ball did not respond to The Independent’s request for comment regarding the apparent lack of change in water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir in spite of his and Nalcor’s claims that they were in fact being lowered.
Another anti-Muskrat Falls protest is planned for this Saturday, where people in St. John’s will gather outside Nalcor’s headquarters on Columbus Drive for an “Audit Nalcor Open Mike”.
“Please join us and let government and your fellow Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know why you believe we need to audit Nalcor now, have a public inquiry into Muskrat Falls, or even Shut Muskrat Down,” the Facebook event description reads.
Organizers hope people in other communities will plan protests and create a province-wide day of action.
Correction: The original version of this story stated water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir had not decreased since Nalcor’s statement on June 21 that it had begun releasing water from the reservoir. This claim was based on data obtained from the federal government’s website that Nalcor directed The Independent to for an answer to this publication’s query regarding current water levels. After this story was published a spokesperson from Nalcor contacted The Independent to explain that the data was incorrect because the government’s monitoring station in question was not capable of measuring water levels below a certain value. According to government data from another monitoring station in the Muskrat Falls reservoir, water levels sit at about 21.1 meters (at the time of this correction), meaning water levels in the reservoir have dropped approximately 60 centimetres since June 21.
The protestors are already lining up for Thursday’s industry-government cash-for-access event at the Johnson GEO CENTRE in St. John’s.
Earlier this month The Telegramrevealed the quietly organized fundraising event for the St. John’s Board of Trade, which allows members who cough up at least $500 to network with Premier Dwight Ball and cabinet ministers in an “intimate” setting.
According to The Telegram, the Board of Trade pitched it as a “unique, one-of-a-kind opportunity to network with some of the most influential people in Newfoundland and Labrador in government and the private sector,” and an “intimate event with 5-6 people per table allowing you maximum opportunity to network.”
What’s the big deal?
Why would anyone have a problem with this?
Well, let’s think. There is, first of all, the struggling not-for-profit that the proceeds are going to help.
Yes, the Board of Trade is a non-profit. Perhaps not one in the sense that we usually associate with non-profits, which do things like help children suffering from terminal illness, or coordinate earthquake recovery efforts abroad, or fundraise to support impoverished artists. The Board of Trade represents as lot of rich folks; it’s a lobby group for business owners.
But given that it’s a non-profit and must fundraise its revenues, what’s wrong with it offering lobby sessions with government in an “intimate” setting? Is there anything wrong with government-industry speed-dating sessions?
Consider the difficulty most of us have in meeting with government regarding important issues.
Take, for example, the union representing library workers, which has not been able to get a single meeting with Education Minister Dale Kirby to talk about the library system which his government has been trying to eviscerate.
People in Labrador have blocked access to a government office in Goose Bay for eight consecutive business days. They are trying to get the premier’s attention and a commitment to do a forensic audit of Nalcor and the Muskrat Falls project and an independent study on the North Spur. Labrador Land Protectors / Facebook.
Or the fact that Indigenous land protectors like Inuk grandmother Beatrice Hunter have to put their lives and freedom on the line in order to get government’s attention. At this very moment, in fact, people are blockading the Labrador Affairs Office in Goose Bay for an eighth consecutive business day to get government’s ear and a promise that the health and safety of their communities will not be put at risk.
How might those people feel about industry lobbyists getting “intimate” and “one-of-a-kind” opportunities to have supper and “network” with cabinet ministers simply because they have the money to do so?
When it is difficult for community-based organizations to schedule meetings with government, the eagerness with which cabinet ministers make themselves available for an intimate evening with industry is understandably troubling.
Premier Dwight Ball and cabinet ministers. Photo: Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador.
There is also the concern that perhaps cabinet ministers’ time would be better spent attending to the needs of their constituents rather than wining and dining with industry lobbyists. When rural communities are unable to provide safe drinking water to their residents, the notion of ministers’ time being spent networking with businesspeople and corporate elites at an event designed to raise money for a lobby group that includes many of the richest people in this province is understandably revolting.
Some of us in this province might have a more basic, visceral response to the event. For someone living in Nain, or so many other communities in Labrador, the thought of ministers and lobbyists munching on complimentary cheese and crackers might provoke anger when government inaction has resulted in a single can of chicken noodle soup costing over $7, and a 12-pack of blueberry muffins over $70 for northern residents.
Others might question the priorities of a government which supports fundraising initiatives of lobby groups like the Board of Trade, whose submission to the WorkPlaceNL Policy Review last year called on government to “draft more stringent language that does not unfairly burden employers” when it comes to compensation for workplace injuries, and whose submission to the provincial government’s minimum wage indexation review argued against increases to the minimum wage, and even called for “inexperienced” and bar and restaurant staff to be exempted from the minimum wage.
These are, presumably, the sort of proposals they will be discussing intimately with cabinet ministers Thursday evening.
There is also quite a prevalent attitude in this province that the wealthy and industry have far too cozy a relationship with government and enjoy a disproportionate degree of government’s time and attention. Events like this simply underscore that sense. In a province where government has made very poor decisions that hurt the public and benefit a small number of wealthy industrialists—Muskrat Falls, for instance—the public anger over this relationship is not only understandable, it is very sensible.
There is talk of an inquiry into Muskrat Falls, to figure out how such a disastrous deal was approved by government with so little objective analysis or oversight. But we only need to look at events like this week’s cash-for-access fundraiser to start getting a sense of how it happened.
Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.
Barely four months after the Muskrat Falls project was sanctioned in December 2012 the company responsible for Engineering, Procurement, and Construction Management (EPCM) did a risk assessment and concluded that it had “serious concerns” about the project, warning there was a “very high risk” of cost overruns of $2.4 billion, or “a potential cost overrun of 39% at 20% of project completion.”
According to the report, as the company responsible for EPCM on Muskrat Falls SNC-Lavalin had a “legal obligation to advise its client [Nalcor Energy] of any major risks that will cause prejudice to the project and which deviates significantly from its budget and schedule.”
The warning in SNC-Lavalin’s risk assessment remained buried for more than four years, until Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall delivered the assessment to Premier Dwight Ball and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady—last week, according to Marshall—who made the report public on June 23.
In April 2013 major procurements, such as Astaldi’s $1.26 billion contract to construct the intake, powerhouse and spillway, had not yet been awarded.
In the report SNC-Lavalin says the risk assessment was triggered by “increases in pricing received on some major construction packages, well above their original estimated budget and schedule.”
The company “strongly suggested that these identified risks be discussed openly and with full transparency” with Nalcor Energy officials.
The report’s authors also expressed their expectation that their findings would reach the public domain, stating that “the Public’s interest, as well as the Provincial and Federal governments’ interests need to be safeguarded.”
In the intervening four years the capital cost estimate for Muskrat Falls has climbed from $6.2 billion to $10.1 billion.
Former premier Tom Marshall, who was Natural Resources minister in 2013 at the time the report was allegedly shared with Nalcor, said he was not aware of SNC’s cost overrun warning.
“I never saw that report before,” he told The Independent earlier this week.
Asked if the contents of the report would have made a difference had he known, Marshall said it “would have rung all kind of alarms.”
Marshall, who also served as finance minister in late 2013 until being appointed interim premier in January 2014 following Kathy Dunderdale’s resignation, recalls having conversations with Nalcor Energy’s CEO at the time, Ed Martin.
Marshall said he and Martin discussed how Nalcor was attempting to mitigate risks, but that SNC’s risk assessment was never mentioned. Asked if it was possible Nalcor withheld the report’s findings from him, Marshall replied, “That would be terrible. I can’t fathom if that was the case.”
In a prepared statement on June 26 Martin said he “did not receive this report in 2013,” and that “it was neither presented nor sent to me at Nalcor.”
He later told The Telegram that he “hadn’t seen it. I haven’t received it,” and that he has “no recollection of anything like that.”
Stan Marshall, Martin’s successor as of April 2016, said Wednesday he was unable to find a copy of the 2013 SNC-Lavalin risk assessment in Nalcor Energy’s files.
A spokesperson for SNC-Lavalin told The Telegram and allnewfoundlandlabrador.com the company “attempted to hand it over to Nalcor,” and that “when we were asked for the report, we provided it.”
On Wednesday Stan Marshall issued a statement saying he “first became aware of the April 2013 SNC-Lavalin report in early June 2016 during a conversation with an engineer who previously worked for SNC.”
That engineer, Marshall said, “made reference to the report but did not have a copy,” so Marshall “subsequently asked Nalcor Energy executives about the report but no one was aware of it nor was there a copy in the company’s records. A couple of days later in a meeting with SNC executives I inquired about the report and they subsequently provided me a copy.”
Marshall said SNC executives told him that “senior SNC representative(s) had met with [Martin] in 2013 to present the report but the report had not been accepted.”
He said he has “no personal knowledge of the circumstances under which the report was prepared nor what, if anything, transpired between SNC and Nalcor representatives in relation to the report prior to my receiving a copy.
“On my reading of the SNC report I took it as confirmation that by April 2013 professionals associated with the Muskrat Falls Project had recognized the risk factors that have subsequently increased the cost of the project.”
SNC-Lavalin’s 2013 risk assessment report warned of a “very high risk” of $2.4 billion in cost overruns. The project’s current price tag stands at more than $12 billion. Photo by Justin Brake.
In his June 26 statement Martin said he is “satisfied that all of the risks identified in the report released June 23 were identified and mitigation plans [were] put in place within the Muskrat Falls Project Team.”
The SNC report expressed “concern” that Nalcor “has limited experience in huge civil work and earth-filled dam work, power line and power station works.”
Gilbert Bennett, Nalcor’s Vice-President in charge of Muskrat Falls, has as extensive background in telecommunications but no experience in building dams.
A March 2014 government news release from Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley, who succeeded Tom Marshall in that portfolio in October 2013, referenced the government’s “robust oversight of the Muskrat Falls project”.
The private members’ motion Dalley was addressing in that release, which passed in the House of Assembly earlier that day, stated the government “ensured that there has been more information made public about this project than any other project in the province’s history, providing opportunity for review by the public, government, and independent experts.”
The release stated “responsible oversight of the Muskrat Falls Project continues to be undertaken by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, Government of Canada, Nalcor Energy, project lenders, and independent experts.” It did not mention SNC-Lavalin.
Two days later in the House of Assembly Dalley again spoke to the government’s alleged record of robust oversight of the Muskrat Falls project, saying “nobody is prepared to mortgage the future of this Province if it is not the right investment to do.
“I am not putting my signature on a paper that costs my children $6 billion and $7 billion into the future,” he continued. “I can tell you the work is done. The oversight is there.”
Just in the last few days a shift happened in the public discussion of Muskrat Falls.
Premier Ball held a press conference last Friday, revealing a 2013 risk assessment report that outlined in stark terms the very real possibility that the project would go all wrong – most of what the report said has come to pass.
Ball’s press conference followed an announcement by Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall that the project costs had ballooned by another billion dollars, to $12.7 billion, doubling the original cost estimate. Marshall stated the Muskrat Falls project is worse for the province than the reviled Upper Churchill deal, a sentiment echoed by Ball.
Land protectors are currently blocking access to the Office of Labrador Affairs building in Goose Bay for the second consecutive week. Photo by Jacinda Beals.
The Muskrat Falls project is now undeniably an existential threat to the entire province. It is no longer just a threat to the Labrador communities left to deal with the environmental effects. It is also a direct threat to the possibilities of a liveable future for the everyday people of Newfoundland and Labrador. The government is promising measures to mitigate the worst impacts on working people, though this has done little, in the immediate moment, to stem the wave of anger and self-debasement sweeping the province.
The public discussion of Muskrat Falls is now totally negative. Virtually no one is speaking favourably of the project. None of the initial vim for the project, none of its framing as a heroic narrative of overcoming, none of the patriotic sentiment attached to the project remains. Much of the talk now is a despondent lament about whether it is justifiable to uproot entire families and move away.
Along with this, there is an increasing chorus calling for an audit of Nalcor and for a public inquiry into the planning, sanctioning, and implementation of the project. I fully support both an audit and an inquiry happening right now.
At the same time, there is an immediate need for a grassroots mobilization, an uprising, a popular revolt. Such a revolt could look like the uprising that took place in Quebec in 2012, though of course on a scale and in a manner culturally and socially appropriate in the Newfoundland and Labrador context.
One reason for this is that there is little reason to think the same political institution that failed on such a massive scale is capable of assessing or correcting itself – at least not without significant public pressure.
A second reason for a grassroots mobilization is simply a matter of principle. Regardless of whether a popular movement even achieves any specific aims – such as an audit, an inquiry, political reform, stopping the project, or any other conceivable aims – it is only correct that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador show they will not tolerate such treatment.
“If the people of the province do not make a principled and resolute stand, it telegraphs to those with political and economic power that one day they may be able to pull off this same sort of scam again,” writes Jon Parsons. Photo by Janet Cooper.
The issue of whether a mass movement (or even formal political mechanisms like an audit or inquiry) may further increase costs of the project is entirely irrelevant with respect to making a principled stand. It is a question of ethics, not economics. It is ridiculous to suggest that doing the right thing needs to wait until it is convenient to those with political and economic power. This is about our dignity and our sense of self-respect. If the people of the province do not make a principled and resolute stand, it telegraphs to those with political and economic power that one day they may be able to pull off this same sort of scam again.
Because that’s what this was. It was a scam. It was a deceptive campaign – both intentional and unintentional, on the part of different players – to aggrandize and enrich a few at the expense of the many. One of the worst consequences of all this, aside from the real physical and economic harm, is that regular folks are being made to blame themselves if they happened to take the bait in the first place. Said plainly, it is not your fault. It is not your fault.
But it will be all our fault, all of us regular folks of Newfoundland and Labrador, if we let this pass and do nothing.
There is right now an ethical imperative of revolt.
It is incumbent on the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to make sure those with political and economic power understand that the costs are just too high to ever even consider doing anything like this again.
Of course, it would have been better to never go down this road in the first place. But here we are. What happens now will determine how this is remembered in the future: whether as yet another example of our ongoing exploitation, or as the moment we rose up and said no more.
The price of Muskrat Falls is now $12.7 billion and rising. The public will soon see this reflected on their rising energy bills. This doesn’t include the incalculable costs to health and safety being experienced by people in Labrador, nor the systemic violence and colonialism Indigenous communities are facing as they struggle to protect their lands, lives, and ways of life against a project which is now overwhelmingly recognized as a disaster.
Even the Liberal government seems to have accepted that an independent audit of Muskrat Falls is inevitable. Instead of denying it, they’re now desperately trying to delay it.
There is no longer any serious debate about whether Muskrat Falls was a good idea. Even the person running it admits it’s a disaster that should never have happened. This means that the question for us now is: What do we do about it?
Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall and Premier Dwight Ball brush off the question. There’s nothing we can do but plow on and deal with the consequences, they say.
Yet neither have provided compelling evidence to back up their position.
In an effort to divert blame away from himself and onto former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin, on Friday Ball produced a 2013 SNC-Lavalin report which he says arrived in his hands only the day before, and which predicted many of the present problems, namely enormous cost overruns. Martin responded by saying he’d never seen the report. Then, earlier today, Ball announced he learned from SNC that its representatives met with Nalcor in 2013 and briefed the crown corporation on the report, allegedly including Martin.
The disorganized incompetence represented by the surfacing of this four-year-old report, and the he-said-she-said soap opera drama being perfectly executed by political and corporate leaders underscore why an independent inquiry is so vital.
On Tuesday Ball and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady said they are working to gather all relevant documentation to launch an eventual audit or inquiry, though they reportedly maintain such a pursuit cannot happen until the project is complete, since it would “take away from finishing Muskrat Falls.”
Premier maintains that he has been given advice that doing investigation now would take attention away from finishing Muskrat Falls. #nlpoli
If the people in charge don’t even have all the facts in front of them as they’re making decisions, or if they’re not being forthright with the information they have, how can we trust any of the decisions they make?
We need an independent inquiry into Muskrat Falls right now, for three reasons.
First, there are still unresolved questions about the health and safety implications of the project, from methylmercury poisoning, to how the dam will change the behaviour of the river downstream and impact travel on the water and ice, to the belief among many locals that the North Spur will not support the dam. Piecemeal efforts have been made to address some of these issues, but there needs to be a thorough, independent effort by a credible independent inquiry empowered to access all the data and records it needs from Nalcor and its subcontractors and partners.
Second, we need accountability. Some have argued there’s no point, the damage is done, let’s move on.
This is the wrong attitude.
We need to correct and repair the problems in our political decision-making processes that led to this disaster. We need justice and accountability from individuals who are guilty, indeed. But if the flawed decision-making that led to Muskrat Falls is not understood and corrected, then we risk it infecting all other decision-making in this province. We need to know what went wrong. Because whatever it was, until we figure it out, it’s still happening.
Third, we need to know whether continuing is the best course of action. Marshall and Ball claim it is, but they have provided no compelling evidence to the public to back up their claims, nor can they themselves. The only compelling evidence is that which an independent inquiry with full access to all of Nalcor and the government’s data and documents could produce.
The premier has said that an audit should happen, but that it could slow things down or increase the costs of the project, and that it should wait until the project is completed. That’s nonsense. We are still plowing into multi-billion-dollar debt. Time is of the essence. We need an independent inquiry now.
We should also be clear on what the inquiry would involve.
Some people are talking about a forensic audit and investigation of cost estimates; others are talking about an inquiry into the North Spur. What we need is an independent inquiry with a broad, yet clearly defined, mandate that includes a forensic audit, and that investigates the poor cost estimates and financial planning, the health and safety implications of the project, the scale and integrity of engagement with local and Indigenous communities, how and why social sanction was pursued by the provincial government and its corporate partners, the response to protests and respect for Labradorians’ civil rights and Indigenous peoples’ constitutional rights, and the chain of command and political and corporate involvement at all levels of the project.
The inquiry must be able to ascertain clearly who was responsible for what, and excavate the integrity and robustness of decision-making processes which took place. It must have full, unimpeded access to documents, records and data.
Boondogglers in charge
We should remember that the people responsible for this disaster are still running public affairs.
Dozens of politicians who blindly supported the initiative are still sitting in office. Numbers of senior bureaucrats who participated in the decision-making are likely still making decisions. Senior managers and economists from Nalcor to the various financial institutions that helped finance the project are also likely still making decisions, entrusted with millions of dollars of public funds. If their crime is one of omission—failing to do their due diligence, to question presented truths, to ascertain facts, to weigh the plausibility of data presented to them—or one of wilful ignorance or manipulation of the facts, they must be held to account.
We need to know which it was: willful manipulation, or colossal stupidity? And we need accountability either way. A colossal disaster of this scale that risks bankrupting future generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians cannot be allowed to proceed without those responsible being held to account.
Danny Williams, who sold the project to the people of the province on a promise of “clean and green” renewable energy despite the history of large hydro dams in northern Canada causing the same problems for Indigenous communities we’re now seeing in Labrador, and despite the fact so many of them have gone way over cost, is now engineering an entire community on the Northeast Avalon.
If Williams is responsible for the poor decision, and for acquiring a social license without providing information that was readily available about the product in question, is it fair that he doesn’t have to pay a fair share of his wealth as partial compensation? The former PC premier will forever be associated with the scandalous disaster he’s unleashed on the province, and that legacy is one that will haunt his name forever. But is it fair that Williams enjoy his remaining days in freedom, wealth and luxury while the people of the province he’s set on a collision course with penury pay the price in suffering and hardship?
We will never ensure our politicians take their roles seriously if we do not ensure they face serious consequences for their poor decisions.
How many have apologized and admitted their guilt or error? An independent inquiry is needed to achieve the accountability that our politicians, decision-makers and senior bureaucrats are currently dodging.
If not now, when?
There is no better time to launch an independent inquiry into Muskrat Falls than now.
When else would we do it? When the cost has risen another billion or two? When the projected cost of energy on future residents of the province has risen yet further? When more documents magically come to light just in time for a convenient press conference? When another town has been washed away, its residents rendered homeless?
Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall and Premier Dwight Ball have “built a pattern of blaming other people for the problems they face,” writes Hans Rollmann. Photos: Nalcor & N.L. House of Assembly.
Or perhaps after another election, when our familiar gang of MHAs are once again safely installed for another four years? After the leadership mantle has been safely passed on to another premier—an Andrew Parsons or a Gerry Byrne or a Steve Kent—who can then simply blame the previous one? Or perhaps even Paul Davis again, who could then blame Ball for not doing anything during his time as premier to correct the mistakes of Davis’ previous tenure as premier. The cycle could continue endlessly.
If Premier Ball, with the bureaucracy of an entire government at his disposal for the past two years, with Muskrat Falls as the key issue facing his government, with the province sliding billions of dollars into debt, is incapable of unearthing a key four-year-old report, then it is time for someone else to do the job.
When it comes to their roles with Muskrat Falls, Marshall and Ball have built a pattern of blaming other people for the problems they face. But Marshall has been on the job now for a little over a year; Ball for a year and a half. The problems we now face are of their doing.
Both could have stopped the project. Both insisted stopping it would be worse than continuing—on the basis of what evidence, we do not know. They have not provided us any compelling evidence, nor have they opened the project’s books and records to persuade us. They have not allowed an independent inquiry to verify their sweeping claims. And as they continue to refuse an inquiry, the costs keep rising and mysterious information keeps appearing.
If they had stopped the project, they would not now be announcing further overruns. They would instead be negotiating a finite sum to get us out of this mess — an exit fee that would be set in stone and not keep rising for the next decade.
If they had stopped the project, the people of Mud Lake might still have homes.
If it emerges that the flooding of Mud Lake was in any way related to Muskrat Falls, then the fault of wiping out a community and rendering much of its population homeless will rest squarely on the shoulders of Ball and Marshall, the people who decided to proceed with the project with no independent review.
It’s not too late
Support for Muskrat Falls is at its lowest point ever. The majority of people in the province are opposed to it. It’s cost the province billions and may yet cost us billions more. It will inflate our energy bills for years to come. It has turned Labrador against the Island, divided Indigenous communities, sparked mass protests, jailed grandmothers and led to police violence against youth. It’s devastating the province’s most magnificent river—one sacred to the Innu and Inuit for thousands of years—and is poisoning the land and disrupting traditional ways of life. It’s endangering the lives and safety of downstream communities, and the health of an even larger swath of communities.
Stopping Muskrat Falls may yet be the most sensible, humane, and cost-effective thing to do. Billions have been committed. But how many more billions will we find ourselves paying if the project continues? How many billions from taxpayers’ pockets in the form of inflated energy bills? How many billions from class-action lawsuits over the environmental and health impacts down the road (which will also, inevitably, trickle down to taxpayers’ wallets).
Stopping the project may yet be the most effective thing to do. But we don’t know, because we haven’t had a trustworthy, independent study look at it, with full access to Nalcor and the government’s data and records.
It’s not as though stopping the project would mean simply walking away. Rehabilitating the project site could generate millions—perhaps billions—in federal environmental funding, and hundreds of new jobs. It could be converted into a monument and ceremonial centre honouring the Indigenous communities for whom the river is sacred, and who are fighting for its (and their) survival. It could become the province’s first and greatest monument to reconciliation. The tourism potential of such a site would generate immense revenue and jobs, not to mention the respect of the world.
At present, Muskrat Falls is a glaring symbol of the stupidity, greed and colonial attitudes of our province’s political leaders and corporate partners. By ending this disastrous, failed hydro project and reconceptualizing it as a proud, rehabilitated Reconciliation Site, we would also be marking, for the world to see, the moment we turned things around for ourselves.
It would be a living, flowing symbol of our collective decision to bring an end to the short-sighted foolishness that’s characterized our political leadership, and a sign of our determination to start doing things right. We would stop being the laughing-stock of the developed world, and instead garner the pride and admiration that we deserve as a kind, caring province.
But this requires owning our mistake, not blaming it on others. And the first step is an independent inquiry, to learn the truth about this project and all the mistakes that defined it, and to form an objective, independent assessment of the best way to move forward, which might mean not moving forward with Muskrat Falls as an energy project.
Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.
Dear Dwight Ball, Premier and Minister of Intergovernmental and Indigenous Affairs,
I am writing this letter to you in regards to Discovery Day, the provincial statutory holiday celebrating John Cabot’s “discovery” of this province — held on June 26 this year.
I have several issues with this particular holiday, beginning with the fact that this Italian sailor’s name was actually Giovanni Caboto. Whether it was because his voyage was under the King of England or the fact that his name is not English enough for our ears I am not certain, but somehow everything in this province has been named Cabot instead of Caboto. It seems a bit crass to refer to someone by their anglicized name rather than their actual name, especially given that he left behind such a vast legacy that this province keeps capitalizing on.
The fact remains that the place had been bustling with Indigenous Peoples—and for a short time the Norse Vikings—thousands of years before he happened upon this rock.
My second issue with this day is the name itself—because good ol’ Giovanni did not discover anything. He showed up on his boat in 1497, and while we can speculate about what he saw that day the fact remains that the place had been bustling with Indigenous Peoples—and for a short time the Norse Vikings—thousands of years before he happened upon this rock.
Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism has also referenced this fact in their latest Canada 150 advertisement, Age is Just A Number, which follows a timeline from 3.9 billion years ago to present. They even placed “discovered” in quotation marks on their website. Do you see the irony here? If I popped over to England today and claimed to discover it, even though people have lived there for millennia, do you think the local governments would accept my claim and give me a holiday? It is ludicrous.
This year we find ourselves in a strange trifecta of holidays all happening in rapid succession: National Aboriginal Day, Discovery Day and Canada’s 150th birthday. We begin by “celebrating” the First Peoples in this province (although that needs work too; the province should do more to celebrate it than just issue a press release); the next week we celebrate an explorer who “discovered” the Island even though we know he didn’t actually discover it because Indigenous people were already here; and lastly we jump right into celebrating Canada’s official consolidation.
What all this ought to remind us is that the past 150 years — in fact, the past 7,000 years — have marked a lengthy period of Indigenous Peoples’ resistance to colonialism.
Some easy solutions
There are straightforward, concrete solutions we can take action on to tackle this problem of continuing to celebrate a myth while downplaying Newfoundland and Labrador’s true history of colonialism.
First of all, let’s rename the day already — it is long overdue. I suggest calling it ‘Reconciliation Day’. We could establish annual goals to move the province closer to reconciliation with the First Peoples here. Then, provide annual check-ins to ensure that the set objectives are being met. If they are not, we should determine the reasons why and address them.
We could also align the statutory holiday with National Aboriginal Day on June 21, so that people in this province can participate in events on that day. We could follow the example set this year by Yukon and pave the way for other provinces to follow suit.
Another small gesture on the province’s path to Truth and Reconciliation could be to create a memorial to all of the children who perished at the hands of residential schools and to honour the more than 800 survivors in this province. The rest of Canada seems eager to forget the five schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, and while this province is riddled with memorials to other disasters and wars, we have yet to own, acknowledge and remember this is one legacy.
Also, commit your government to ongoing, active decolonization practices which could include:
Cultural diversity training for government officials and employees with the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre;
Sit down in a community like Nain and discuss the abhorrent cost of food and how your removal of the Air Foodlift Subsidy Program has further weakened food security in the north;
Meet with the Innu Nation and ask them what they need to address the suicide and addictions crisis so many of our people are facing;
Speak with the many Mi’kmaq from this province who are disenfranchised by the status registration process and join forces with them to challenge the federal government’s colonial and racist Indian Act;
Work with Miawpukek to speed up the repatriation of the Beothuk remains from Scotland so these bones can finally come home to rest;
Create a land acknowledgement and use it regularly at the beginning of every public meeting.
Finally, reevaluate your ongoing practices of colonialism against land protectors and other resisting the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador. These people have been pleading for years that the project would damage their land, poison their food and destroy their way of life, and yet they continually have to demonstrate and shout for you to listen.
Nalcor and your government are both implicated in this mess and both of you continue to persecute people for speaking out about their deepest fears and acting in self-defence. I cannot imagine what it must be like to inhabit your ancestral lands and now live in terror of drowning in your bed or living to see your children suffer the consequences of methylmercury poisoning.
A crown corporation under your leadership is pursuing charges against journalist Justin Brake (editor of this publication) for reporting on events that no other media source would touch, risking his freedom and career to make sure people knew exactly what was happening in Labrador. You also oversaw the incarceration of an Inuk grandmother, Beatrice Hunter, who is only trying to protect her family. You keep saying that you are always open to discussions with Indigenous leaders, but these examples prove that you are not.
Colonialism was once the image of Caboto landing upon foreign shores, but a little more than 500 years later that image has morphed into the insidious images of people in Labrador being handcuffed and arrested by police, of Indigenous Peoples sitting in court to face charges for defending their land, of heavy equipment destroying and poisoning Indigenous land and waters, of Indigenous people blockading the offices of a government that does not listen to them.
The image of colonialism today is that of Indigenous Peoples fighting for their rights against a government that is doing absolutely everything to stop them.
Until ‘Discovery Day’ is finally changed and reconciliation is achieved, we can at least use the day to discover more about ourselves and reflect on our interactions with, and ongoing colonialism against, Indigenous Peoples in this province.
Lindsay Batt CFS-NL Indigenous Students Representative Qalipu Mi’kmaq Woman
Beatrice Hunter, the Inuk grandmother and land protector who was recently jailed for 11 days after refusing to promise a judge she would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site, is calling out Premier Dwight Ball and Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders after Nalcor Energy announced it would not be lowering water levels in the hydro project’s reservoir as per an agreement reached between Ball and Innu and Inuit leaders at the height of last fall’s protests in Labrador.
On Monday Nalcor quietly announced that the crown corporation would not be following the provincial government’s order to lower water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir by spring, contravening one of the terms of the agreement reached between Ball and Indigenous leaders amid an ongoing Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls site in late October.
On Tuesday, just four days after being released from custody after vowing not to protest at the project’s main entrance, but instead in a designated protest area across the highway from the site, Hunter confronted Ball at an annual resource development conference in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Livestreaming the conversation on Facebook, Hunter asked the premier about the government’s progress on mitigating projected methylmercury contamination of traditional wild food harvested and consumed by Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians living downstream of the dam.
Ball said the government was waiting on Indigenous leaders to select an independent chair for the Independent Advisory Committee (IAC).
The formation of the IAC was one of the terms agreed upon seven and a half months ago. The agreement also included a provision that water levels would be raised in the reservoir for the winter, then lowered in the spring to reduce potential for methylmercury contamination of country foods.
Nalcor’s announcement on Monday said water levels would not be lowered until mid-July following the completion of a safety boom one kilometre upstream of the dam to keep river users out of danger.
Asked why Ball permitted the contravention of a term of the leaders’ agreement, the premier’s Director of Communications Michelle Cannizzaro acknowledged Nalcor’s change of plan and said the premier “remains committed to the terms that were agreed upon…regarding the health and well-being of the people of Labrador as it relates to the Muskrat Falls project.”
Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill told The Independent Tuesday that Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall informed Innu and Inuit leaders party to the agreement via a May 25 letter “about the required installation of the safety equipment on the lower Churchill River.”
The Independent reached out to Nunatsiavut Government, NunatuKavut Community Council and Innu Nation for comment Tuesday. None responded by the time of publication on Wednesday.
The Independent also asked Labrador MP Yvonne Jones for comment, as well as Memorial University researcher Trevor Bell, who participated in the methylmercury study that inspired Nunatsiavut’s Make Muskrat Right campaign and subsequently the protests that ensued in response to the projected threat to local communities’ water, food and way of life.
Neither Jones nor Bell responded to the requests for comment.
It is unclear whether the prolonged elevated water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir will pose increased risks to water, food and traditional ways of life for downstream communities via elevated methylmercury levels.
Hunter said news that the terms of the agreement are not being respected was “very upsetting, very heartbreaking.
“It’s like an open wound that Nalcor keeps picking at. It’s like this big crown corporate fist that keeps beating the people down in Labrador, and I’m praying and hoping our people will stand against it again.”
She also said she’s not surprised Indigenous leaders haven’t spoken out publicly since being informed reservoir levels would not be lowered according to the terms of the agreement.
Hunter said Jones and NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell tried to visit her while she was in prison, but that she declined to speak with them “because I probably wouldn’t be in here if [they] had done [their] job.
“I felt they had let me and all the Labrador people down.”
Fighting for Indigenous rights
Though she promised to stay away from the project’s main gate, and despite the national media attention on her incarceration, Hunter told The Independent Monday that people “need to focus on our cause rather than my release because Muskrat Falls is still going, and I still believe that Muskrat Falls needs to be shut down because it’s doing more damage than good.”
“We have to think about the future, not ourselves.”
During her conversation with Dwight Ball Tuesday, Hunter asked the premier a number of pointed questions, including whether he would have charges against land protectors dropped.
Upward of 60 individuals face civil and criminal charges for participating in the protests that culminated in the premier’s decision to take extra precautions to protect locals’ health and well-being.
Ball reiterated his position that he never supported Muskrat Falls when the project was sanctioned under the previous Progressive Conservative Government, that it is a “frustrating thing” that Hunter and others face charges, and that “none of us want a premier…who would interfere with a court process.
Ball said he was “very thrilled” that Hunter was released from custody on Friday.
Hunter fired back at the premier for his comment that he was frustrated.
“How do you imagine I feel, being in prison for 11 days for peacefully protesting for my people, for my land, for my children?” she asked.
On Monday Senators Murray Sinclair and Kim Pate published a joint open letter to Ball calling on the premier to review provincial legislation in the wake of Hunter’s incarceration, CBC reported.
Senator Murray Sinclair. Photo: Senate of Canada.
In the letter the senators conveyed “extreme disappointment about the unjust incarceration,” and called it a “legacy of racism and colonialism in this country.”
Sinclair was chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which released its final report in 2015 and a set of 94 calls to action compelling all levels of government to make legislative changes to ensure the rights of Indigenous Peoples are upheld.
A recent access to information request by The Independent seeking information on the Ball Government’s progress on implementing the TRC calls to action that fall under provincial jurisdiction was returned with 170 of 200 pages entirely redacted.
Provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons recently told The Independent his department is committed to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador and that they are consulting other provinces on how to respond to the TRC’s calls to action that compel justice reform, including the implementation of Aboriginal systems of justice within provincial legislation.
Documents obtained by The Independent following the Muskrat Falls occupation show Parsons directing the RCMP—on Oct. 22, immediately after the occupation began—to redeploy officers to the site “to whatever extent necessary to ‘maintain law and order, keep the peace and protect the safety of persons or property.”
Most or all of those involved in the occupation now face criminal charges for what many have described as a last-resort act of self-defence when the political and legal institutions failed to protect them and their families and communities from imminent harm.
“I’m always going to stand beside my people”
During her Monday interview with The Independent Hunter said she hopes to see Labrador people unite against Muskrat Falls the way they did last fall.
“The people of Labrador are going to have to come together again and show Nalcor that we do not want this project, we do not want this hydro dam, we do not want any more destruction of our land,” she said.
Immediately following Hunter’s release from prison, Nalcor publicly invited Hunter to meet with representatives of the crown corporation, but Hunter said that decision will rest with land protectors and other residents of Labrador.
“I’m not going to meet with Nalcor unless the Labrador people want us to,” she said, explaining meeting with them goes “against all that I believe in.
“I’m trying to let go of everything that I feel, but it’s kind of hard to meet with somebody who’s put you in jail. I’m trying to let go of all those feelings first, too, before I decide to do that,” she continued. “I would like to know what they have to say, but it’s kind of hard to listen when the trust has been broken so badly, especially after Mud Lake got flooded.”
Hunter said despite the national attention on her incarceration and the fact she has been made a “reluctant leader” among land protectors in Labrador, she won’t “do anything without the Labrador people’s approval, because the power needs to be put back to the Labrador people because it’s not only my fight, it’s all of Labrador’s fight as well.”
She also acknowledged that the Muskrat Falls resistance is part of a bigger struggle within Indigenous communities across Canada.
“I think the bigger fight is in earning our respect in Canada, earning [respect as Aboriginal Peoples],” she said. “I think what it comes down to is, the Aboriginal Nations across Canada are going to be the ones responsible for ensuring the land is going to be preserved for future generations.”
Asked if she will stay away from the Muskrat Falls main gate as she promised in court, Hunter said “all I’m going to say to that is I’m always going to stand beside my people, no matter what.”
I’m done with people telling me muskrat can’t be shutdown, anything is possible. Labrador lives matter!!
She still wants the project shut down altogether and said she thinks land protectors will eventually return to the main gate to continue their protests.
“I think once the Labrador Land Protectors starts meeting again, hopefully we can help lead our people back to where we need to, and I feel that’s going to have to be at the Muskrat Falls gate again,” she said.
“Everybody knows we’re already being poisoned by methylmercury. Everybody knows about the flood in Mud Lake. I can’t understand [when there will be] more reason to go back to the gate than now.”
Support for Beatrice Hunter is growing across Canada.
A protest in St. John’s Thursday, and another planned in Ottawa Friday, will cap off what a grassroots group in St. John’s is calling a ‘week of action’ aimed at having the Inuk grandmother and land protector released from prison.
A national phone campaign Thursday was also organized to lobby Premier Dwight Ball and show support for Hunter in advance of her next court appearance Friday.
Hunter, who is from the Nunatsiavut community of Hopedale but now lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, was taken into custody on May 29 after refusing to promise a Supreme Court of N.L. judge that she wouldn’t go near the Muskrat Falls site in Central Labrador. Last fall she and dozens of others were part of an Indigenous-led occupation of the hydro dam site in what many described as a last-resort act of self-defence to protect their water, food and way of life from projected methylmercury contamination.
Hunter and dozens of land protectors now face civil and criminal charges for that protest, but have continued resisting the project after a meeting between the premier and Indigenous leaders rendered what they say were inadequate results.
On May 22, days after the community of Mud Lake, downstream of Muskrat Falls, flooded and residents had to be evacuated, Hunter and others returned to the main gate of the project site despite having signed a recognizance promising not to go within one kilometre. They believe the flooding that destroyed many families’ homes was a result of the hydro facilities.
That protest brought Hunter back before the court, where she refused to promise she wouldn’t go back to the Muskrat Falls site. As RCMP tried to take Hunter into custody, land protectors outside the courthouse laid down on the pavement in front of the police van, delaying Hunter’s transfer to the local detachment until police threatened them with arrest.
The following day Hunter’s family tried to visit her in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay RCMP detachment during visiting hours, but Hunter’s sister told The Independent last week the RCMP said they were understaffed and couldn’t accommodate a visit.
Two days after being taken into custody, and without any notice to her or her family, Hunter was transferred to St. John’s, where she says she spent one night in the Supreme Court of N.L. lock-up before being transferred to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, a maximum security men’s prison, where she has spent the intervening time ahead of her June 9 court appearance back in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Hunter’s incarceration has sparked outrage across the province and country, including among Indigenous leaders, academics, lawyers, artists, Indigenous rights advocates and land defenders.
Meanwhile, the chorus of voices calling for Hunter’s release continues to grow.
National calls for Hunter’s release
On Thursday Ottawa-based organizer Matthew Behrens coordinated a “National Call Ball Day,” where he invited those troubled by Hunter’s incarceration to call Premier Dwight Ball’s office to express their concern.
Behrens is also leading a protest on Friday outside the Prime Minister’s Office in downtown Ottawa in an effort to pressure Justin Trudeau to “withdraw the federal government’s support of the Muskrat Falls project.”
A longtime Indigenous rights activist who says he was arrested alongside Elizabeth Penashue and hundreds of others in the late 1980s during the Innu-led NATO low-level flying protests, Behrens said he hopes this week’s protests will “help awaken the conscience and open the minds of a lot of people in our neck of the woods to what is going on at Muskrat Falls.”
Residents of Rigolet marched in the streets of their community this week to protest the incarceration of Beatrice Hunter. Emily Wolfrey / Facebook.
He thinks others resisting megaprojects in Canada that pose serious threats to people and the environment could learn from land protectors in Labrador.
“We think that the work of the Labrador Land Protectors is not only a fantastic example of the kinds of non-violent direct action that all of us are looking at engaging in when it comes to other projects, from Kinder Morgan to Site C to Line 9, we also need to look at the fact that any negative precedents that are developed against the protectors will be used against other land and water protectors across Canada as well.”
The actions Behrens is coordinating coincide with a protest at Colonial Building in St. John’s Thursday, and ongoing protests in Labrador, where land protectors and others supporting Hunter have rallied in the streets of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Rigolet.
St. John’s rally calls on Nalcor to drop charges, injunction
About 100 people gathered outside the Colonial Building in downtown St. John’s on Thursday to show their support for Hunter. Supporters have been gathering outside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary on Forest Road every day since Hunter’s arrival to show their support. Jodi Greenleaves, a Labradorian living in St. John’s, helped organize the daily presence.
“Traditionally, Indigenous women have always shared a spiritual connection to the water,” the Indigenous land and water protector said Thursday. “It comes as no surprise to me that strong, Indigenous Labrador women have been a major part of the resistance to the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
Two generations of drum dancers at a rally to support Beatrice Hunter in St. John’s on Thursday. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
“Beatrice is an Indigenous woman who stands by her principles and has so bravely stepped forward to defy the colonial justice system, Nalcor and the government of this province,” she continued. “She has done so because she knows in her heart and soul that protecting the water and the land is far more important than a corporation and a government exploiting the land and the water that belongs to the Indigenous people of Labrador.”
Greenleaves said if the government doesn’t “work on repairing [its] relationship” with Labrador, the unrest will continue.
“No longer will we take being treated like we don’t matter, and that our lands and water don’t matter. We are awake. And it’s time that the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nalcor wakes up to that fact.”
She said the injunction obtained by Nalcor is a “colonial act” and called for the charges to be dropped against all the land protectors.
Stan Nochasak, an Inuk drum dancer from Nain who lives in St. John’s, performed a drum dance with a young girl before addressing the crowd.
“We’ve been in Labrador for thousands of years. Without being good together, without treating the land with respect and with sacredness, people like me, people like her, wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Jodi Greenleaves and others have been holding vigils in support of Beatrice Hunter outside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s where she is being held. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
“No matter how small a pebble, no matter how big the boulder, we must stand together, and do it in order, do it peacefully, and stand tall with pride, just like the Inukshuk. And try to be as proud as possible. Dwight Ball and the government, it doesn’t matter what kind of government they are, as long as they see us, and that we’re proud, and that we’ll stand for the land, and we’ll stand for the water and they will see us across the province, and across the nation. The world will see.”
“Not only do I support Beatrice, I applaud her. She should be given an honourable medal for what she’s doing,” said Anne Hamel, another speaker who has attended the daily vigils. “She is our province’s first political prisoner, and her only crime is she’s being honest. She’s being civil. She’s protesting peacefully.”
“They thought by sending her out here they would silence her. They were wrong. We are her voice…I always thought when growing up, oppression happened in other countries. Not so. It’s happening right here.”
Angus Anderson, an Inuk man living in St. John’s, elicited cheers from the crowd when he called for Ball to resign as minister of Intergovernmental and Indigenous affairs.
“As long as he holds that post he’s holding hostage our rights, our freedom to speak, our freedom for representation. As long as he is Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs minister, we have no voice,” he said.
Indigenous solidarity rising across the country
Meanwhile, prominent Indigenous rights advocates and land defenders have been speaking out, spreading the word across nations and expressing solidarity with Hunter.
On Tuesday Haisla First Nation novelist Eden Robinson issued a statement, saying “when non-violent grandmothers are imprisoned for protecting their land, the action speaks loudly about how Canada really feels about its Indigenous citizens. It speaks loudly about how we treat our elders. It speaks loudly about who we want silenced and how far we’re willing to go to silence voices we don’t want to hear. My prayers and thoughts are with you, Beatrice Hunter. I’m so sorry you have to endure this but I’m in awe of your strength and your spirit. Many hugs, much respect.”
From the Dene Nation in Northern Saskatchewan, land defender Marius Paul issued a statement saying “Denesuline People demand that Beatrice Hunter be immediately released and escorted back to her homelands.”
Last weekend Métis artist Christi Belcourt expressed her support for Hunter on Twitter.
On Wednesday Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe issued his second statement within a week, this one an open letter to Premier Ball, calling Hunter’s incarceration in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary “unnecessary and immoral”.
“Ms. Hunter is not a violent offender and is branded a criminal by the justice system simply because she refused to obey an injunction against protesting near the Muskrat Falls site,” the Inuk Elder and political leader wrote. “As an Indigenous person, and as a Canadian citizen, she maintains that she is not breaking any laws, but merely taking a stand against a project she feels will have devastating impacts on her culture, health and way of life.”
Ball and provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons have said they can’t interfere with a matter presently before the courts, but a number of people and organizations say they have other obligations related to the matter in light of the circumstances.
“I understand and appreciate the fact that elected officials, including you, cannot intervene in the judicial system,” Lampe wrote in his letter to Ball. “However, as the Minister Responsible for Indigenous Affairs, I believe it is your duty to advocate on her behalf and on behalf of all Indigenous people in this province. You may not be able to interfere with the justice system, but you can certainly show some real leadership and voice your concerns with respect to this unjust situation.”
In a statement this week NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell said “clearly the justice system is flawed [and] has not responded appropriately or fairly to those who have demonstrated their objections to the Muskrat Falls project and been charged as a consequence.”
Russell, the former Liberal MP for Labrador, went on to say “there is little or no indication the justice system has respected nor taken into account the Indigenous perspective and issues central to this situation. In so doing, the system has inflicted undue harm on individuals, families and communities.
“Today, we challenge the justice system to do better and find culturally appropriate alternatives and solutions. We challenge the justice system to respond in a manner wherein Inuit and other Indigenous peoples can have some measure of comfort that justice is indeed being done and is seen to be done fairly and justly. The system of justice that so many of our people find themselves embroiled in must find a better way.”
NDP MHA Gerry Rogers issued a statement this week too, saying the Muskrat Falls protests are a consequence of “how both the previous and current governments and our own Crown Corporation Nalcor have not adequately addressed specific issues raised by the Environmental Assessment Panel and by the people living in the area of Muskrat Falls.”
Rogers cited the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’s calls to action, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, both of which the Ball government has promised to implement.
“I am fully aware that it is inappropriate for the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General or the Premier to intervene in a prosecution in a criminal matter,” wrote Rogers, who is the NDP’s justice critic. “However, there are overriding justice principles and processes that must be reviewed to more justly address the issues of protest and civil disobedience in our province and culturally appropriate approaches to justice systems by Indigenous peoples.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls on governments to commit to ‘eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody,’ and to ‘provide sufficient and stable funding to implement and evaluate community sanctions that will provide realistic alternatives to imprisonment for Aboriginal offenders and respond to the underlying causes of offending.'”
Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, who is also the Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Carolyn Bennett, issued a statement last week, pointing the finger at Nalcor Energy, who sought two injunctions from the Supreme Court of N.L. in under 10 days last fall at the height of the Muskrat Falls protests. The charges against upward of 60 people stem from Nalcor’s decision to seek injunctive relief from the court.
“There has been many summonses issued as it relates to the protection of the [Churchill] River, [and] these summonses are based on the fact that Nalcor has taken civil action against those that protest. Once that civil injunction is breached, it then becomes a criminal matter. I too, have asked that all of these charges be dropped through requests to Nalcor and the Province over the past few months,” Jones said in her statement.
“I am concerned about the level of unrest that continues in Labrador around the Muskrat Falls development and ask that the views and perspectives of all people be respected.”
But Behrens said Jones’ statement, like others issued by elected officials, doesn’t go far enough. He likened Jones’ statement to sentiments expressed by many who questioned Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement’s actions in the early ‘60s.
He said Jones’ comment about being ‘concerned about the level of unrest that continues in Labrador’ is “a funny statement to make when an Inuk grandmother has been thrown in jail by these incredibly powerful billion dollar forces.”
Behrens said King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail “basically responded to the kinds of statements that liberal church people were making at the time, which were very similar to Yvonne Jones’ statement — saying that the unrest that you’re seeing, we didn’t create it. That’s something that has been there for a long, long time and what you are seeing is in fact a very healthy democratic response to the social unrest which has been created by these forces.
“The same thing is happening with Muskrat Falls,” he continued. “King said, I’m not afraid of tension, I’m not afraid of unrest — these are things that actually move us forward as a species. It’s when we’re quiet in the face of injustice that we get into trouble. So Yvonne Jones’ statement seems to show that she’s more concerned about the fact that people are protesting an injustice than the injustice itself.
“Nowhere in that statement does she say, you know what, I’m really concerned about the methylmercury, I’m really concerned about the North Spur — she just wants to make sure all views are respected. Well, there are some issues in which there are not two [equally legitimate] sides of a story. In this case it’s been very clearly shown one side is a complete and utter disaster. And the other is, let’s stop it; you stop a disaster before it gets worse. And unfortunately she’s trying to have it both ways.”
Earlier this week Amnesty International Canada’s Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples Craig Benjamin told The Independent that the internationally respected human rights organization has written to Ball in an effort to gather more information about Hunter’s incarceration, but that from the outset it is evident that the “very actions” for which Hunter and others are being brought before the courts were “responding to the failure of the province and the federal government to uphold their obligations.”
Looking back at the process through which Muskrat Falls was sanctioned, and then developed against the will of local Indigenous communities, Benjamin said that “from a human rights perspective it was quite clear to us that the province and the federal government had really failed in their obligations to protect the health of downstream Inuit communities.”
He said that the premier’s emergency meeting with Indigenous leaders last October in the midst of an occupation of the Muskrat Falls site led by Innu and Inuit land protectors marked “an implicit acknowledgement…that in fact [the government] needed that reminder, that wake-up call from the grassroots, in order to bring them back to their obligations.”
Behrens said if Jones is “really concerned she needs to go back to the Trudeau Government, her boss in the Liberal Party, and say we’ve got to pull out the loan guarantee. The billions that the federal government put up to backstop this project should not be there if, A, we respect Indigenous rights, and B, if we’re committed to cutting down on emissions when it comes to climate change, and C, if we are committed to not poisoning another generation of Indigenous people the same way that we did at Grassy Narrows.”
Hunter is due back in court Friday in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Amnesty International Canada says it is investigating the incarceration of Beatrice Hunter, the Inuk grandmother and land protector who has spent nine days behind bars after refusing to promise a Supreme Court N.L. judge that she would not go near the Muskrat Falls site in Central Labrador.
On Tuesday Craig Benjamin, Amnesty’s Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, told The Independent he has written to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador asking for an explanation of the situation and for the province to lay out its options moving forward in dealing with Hunter’s incarceration, which has begun to spark ire across Canada.
Though the internationally respected human rights organization hasn’t issued an official statement, Benjamin said certain conclusions can be drawn from the current situation and the six-year history of Indigenous resistance to Muskrat Falls.
Benjamin noted the “very actions” for which Hunter and others are being brought before the courts were actions that were “responding to the failure of the province and the federal government to uphold their obligations.”
Looking back at the process through which Muskrat Falls was sanctioned, and then developed against the will of local Indigenous communities, he said “from a human rights perspective it was quite clear to us that the province and the federal government had really failed in their obligations to protect the health of downstream Inuit communities.
“In relation to their very particular obligation to the rights of Indigenous people the process was profoundly flawed up to the point of the protests last year for not addressing people’s concerns.”
When Premier Dwight Ball called an emergency meeting with Indigenous leaders last October in the midst of an occupation of the Muskrat Falls site led by Innu and Inuit land protectors, Benjamin said the meeting and subsequent agreement marked “an implicit acknowledgement…that in fact they needed that reminder, that wake-up call from the grassroots, in order to bring them back to their obligations.”
Canada’s constitutional responsibility
Benjamin said Canada and the provinces have a constitutional obligation to protect Indigenous people and communities from the kind of harm residents of Labrador have been saying for years Muskrat Falls will inflict on their communities.
“Treaty rights, whether it’s treaties of past centuries or recently-negotiated treaties, and more broadly the right of Indigenous Peoples to maintain their culture and identity, and the right to health — we feel that’s all part of [Canada’s] constitutional promise, and becomes therefore part of the highest law of the land.”
In March Mi’kmaq lawyer and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University Pam Palmater told The Independent that when law enforcement arrest and charge Indigenous land defenders, as they have with upward of 60 in Labrador related to the Muskrat Falls protests, “they’re not respecting Section 35 [of the Constitution Act, 1982] and the right of people to protect their land and territories.
“We have the right to protect our lands from destruction,” she said. “In fact, the Supreme Court of Canada said in Delgamuukw [v. British Columbia] that Indigenous lands cannot be used in a way that’s inconsistent with how [Indigenous Peoples] always held them.”
Though the federal and provincial governments have not fulfilled their promises to implement the calls to action outlined in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report, they still have an obligation to adhere to their promises, including respecting the articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Benjamin added.
He said Indigenous Peoples’ constitutionally-enshrined rights, the TRC calls to action and UNDRIP, taken together, show “a clear framework about the right of Indigenous Peoples to be part of decisions that affect their lives and futures, the expectation that people’s ability to live on the land will be protected and upheld, the expectation that there will not be discrimination in how environmental protection works in Canada, the expectation that the right to health will include the safety and security of Indigenous Peoples’ traditional food supplies.”
Last year a peer-reviewed scientific study led by researchers at Harvard University projected that once flooded the Muskrat Falls reservoir would lead to concentrations of methylmercury in fish and other wild foods unsafe for human consumption.
Injunctions often “biased” against Indigenous Peoples
Benjamin also said the Muskrat Falls controversy resembles others in Canada where corporations have greater access to the courts in protecting their rights than do Indigenous Peoples.
He said the 2007 Ipperwash Inquiry revealed a “bias against Indigenous Peoples at the injunction level, where it’s so much easier for corporations or crown corporations to show potential damage in a way the lower court can understand it.”
Corporations, he said, “can make claims about millions of dollars at risk [and] there’s a fairly low standard of proof required for the harm they’re claiming. It’s concrete, it’s clear, it’s well understood.
“On the other side,” he continued, “when Indigenous Peoples see governments or corporations taking action that threatens the imminent destruction of a sacred site, of activities that contribute to a traditional way of life, the impacts on future generations, the courts have proven really resistant to implementing an injunction. They say those are deep, complex long-term issues, we’ll throw those back on government to negotiate and in the meantime the project will proceed because we understand the dollars at risk.
“At the end of the day you have a fundamental discrimination that’s created, where the court system is more responsive to the claims of economic impact on society as a whole, than it is to respond to protecting the rights of those who are really most at need.”
Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians have argued for years that Muskrat Falls threatens their traditional food supply in Lake Melville and will leave people living with anxiety about what they say is an unstable geology around the dam site that could lead to fatalities in the event of a dam breach.
Nalcor and the government have repeatedly told those living downstream they are safe, though residents say they are not satisfied with the quality of evidence provided.
On May 17 the entire community of Mud Lake was evacuated due to what locals call unprecedented levels of flooding. This year marked the first spring break-up since the Muskrat Falls spillway came online. Nalcor immediately dismissed claims their facilities had anything to do with the floods, but later backed off from abdicating responsibility entirely.
Hunter told The Independent in her first interview from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s that the Mud Lake flood was a major part of her impetus to go back to the Muskrat Falls main gate on May 22 to protest, and subsequently, when summonsed to court, to refuse to promise Supreme Court Justice George Murphy that she would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.
Government must change the conversation
Provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons and Premier Ball have said on multiple occasions since Hunter’s incarceration on May 29 that they cannot intervene in matters before the courts.
But Benjamin said “even in a circumstance where the key decisions are in the hands of an independent prosecutor and in the hands of the judiciary,” governments still have a “responsibility to contribute to a public understanding, a public discussion that is cognizant of the complexity of the issues and that does not feed into a reductionist discussion that ultimately ends up being biased against Indigenous people.”
Craig Benjamin, Amnesty International Canada Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Photo: Amnesty International.
He said politicians have a “tendency to respond to actions like a land occupation or a blockade in a really simplistic, decontextualized way that says, well that’s breaking the law.
“We need to step back and ask, what was the intent? Was it malicious? Was it to cause harm, to destroy property? Or was it an attempt to uphold rights, to uphold aspects of the law that elected leaders had failed on?
“We look at situations like this, and it is clear that people don’t take actions like these lightly — they do so out of a genuine commitment to underlying rights issues, and they’re driven to do so by the failure of our elected leadership.
“There’s a basic principle that when freedom of speech or freedom of assembly are at risk, you want to use criminal prosecution only when it’s absolutely necessary, only as a last resort, and you very strictly avoid any form of sanction or punishment that is out of proportion to the public interest, or that would have the effect of stifling protest or dissent in the future,” Benjamin continued.
“That’s a basic principle across the board — but you apply that to a context of people whose voices have been excluded, where the government itself has demonstrated that it needs that reminder to be held accountable to the law itself, and it seems to me that the imperative to take an incredibly cautious approach on prosecution is doubled.”
Benjamin said the Ipperwash Inquiry also laid out the “responsibility of politicians to contribute to a positive, informed, rights-based conversation, and not to in any way further inflame the conversation.”
He said Amnesty International “feels there is a need for the province to take this moment to clearly affirm some underlying principles of the importance of dissent,” and to move beyond “this simplified and ultimately biased description [of the conflict] that makes trespass laws more important to protect and uphold than our constitution.”
As Amnesty awaits a response from the province on possible ways to move forward, it’s clear that “surely, to have [Hunter] held under such harsh conditions—in terms of being held in an institution that is not intended for somebody who is at worst being convicted of a non-violent and extremely minor offence, that takes her so far from her home community—there have to at the very least be far better alternatives for dealing with this situation,” he continued.
“We haven’t reached a hard and fast conclusion ourselves, but our first concern right now is to encourage the province to encourage the public to look at it in that light.”
“When you have individuals motivated by conscience, motivated to defend rights that we as a society have committed to uphold…I think there’s an obligation not to escalate things into the criminal sphere, into a sphere of punishment, but to proceed on the basis of respect and say, even if the province disagrees, we disagree but we respect your motivations. Can we not move forward on some basis that is not about treating you like a criminal?”
He said the province and Nalcor “have to take responsibility for their role in contributing to this [situation] in the first place.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the Mud Lake flood happened on May 22. The flooding occurred on May 17, and May 22 marked the day Beatrice Hunter returned to the Muskrat Falls main gate to protest.
As supporters of Beatrice Hunter continue gathering daily outside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in protest of the incarceration of the Inuk grandmother and land protector, they join many throughout the province in wondering: Where do we direct our outrage over Hunter’s treatment and the sustained and intensifying levels of colonialism perpetrated on Labrador?
On Saturday, Premier Dwight Ball issued a statement to The Independent saying it “would be inappropriate for me to insert myself into the functions of the Court or to state any opinion on a matter that is currently before the Courts.”
The premier is both right and wrong. It would indeed be inappropriate for him to “insert” himself into the functions of the court, for instance by demanding that the court do what he says. The court is independent from the executive branch of government.
But that doesn’t mean he must be silent on the matter.
Judicial branch independent, but also accountable
Citizens and the general public have every right to state their opinion on matters before the courts, and on the decisions of judges. If they disagree with particular decisions, they can say so. It is however generally frowned upon for members of the executive branch of government (premier, prime minister, cabinet ministers, for instance) to criticize judicial decisions. That’s because they’re the ones who appoint judges, and for them to criticize what is supposed to be a branch of our democratic governing structure independent from government risks undermining democracy by sending a message to other judges that they should do what government wants. And that is a fast track to undermining democracy.
But judges are not intended to be the last word in our society. It would be incredibly stifling to democracy if they were. So, if the premier cannot intervene directly into the matter at hand, who can?
The court is enforcing the injunction filed by Nalcor Energy, who is overseeing the construction and operations of Muskrat Falls. Nalcor initiated the process which has resulted in Beatrice’s imprisonment. Nalcor could drop its charges.
So those who are opposed to Beatrice’s treatment, and to the colonialism being practised on Labrador, should target Nalcor.
But wait now, Nalcor is a crown corporation. So, ultimately, who is in charge of Nalcor?
The provincial government. And despite the fact government has been widely criticized for giving Nalcor more power than most crown corporations enjoy, I can find nothing suggesting government has abdicated all of its authority over its wayward child. And so we return to…Premier Dwight Ball.
Inaction and double standards
So yes, it turns out that Dwight Ball can intervene in this process. Premier Ball can exert influence—lobby, demand, legislate, threaten to cut funding to—Nalcor, the crown corporation which filed the injunction, laid the charges, and which his government is ultimately the boss of.
It bears reminding that government and Nalcor are not hapless bystanders to the workings of the justice system. The prosecution of land protectors has not been a matter of blind justice, but has been quite selective.
Take for example Nalcor’s decision to “convince a judge” to drop charges against Dorothy Michelin, a 96-year old woman caught up in its web of repression in November 2016, which garnered the corporation some seriously bad press. Or its decision to drop charges against hunger striker and high profile Inuk artist, father and land protector Billy Gauthier. Or the fact that NunatuKavut leader Todd Russell—who is currently negotiating a land claim agreement with Canada and the province—has not faced any charges, despite his deliberate public violation of Nalcor’s injunction on Oct. 18 (after ripping up the injunction at a press conference the day before).
Insofar as Andrew Parsons is the Minister of Justice, he can exert some influence as well. In fact, the government has a positive obligation to exert influence, if only to act on the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which include among other things a commitment “to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody,” and to “provide sufficient and stable funding to implement and evaluate community sanctions that will provide realistic alternatives to imprisonment for Aboriginal offenders and respond to the underlying causes of offending.
The TRC’s final report also compels all levels of government “to commit to the recognition and implementation of Aboriginal justice systems in a manner consistent with the Treaty and Aboriginal rights of Aboriginal peoples, the Constitution Act, 1982, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed by Canada in November 2012.”
But equally pertinent, Parsons is also a member of the Liberal government, which is the boss of Nalcor, which is responsible for the injunction and the charges.
Ball isn’t supposed to criticize judges, but he can change the law
The premier and cabinet ministers may not be supposed to criticize judicial decisions, but they write the laws that the judiciary enforces. So there’s plenty that they could do, if they choose. Legislation takes time, to be sure, but the sustained silence of our legislators on what is clearly a terribly flawed outcome is unacceptable.
Ultimately, of course, all of us non-Indigenous folks bear some responsibility for the colonial nature of our courts and legal system. And there have been some initial efforts made toward acknowledging and rectifying the colonial nature of those structures. But some of us have more ability to effect change than others.
The notion that members of the public should not express opinions on court matters, or the rulings of judges, is nonsense. It’s put to rest nicely by this recent statement from the Provincial Court of British Columbia titled How to Criticize a Canadian Judge. The main point is, be critical without being insulting, and without criticizing democracy:
It is important for people to consider and discuss how the courts perform their role, and criticize if they wish, just as they discuss and criticize the performance of the other branches of government. Judges can’t have thin skins – their rulings affect people in important ways, and their decisions will seldom please everyone.
Similarly, in 2014 Huffington Post media critic J.J. McCullough criticized a series of Supreme Court of Canada rulings, arguing they reflected “not legal principles, but subjective political and social opinions. It’s perfectly fine to find fault with them… What we most certainly shouldn’t do…is deify the Court, nor pretend it’s recent rulings have been anything other than controversial, contestable, and — in many cases — just flat out bad.”
Both of these reflections provide the example of U.S. President George W. Bush’s famous statement, in response to a court ruling against the government on the issue of Guantanamo Bay prisoners’ rights: “We’ll abide by the court’s decision — that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.”
So we have yet to get any indication—does Premier Dwight Ball agree with Nalcor’s colonial actions in Labrador? Does he agree with Beatrice’s imprisonment?
The Provincial Action Network on the Status of Women issued a very thoughtful and respectful opinion criticizing Beatrice’s imprisonment. They stated in part:
The Provincial Action Network on the Status of Women (PANSOW) is issuing a statement of concern that the human and cultural rights of Beatrice Hunter are not being upheld and we call on Justice Minister Andrew Parsons to ensure the politicized nature of the charge does not prevent her receiving just, culturally appropriate and human rights based treatment while incarcerated.
We are concerned that an Inuk woman has been moved far away from her family, community and cultural supports and is now detained at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary – a prison for men.
We are concerned that she has been denied visits from her family, advocates and the media.
We are concerned that she receives timely, appropriate cultural supports, healthcare and access to canteen.
We ask Justice Minister Andrew Parsons to provide oversight and safeguard the human rights of Beatrice Hunter during her incarceration and subsequent trial.”
On Monday NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell issued a powerful statement criticizing the justice system’s treatment of Beatrice. It reads, in part:
Clearly the justice system is flawed. It has not responded appropriately or fairly to those who have demonstrated their objections to the Muskrat Falls project and been charged as a consequence. There is little or no indication the justice system has respected nor taken into account the Indigenous perspective and issues central to this situation. In so doing, the system has inflicted undue harm on individuals, families and communities.
Labrador Liberal MP Yvonne Jones also carried out a much more appropriate and thoughtful response to the situation than Premier Ball. She acknowledged that while she couldn’t intervene in the independent judicial situation, she could express an opinion, and she did:
[Beatrice] is a mother and grandmother who was standing up for her beliefs, without causing harm or damage to others and her detainment is unfortunate. Each time I hear of incidents like this, I am upset and feel an absence of fairness for Labradorians…I am concerned that having Beatrice placed outside of Labrador also means she has no access to family support. It is in times like this that all people need family support… I too, have asked that all of these charges be dropped through requests to Nalcor and the Province over the past few months.
And so we are led back once again to the man of the hour, Premier Dwight Ball, who, it bears mentioning, is also the self-appointed Minister of Intergovernmental and Indigenous Affairs. He could exert influence—not on the court, but on Nalcor—yet he hasn’t. He could express an opinion on Beatrice’s imprisonment, and on Nalcor’s colonial actions, yet hasn’t.
Forget simply expressing an opinion — Ball could change Nalcor’s colonial actions. Yet hasn’t.
The inaction of Premier Dwight Ball on this matter raises significant questions.
First of all, why has the Ball Government been so sloppy and inactive in its handling of the situation? Hunter’s treatment has done serious damage to the reputation of this province, and brought national and international outrage to bear (once again) on Newfoundland and Labrador’s shameful treatment of Indigenous Peoples and communities.
In a similar vein, the ongoing case against the editor of this publication, Justin Brake, for his coverage of the Muskrat Falls occupation last October has also pitted the provincial government in the role of a national villain, pursuing a court battle whose outcome could result in serious restrictions on freedom of the press and the public’s right to know in this country. This battle has also sparked national and international outrage.
The Ball Government has, arguably, managed to damage the reputation of this province to a degree unparalleled in recent history.
The fact that Premier Ball has taken no action on these matters suggests he is incapable of taking action—that he is not really in charge of the situation.
So who is in charge? Who’s really running the shots in this province, as the world turns its disgusted gaze on us? And who within Nalcor has the power to drop the charges?
Obviously CEO Stan Marshall, and Vice-President for Muskrat Falls Gilbert Bennett (who submitted an affidavit on Nalcor’s behalf when applying for the injunctions) hold some decision-making power. Who else? The individuals holding responsibility in this disgraceful scandal need to be identified, called out, and held to public account.
It is unlikely the land protectors currently facing charges will be the last. Already Nalcor’s heavy-handedness has had the result that repressive measures always have—strengthening the resolve and determination of its opponents, and those fighting for their freedom and their rights.
The charges filed by Nalcor, and the morally reprehensible, repressive, colonialist injunction on which they are based, must be dropped.
Ultimately, the buck stops at Premier Dwight Ball. He could facilitate Hunter’s release by making Nalcor drop the charges and rein back its colonial aggressiveness in Labrador. For that matter, he could bring the entire sad, wasteful, destructive, colonialist, shameful Muskrat Falls project to an end.
What’ll it be, Premier Ball?
Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.
Beatrice Hunter, the Inuk grandmother and land protector who was incarcerated this week after refusing to promise a judge she would not go near the Muskrat Falls project site, says she wants to return home but cannot promise to obey the court order she says is at odds with ensuring her family and community’s safety and well-being.
In a phone interview with The Independent Friday from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, Hunter said she wants to be back with her family in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, but that she feels her best option at fighting for their safety is to continue resisting Muskrat Falls. Part of that, she says, is to refuse demands that she stay away from the project’s site.
Hunter faces civil and criminal charges for her role in the Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp last fall.
On Monday she appeared before Supreme Court of N.L. Justice George Murphy after disobeying a court order and a recognizance to stay more than one kilometre away from the site. On May 22, Hunter and others protested outside the project’s main gate alongside the Trans Labrador Highway after the entire community of Mud Lake was evacuated due to flooding.
Many, including residents of Mud Lake who are launching a class action lawsuit against Nalcor Energy, the crown corporation running the project, suspect the flood was caused by the Muskrat Falls facilities.
When Murphy asked Hunter if she would stay away from the site, Hunter said she couldn’t agree. She also told the judge she will be representing herself and pleading not-guilty to the charges of breaking a court injunction and mischief in excess of $5,000.
“I felt like I was being bullied into a corner because of what I believe,” she explained over the phone Friday. “I felt pressured in a corner and I was like, ‘No, you can’t do this! You can’t tell me where I can go and where I can’t go! I haven’t done anything wrong. I am a law-abiding citizen.”
Muskrat Falls resides on the traditional Innu lands of Nitassinan. In 2011 members of the Innu Nation voted in a referendum to the terms of an Impact and Benefits Agreement for the development of Muskrat Falls, a lengthy document that amounts to the relinquishment of Innu Indigenous and land rights in exchange for financial compensation, jobs on the project, and a share of profits from the sale of energy generated by the dam.
The Inuit of Southern Labrador, represented by the NunatuKavut Community Council, also claim the land around Muskrat Falls as their traditional territory. They are currently in negotiations with Canada for a comprehensive land claim agreement, and several of their members, including President and former Labrador MP Todd Russell, have defied the court injunction and protested on the site.
The Inuit of Nunatsiavut, who inhabit primarily the north coast of Labrador, have title to land into which the waters from Muskrat Falls and the Churchill River flow. Last year they launched a campaign in an attempt to address concerns around methylmercury contamination that was essentially the catalyst for the anti-Muskrat Falls movement that resulted in the eventual occupation.
Both NunatuKavut and Nunatsiavut have unsuccessfully challenged the project in courts, and members and beneficiaries of both Inuit groups have been arrested for resisting the project.
Upward of 60 people, most of them from Innu and Inuit communities downstream of Muskrat Falls, currently face civil and criminal charges related to protests against the dam.
Hunter told The Independent Friday that she now hopes to find a lawyer with a strong background in Aboriginal law who can help her, but that she has no idea of how to search for one while in custody.
Mud Lake flooding final straw
Protests against Muskrat Falls grew last October in the lead-up to the anticipated date of reservoir flooding. A peer-reviewed scientific study projected flooding the dam’s reservoir without clearing vegetation and topsoil would generate levels of methylmercury in fish and other country foods downstream that would be unsafe for human consumption.
The government and Nalcor said they would make efforts to minimize methylmercury impacts and compensate Indigenous communities for lost access to wild foods as a result of the dam.
Fearful at the prospect of losing an important source of traditional food and way of life, many in the Upper Lake Melville region, Rigolet, and other parts of Labrador began uniting in an effort to halt flooding until all environmental and human health concerns were addressed.
Members of the grassroots resistance accused Nalcor, Premier Dwight Ball, Indigenous leaders and other elected officials of failing to protect local people and communities from the imminent threats they say Muskat Falls poses, including concerns around the stability of the North Spur, which locals say is surrounded by sand and marine clay and cannot support a large hydro dam.
On Oct. 16 land protectors blockaded the project’s main gate, preventing workers from entering the site. That same day Nalcor applied for and was granted an injunction from Judge Murphy that prohibited people from trespassing on or blocking access to the site.
The following morning RCMP officers moved in and arrested eight land protectors who refused to end the blockade. They also arrested Emily Wolfrey, a young Inuk woman who obeyed police orders to stand in a “safe zone” to avoid arrest. Wolfrey shouted at the police after watching her father arrested. She was then singled out and violently arrested by multiple officers, one of whom recently won a provincial award for RCMP “Officer of the Year”.
The arrests prompted more to join the protests, and days later, with the added support of dozens of Innu from Sheshatshiu First Nation, the blockade was reinstated and maintained until Oct. 22.
Beatrice Hunter and about four dozen land protectors occupied the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp in October 2016. Photo by Justin Brake.
That afternoon, as around 200 people rallied outside the main gate, a land protector cut the lock and dozens of people stormed the site. Around 50 of them made it 10 kilometres down an access road to the workers’ camp, which they occupied for four days, effectively forcing Premier Ball to meet with Indigenous leaders and accede to four demands set out by three hunger-striking Inuks to deal with the methylmercury issue.
Murphy granted Nalcor a second injunction on Oct. 24, however, naming more than 20 of the roughly 40 remaining land protectors on the site. Most or all of those people now face criminal charges related to that protest.
Many feel the government and Nalcor are not living up to their promises to keep people living downstream of the dam safe. Others, like Hunter, feel the project cannot be made safe due to the nature of the North Spur and the common negative impacts of large hydro developments. They want the project shut down altogether.
In the early morning hours of May 17 residents of Mud Lake, a remote community on the south shore of the Lower Churchill River, awoke to rapidly rising water levels and were airlifted to Happy Valley-Goose Bay in an emergency evacuation.
The destruction has devastated the community of about 60 people. Many have lost their homes and remain in shelter accommodations in Goose Bay.
No lives were lost in the flooding, but many residents of the community and Lower Happy Valley, which also resides in the Muskrat Falls flood zone, say the incident was a precursor to a much worse tragedy.
The Mud Lake floods and their impact on locals “had a lot to do with my decision,” Hunter said over the phone Friday, explaining why she returned to the Muskrat Falls gate on May 22 to protest despite having promised to stay away from the site.
“What’s the use in being free when you’re not really free?” she said, alluding to constant fear she says she and many others will live with, even if they are obedient and and stop trying to use their bodies to blockade or occupy the site in what many land protectors and others have described as a last-resort act of self-defence.
“Please, keep fighting”
When Hunter told Murphy she couldn’t promise to stay away from Muskrat Falls, the judge ordered a recess, during which Hunter spoke with her 23-year-old son Scott Dicker, who also faces charges related to the protests.
“I know in my heart this is the right thing to do, so I can’t back down from it,” Dicker recently recalled his mother saying to him that day.
“When the recess was over we went back in [to the courtroom], and the judge asked again if she would keep the promise and she said no. And then the sheriff’s [officers] put her in cuffs and in the back room.”
A dramatic scene unfolded outside the courthouse when land protectors laid down on the pavement and blocked an RCMP van from taking Hunter into custody. Police threatened Hunter’s supporters with arrest and charges of obstruction if they continued their blockade.
Hunter was eventually taken away and will remain in custody until a subsequent hearing on June 9, or unless she concedes in the interim to stay away from Muskrat Falls.
Hours later land protectors and other supporters held a vigil outside the RCMP detachment, where they drummed and chanted outside the windows of the holding cells, one of which Hunter was in.
They reported seeing a hand reach up to the barred window from inside one of the cells and posted messages on social media that they knew it was Hunter’s.
On Friday Hunter confirmed it was in fact her hand.
“I needed that encouragement because even though they divided us physically…they didn’t divide us at all because we were still together in the same fight.”
Hunter then read a statement she prepared before the interview.
She cried as she praised her fellow land protectors and insisted their efforts were making a difference.
“Why else would they arrest me if they didn’t feel threatened? So please, keep fighting. We can do this together,” she said.
Hunter said when she was put aboard a plane with RCMP officers on Wednesday, she cried “because I was getting farther away from my family.”
She also said she wondered, “What if I go murdered or missing, like so many of our aboriginal women?”
Hunter said she spent one night in the Supreme Court of N.L. lock-up downtown St. John’s before being transferred to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP), a maximum security men’s prison, on Thursday.
“My first thought was, ‘Even the Queen wants to keep her greedy claws on Labrador,’ she read from her statement. “The female inmates here, like others I’ve met on this crazy journey I’ve chosen, have been very kind and compassionate, unlike the cold-hearted Judge Murphy and Nalcor.”
Hunter and other female inmates are allegedly being kept at HMP due to overcrowding at the Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville.
Hunter said her decision to remain in prison and not comply with the order to stay away from Muskrat Falls is her way of resisting colonization in Labrador.
“I realized, after a lot of thought, which I now have time to do, that my part to play in this fight for Labrador lives is to not only show how fearless we are, but to invade their colonist system on their land,” she said.
“Remember, whatever we do, it keeps them accountable and that keeps Labrador lives safe.”
Hunter struggled throughout her statement, crying as she delivered her message.
“I miss my family, friends, and all Labrador Land Protectors very much. I am thankful, especially now, for our closeness. I miss and love you all, and know that I’m taking care of myself.”
Newfoundland prisons “colonial constructs”
Mokami Status of Women Council Executive Director Wendy Secord told The Independent Thursday that she is “very confused” about why Hunter was transferred out of Happy Valley-Goose Bay to St. John’s, “when at any minute she could decide to be right back in court and released.
“Her supports are all here, her family is here, she is not violent, and moving [her away from those things] — what’s going to be her state of mind? And how is this going to impact her well-being?”
Hunter’s sister Sabina is also worried. On Wednesday she told The Independent she thought Hunter’s transfer to the Island was “weird”.
“She’s not a violent person. I don’t understand. I believe the authorities are intimidating her, or lowering her motivation, or making her feel bad,” she said.
Sabina also said Hunter was crying when she spoke with their other sister on Wednesday, “so she’s obviously upset and stressed, and we feel the same way.”
She said Hunter’s family members “support Beatrice in everything that she does and what she’s standing up for,” but they are worried about her health and well-being in prison.
Heather Jarvis, a Community Outreach Worker with the St. John’s Status of Women Council’s Safe Harbour Outreach Program, says Newfoundland’s prison system takes its toll on most who are subjected to it.
She says sending women to a maximum security men’s prison “is not a solution, it’s an incredibly dangerous attempt to continue a cycle of incarceration.”
Though Hunter is in a separate section of the prison with other women inmates, Jarvis says the “disconnection from family and supports and loved ones is always felt by people who are incarcerated.
“Prisons are colonial constructs,” she said. “They are a way that colonialism continues to isolate communities, tear apart families and punish people instead of healing relationships. We see that people are not supported, not gaining access to services…they’re being disconnected. Their mental health suffers from the isolation that is imposed while in prison.”
Hunter described her experience Wednesday night in the Supreme Court lock-up in St. John’s, before she was transferred to the penitentiary.
The cell she stayed in was “very dirty,” she said, explaining there were two other people in custody who were given a brief opportunity to walk around outside their cells.
“One of the prisoners had just come by my cell door and just stared at me,” she said. “And that’s when I realized what those Inuks that were taken from Labrador and put in cells on display for people to see, like an animal in the zoo — I knew exactly at that moment how they felt.”
Asked if she understood how the prison could affect her health if she chooses to stay, Hunter said she has endured worse personal traumas related to domestic partner violence and sexual abuse, and that “there’s nothing they can’t do to me that hasn’t already been done.”
“Right now, I can’t see me giving up,” she said, “because nobody cares for Labrador lives.”
On Thursday NDP leader Earle McCurdy told The Independent Hunter’s incarceration and the ongoing unrest in Labrador “stems from the approach of the previous provincial government, continued by the current government, and also by Nalcor, in that decisions were simply made…that this project was going ahead come hell or high water.
“Because the legitimate concerns weren’t taken properly into account in the first instance, as the juggernaut proceeded people stood up for what they believed in and then you end up with a crown corporation now that is still [pursuing] civil charges against people involved in that protest,” he said.
“Quite frankly I think that’s ridiculous and unnecessary. And there is quite an imbalance in court when you have the people, the defendants in this case, the land protectors, up against the lawyers that Nalcor is able to put at the table. It’s a mismatch to put it mildly.”
In in the lead-up to the sanctioning of Muskrat Falls former Premier Kathy Dunderdale and former Justice Minister Jerome Kennedy repeatedly deflected and downplayed questions from opposition members in the provincial legislature concerned that Indigenous communities in Labrador had not been adequately consulted.
Opposition parties also accused the PC government of not adequately following the recommendations by the Joint Review Panel, the independent body tasked with reviewing the environmental assessment and other aspects of the project ahead of sanction.
St. John’s lawyer and provincial NDP President Mark Gruchy took to Facebook Friday to comment on Hunter’s incarceration, arguing many are misdirecting their anger in targeting the justice system.
“It is important for people to focus on the origin of these problems and not lose sight of the big picture,” he said. “Nalcor chose to approach this major social problem by seeking an injunction. That may have been within their rights to do so, but they did not have to. They could have chosen other paths.
On Friday Labrador MP Yvonne Jones also pointed the finger at Nalcor, saying “there has been many summonses issued as it relates to the protection of the [Churchill] River [that] are based on the fact that Nalcor has taken civil action against those that protest.
“Once that civil injunction is breached, it then becomes a criminal matter,” she wrote. “I too, have asked that all of these charges be dropped through requests to Nalcor and the Province over the past few months.
“I am concerned about the level of unrest that continues in Labrador around the Muskrat Falls development and ask that the views and perspectives of all people be respected.”
Mi’kmaw lawyer and Indigenous scholar Pam Palmater told The Independent Friday she was “disgusted” to hear of Hunter’s incarceration, but “not surprised” because Hunter’s experience is like so many other Indigenous peoples’ across Canada.
“This is how federal and provincial governments have been treating Indigenous peoples – men, women and youth – for many decades,” she said. “The Office of the Correctional Investigator has called the over-incarceration of Indigenous peoples a crisis for many years. Even the Supreme Court of Canada in Gladue and Ipeelee decision instructed judges to find alternatives to prison for Indigenous peoples given the history of colonization. Yet, the incarceration rates have increased dramatically since those cases.”
Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Jamie Snook also took to Facebook Friday to condemn Hunter’s incarceration.
“Beatrice was practicing her right to non-violent civil disobedience and should never have been removed from Labrador, and placed in a men’s prison where her safety could be unnecessarily at risk,” he wrote.
“In the weeks and months ahead, I hope the justice system will take greater care, show more compassion, and be more culturally appropriate as people exercise their right to assemble peacefully in the spirit of protecting land, waters, and cultures in Labrador.”
Inuit leaders speak out
On Friday Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe also spoke out, saying in a statement that he was “saddened and shocked that a Labrador Inuk woman is being held at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s simply because she refused to obey an injunction against protesting near the Muskrat Falls site.
“She was detained for a minor offence, something that pales in comparison to the crime of having her locked up at a correctional facility for men, many of whom are violent offenders.”
Lampe went on to say provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons “should be ashamed of what has transpired here,” and that Hunter “should be either removed to a more appropriate facility or released.”
Beatrice Hunter “was detained for a minor offence, something that pales in comparison to the crime of having her locked up at a correctional facility for me,” Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe said in a June 2 statement. Lampe showed his support for land protectors last October when he led a march up the Trans Labrador Highway outside the Muskrat Falls project site. Photo by Sam Culleton.
Nunatsiavut Director of Communications Bert Pomeroy did not respond to an email from The Independent asking if Nunatsiavut Government would be providing any legal or other support to Hunter.
On Friday the President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), Natan Obed, also issued a statement, supporting Nunatsiavut’s call for the “fair and humane treatment of Beatrice Hunter, who has not hurt anybody and should not be forced for any reason to spend time in a prison with violent offenders.
“I join Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe in calling on the province to overturn this decision,” Obed wrote.
Parsons has not spoken out about Hunter’s incarceration. On Thursday, after multiple requests for comment on the matter, Communications Director Amy Stoodley told The Independent the minister “is not available for comment.”
In April Hunter told The Independent that since Ball appointed himself minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs after winning the provincial election in 2015, “we have no one to turn to if we have any concerns; we have no voice.”
Ball was in Ottawa Friday, touting the Muskrat Falls project on national TV.
“With the Muskrat Falls project our province will be relying on 98 percent green energy,” he told CBC Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton.
In a written statement received by The Independent Saturday afternoon after this story was published, Ball said it “would be inappropriate for me to insert myself into the functions of the Court or to state any opinion on a matter that is currently before the Courts.
“I respect people’s right to protest, and I understand people’s discontent with the Muskrat Falls Project — I have long expressed concerns myself,” he continued. “However, no one is above the law in expressing that discontent, no matter how noble their intentions.”
Ball said being both premier and the minister of Intergovernmental and Indigenous Affairs has “facilitated important developments, which include the formation of an Independent Expert Advisory Committee to provide enhanced oversight regarding human health considerations involved with the project.”
The committee to monitor and attempt to mitigate methylmercury concerns was one of the four demands set out by Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister, the three hunger strikers.
“Our government has made engagement with Indigenous communities a priority, as reflected by the Indigenous Leaders Roundtable we held a week ago. I will continue to work closely with Indigenous leaders to address matters of importance to them, and to promote the best interests of Indigenous communities throughout the province.”
In her statement Jones said she has “been asked to intervene to try to free Beatrice and gather information on her well being,” but that “as an MP, I am strictly forbidden to intervene in any judicial decision or cases before the courts.
“The judicial system is independent from the political system,” she said.
Opposite of reconciliation
Many Inuit in Labrador were sent to residential school, where they were deprived of their language and culture and often subjected to abuse.
Indigenous communities in Newfoundland and Labrador were omitted from the federal government’s 2008 apology and eventual settlement with residential school survivors and their families, but reached a $50 million settlement with Canada last year after launching a class action lawsuit.
Both Canada and this province have promised to implement the calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, which contain among other things steps toward reforming education, health and justice systems to better protect Indigenous people from systemic discrimination and harm.
But critics say Muskrat Falls, from the way it was forced on local Indigenous communities, to its projected impacts, to the subsequent criminalization of Indigenous land protectors and the incarceration of Hunter, is antithetical to reconciliation.
Julie Bull, a NunatuKavut Inuk from Happy Valley-Goose Bay who teaches at the University of Toronto and is a Research Methods Specialist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, said if the province is working toward reconciliation with Indigenous communities in the province, “this is not it,” and that incarcerating Hunter for protecting her land, community and way of life is “taking steps backwards.
“We can’t expect people not to defend their land,” she told The Independent Friday, saying Hunter was “not doing anything violent and is not a threat to anybody, other than perhaps the government and Nalcor. But that doesn’t deserve being put in jail.”
Bull said reconciliation “is a verb, an action, and you’ve got to do the thing, not just talk about doing it or pushing the blame on others by saying we’re consulting with people. Because that will just go on for the next two years, the government will change, and then we’re back at square one.”
Bull said Newfoundland and Labrador is in a unique position to lead the provinces on reconciliation, beginning with releasing Hunter from prison.
“The way the provincial and federal governments are choosing to respond to Beatrice’s incarceration is disgraceful and unacceptable,” she said.
“Newfoundland and Labrador was the last province to join confederation — let’s be the first province decolonize,” Bull continued. “We can be leaders, not followers. We can choose differently and not make excuses. We all make mistakes but when we know better, we have a responsibility to do better. We can’t make the same mistake twice because the second time it’s a choice.”
Bull said given the threat Muskrat Falls poses to Innu and Inuit communities downstream, where people rely on a healthy supply of wild food for sustenance and to maintain strong connections with their cultures and ancestors, she understands why Hunter and others continue to resist the dam.
“A recent study that came out from Nunatsiavut Government says over 60 percent of their households have food insecurity, and now we’re looking at Muskrat Falls, which is going to be reducing their ability to get food even more so,” she said.
“There is a way to do things differently [that] requires a lot of people letting go of their ego and lettinggo of their own agendas, of which there are many in projects like Muskrat Falls. The people who assert all the power now are not the people who should be asserting the power. The people who live there—the land protectors, the Beatrice’s of the world, the people who are doing that work—somehow we have to figure out how those voices are the ones that are heard more than just money. Because we can’t feed our families on money. You can only buy what the Earth produces.”
Bull said in the wake of the Mud Lake flooding it’s apparent that change is urgently needed.
“Whether or not it’s Nalcor or Muskrat specifically [responsible for the flood], this is just the first year. What happens six months from now, and then a year from now? How much destruction has to happen before something actually changes? Do people have to die?”
Palmater celebrated Hunter’s convictions, saying her “concerns and voice should be lifted up for the world to hear and not treated like a political prisoner and a danger to society.
“Canada has long targeted Indigenous women for assimilation and elimination through scalping laws, forced sterilizations, sexual exploitation by police, theft of children into residential schools and foster homes, the rapes and deaths in residential schools, and the failure to stop the growing crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and ongoing physical and sexual abuse by police and other government officials. The imprisonment of Beatrice who has not been convicted of a crime is yet another example of this.”
On Friday federal NDP Indigenous and Northern Affairs Critic Romeo Saganash took to Facebook to condemn Hunter’s incarceration, saying “no one should ever ever end up in prison for defending Land and Waters” and encouraging people to sign an online petition demanding Ball, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other federal politicians intervene and advocate for the immediate release of Hunter, the withdrawl of charges against land protectors, and the cancellation of the Muskrat Falls project.
“Please sign, and send a clear message to PM Trudeau that this is not what Reconciliation looks like,” Saganash wrote.
Assimilated and oppressed no more
Doreen Davis-Ward, an ordained Anglican Church minister who also faces charges related to the Muskrat Falls occupation and a friend of Hunter’s, said Wednesday that she is “not shocked by the level of negligence and evil that exists to complete [Muskrat Falls] at any cost, all in the name of the almighty dollar and ego.
“Jesus worked among the people to heal and protect, and paid the ultimate price as he died on the cross and arose to save us,” she continued. “Since that time, humanity continues to struggle with temptation and greed fighting each other for oil, land, water, reputation, et cetera.
“Most have learned nothing. But Beatrice Hunter is a beacon of hope, a shining example, an inspiration, not only to the Inuit, not only to Aboriginals and Labradorians, but also to humanity, showing us all what true sacrifice is to protect others. Showing with determination and undeniable strength the real purpose and value of humanity, love, respect, and peace for people and for Mother Earth.”
Land protector Kim Campbell-Mclean told The Independent Thursday that while she and others are “very concerned” about Hunter’s well-being, Hunter “is a very strong woman who knows full and well her decision.
“It goes to show her strength as an Inuk woman,” she said. “Culture plays one of the biggest roles in who we are. In our culture, which goes back since time immemorial, we have always been taught to stand our ground, to hold our values true without intimidation or fear that we might feel in today’s world, when it comes to our fishing and hunting and gathering rights, and our land use, and our natural laws and natural rights as Aboriginal people.”
“Until I occupied that gate last year in Muskrat Falls, I didn’t realize how assimilated I was,” Beatrice Hunter said Friday. Beatrice Hunter / Facebook.
Campbell-Mclean said Hunter is “caught between two worlds, of this corporate destruction of her homeland” and “wanting to sustain the well-being of culture and hunting, fishing and gathering wealth, not just for her, but for many, many, many generations to come after her.”
She emphasized that she “truly believes Beatrice knows what she is doing — she has made this conscious choice to make this stand against a colonial corrupt justice system that Inuit people and all Indigenous people of this province and this country have had to face for so long.”
Campbell-Mclean said Beatrice is “never alone” in the fight against Muskrat Falls, and that land protectors are working “24/7” to support her while she’s in custody.
Campbell-Mclean also said she feels the fight against Muskrat Falls, of which Hunter is a significant part, is a pathway to healing for Inuit in Labrador.
“There was a prophecy from the Okak Bay region elder system, that when the Inuit drum has come back to Labrador the social ills brought on by historical trauma would begin to abate. That has been true,” she said, recalling events in the lead-up to and during last year’s occupation of Muskrat Falls.
Campbell-Mclean said elements of the elders’ prophesy have been evident in the “uprising that came with the land protectors, who fought against the Muskrat Falls project.
“We had two beautiful young ladies drum dance for us and lead the way. And in on [the occupied Muskrat Falls] site, the qulliq was lit, so all I can say is that this prophesy of the elders is coming true. And I believe that the elders are guiding Beatrice, and they are protecting her. She is very spiritual and she has that connection to them.”
During the interview from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, Hunter said “the people of Labrador have been oppressed by the British colonists since the 1700s,” the consequences of which have “been passed down from generation to generation.
“I know because I’ve been colonized. I’ve been assimilated. I know I was,” she continued. “Until I occupied that gate last year in Muskrat Falls, I didn’t realize how assimilated I was. Oppressed, assimilated. But now, now I choose not to be. And I’m hoping Labrador people realize and open their eyes that they’re oppressed people.”
Supporters of Beatrice Hunter have planned a rally outside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s Saturday at 1 p.m.
Editor’s Note: The Independent received an emailed statement from Premier Dwight Ball after this story was published. The article has been updated to include the premier’s comments.
Disclosure: This author was named on the Oct. 24 Supreme Court injunction initiated by Nalcor Energy and faces one civil and two criminal charges for being physically present on the Muskrat Falls site to document and report on the Indigenous-led occupation of Muskrat Falls in October 2016.
Let us consider the contrast between Premier Dwight Ball and Indigenous Labrador Land Protector Beatrice Hunter.
Dwight Ball is a man who goes to considerable semantic contortions in an effort to explain to other people what he will do. And he enjoys a position of power as premier of this province.
Beatrice Hunter, on the other hand, explained to a judge on Monday, in the simplest and most straight-forward of terms, what she would not do.
And now she is in jail for it.
The blunt courage of this Inuk woman contrasts sharply with the glib and awkward ambiguity of the premier. But so does the price she has paid, which is entirely disproportionate to the circumstances.
After the flooding of Mud Lake earlier this month—which many in Labrador have attributed to Nalcor’s operations at Muskrat Falls—she and other land protectors returned to the main gate of the Muskrat Falls site to protest the project and defend themselves from the harm they say it is doing to their lives, land and communities.
On Monday, some of those courageous civil rights defenders were summoned to court to answer to their violation of Nalcor’s injunction. They were asked to promise they would not do it again.
It has often been said by civil rights defenders that a refusal is the most powerful weapon anyone has. Refusal lies at the core of peaceful civil protest, whose advocates say it is not a violation of justice but in fact a call for justice where it is being denied, often at the behest of power or wealth.
Martin Luther King Jr. put it in words that are most appropriate to this case: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
Refusal, in Hunter’s case, led the judge to send this principled mother and grandmother to jail.
A disproportionate, politically-motivated punishment
People are kept behind bars when they are a threat. So it bears asking: Who feels threatened by Hunter?
The notion that a lone Inuk woman could be a physical threat to anyone is patently ludicrous.
Can one woman stop all the hundreds of workers, thousands of tonnes of heavy equipment, billions of dollars of transnational capital wrapped up in Muskrat Falls? Certainly not by physical brute force.
If Hunter is a threat, it is only to those who fear her words and symbolic actions could provoke political change. She is a threat to those who fear her words and her courage could sway opinions.
If Nalcor is afraid of Hunter, it’s because they’re afraid her voice and her ideas could spark change.
Beatrice Hunter is not a threat. She is a political prisoner.
According to Radio Free Europe, “Amnesty International…uses the term ‘political prisoner’ to describe any prisoner whose case has a political element — either in the motivation of the prisoner’s act, the act itself, or the motivation of the authorities in their response.”
Political prisoners are also defined as those who face punishments that are “out of proportion” to the offense. Jail-time is clearly out of proportion for one who is defending her family’s, her community’s and indeed all Labradorians’ right to clean water, safe country foods and ability to practice a traditional way of life.
Amnesty International identifies a further category of political prisoner, for whom it demands immediate release — that of the ‘prisoner of conscience.’
A prisoner of conscience, it says, is someone who “has not used or advocated violence but is imprisoned because of who they are (sexual orientation, ethnic, national or social origin, language, birth, colour, sex or economic status) or what they believe (religious, political or other conscientiously held beliefs).”
Let’s recall Hunter’s stated beliefs, which drove her to the purported ‘crime’ of walking on and then returning to traditional Indigenous land that is now occupied by Nalcor, and which she described in an April 15 interview with The Independent:
This is for the future, this is for generations to come. We need all the support we can get. Me and my son can’t afford a lawyer, and we feel it was the right thing to do when we went in [to the worksite] in October — because we had no voice.
Our premier is also our Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs minister; who are we supposed to turn to? We have no one to turn to if we have any concerns; we have no voice.
Standing up for Beatrice
The events transpiring in Labrador are a disgrace to the province and a disgrace to the justice system. Police officers have more important things to do than transport Indigenous grandmothers and prisoners of conscience between courthouses and jail. They are no doubt as disgusted as anyone at being assigned the role of enforcing colonialism on Nalcor’s behalf instead of being police officers, which is what they signed up to do.
Just as significantly, the actions of the justice system in Labrador—judge and police officers alike—risk contributing to a growing disrespect for the colonial enforcement of law in Labrador, a disrespect clearly evidenced in the civil protests and vigils that occurred after Hunter’s imprisonment.
Many Labradorians recognize the woman being held in jail is not a criminal but a prisoner of conscience incarcerated for standing up for her land and her people against Nalcor’s colonial destruction of Indigenous homelands in its extraction of profits.
It is an astounding feat of hypocrisy that less than a week after Premier Ball held the province’s first annual Indigenous Leaders Summit, a gentle and courageous Indigenous woman was taken to jail for holding true to her belief in her peoples’ right to safety and security in their own land, and in their right to access that land.
Premier Ball’s government is deeply complicit in what is happening. Nalcor is a crown corporation of the provincial government, and it is Nalcor that’s aggressively prosecuting Indigenous land protectors.
A few weeks ago, provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons was eagerly donning the costume of correctional officers and playing “A day in the life of…” But where is he now, as the so-called provincial justice system lurches into the uneasy role of enforcing colonialism in Labrador, hunting down and locking up Indigenous grandmothers peacefully defending their land and the safety of their families and communities?
On Wednesday evening The Independent learned from Hunter’s family that she has been transferred to the women’s correctional facility in Clarenville. Her family and community were given no notice, and no opportunity to see or speak with her before she was transferred to the Island.
This reflects another all-too-common reality of political prisoners, particularly in the colonial context: being torn away from their families, communities and homeland and deported to places where they are isolated and alone. Intentionally or not, the removal of Hunter out of her community and away from her family, fellow land protectors and other supporters is a colonial act and a failure of a government and justice system that purport to respect Indigenous rights and claim to be eager to achieve reconciliation.
If true, it will be important for those on the Island who consider themselves allies of Indigenous Peoples and Labradorians to monitor Hunter’s treatment in Clarenville and work to secure her immediate release. It also deeply strengthens the imperative to hold Premier Ball, Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall, and provincial justice minister Andrew Parsons accountable for their role in this shameful and backward colonial act.
On Wednesday Beatrice Hunter was reportedly transferred out of Labrador to the N.L. Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville. Labrador Land Protectors / Facebook.
Hunter’s imprisonment lays bare the reality of what is unfolding in Labrador. The prosecution of land protectors is not about justice. It is about colonialism, about rich white settlers profiting off of Indigenous land.
Opposition to Muskrat Falls has become more than simply a political opinion. Thanks to the aggressive over-reach of Nalcor and the justice system, opposition to Muskrat Falls has become a civil rights movement, a clear and defining moment in the maturing of this province. Beatrice Hunter is a political prisoner — a prisoner of conscience.
How many more will there be before the sad, disastrous venture that is Muskrat Falls is over?
Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.
Police have taken an Inuk woman into custody in Happy Valley-Goose Bay after she refused to promise a Supreme Court of N.L. judge she would stay away from the Muskrat Falls construction site in Central Labrador.
Beatrice Hunter, a mother, grandmother and land protector from Hopedale now living in Goose Bay, went before Supreme Court Justice George Murphy on Monday after allegedly defying a recognizance in protest on May 22 after promising not to be within one kilometre of the Muskrat Falls site.
Hunter is one of dozens of mostly Indigenous land protectors facing civil and criminal charges related to their efforts to resist the controversial dam, which they say threatens their water, food, safety and ability to practice their traditional ways of life.
Hunter’s 23-year-old son Scott Dicker, who also faces charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests and was also in court Monday for participating in the May 22 protest, said when his mother was asked by Murphy whether she would stay away, Hunter said she “can’t make any promises about it,” he recalls.
Hunter’s response prompted the judge to order her into custody until a follow-up hearing at 3:30 p.m. the same day, Dicker told The Independent Tuesday.
Beatrice Hunter, pictured here with her son Scott Dicker, is currently being held in a jail cell at the RCMP’s Happy Valley-Goose Bay detachment after refusing to promise Supreme Court Justice George Murphy that she would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site. Hunter has repeatedly said she is resisting the dam because it threatens locals’ water, food and way of life. Facebook photo.
Hunter reportedly said she will represent herself in court, where she faces civil and criminal charges related to the Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp last fall. She also reportedly said she will plead not-guilty to the charges.
Dicker said his mother would “never hurt a fly,” and that he was upset at the sight of her being taken into custody by sheriff’s officers.
Gail Pilgrim, a longtime friend of Hunter’s and another grandmother and land protector facing charges related to the Muskrat occupation, describes Hunter as a “family-oriented person” whose granddaughter “is her world.”
“She adores that little girl,” Pilgrim says, fighting back tears. “Same as me — I adore my grandchildren.”
Pilgrim says if she, Hunter and other parents and grandparents have to watch their children and grandchildren suffer the consequences of Muskrat Falls, “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself — my conscience would just get the best of me.
“And same as Beatrice. She needs to know her children and grandchildren are going to be alright. But nobody can guarantee that, not with Muskrat Falls. It’s so sad.
“We’re just standing our ground and saying this isn’t right.”
“We’re fighting for the future”
In April Hunter told The Independent she and other land protectors are “not fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for the future.
“We’re fighting to ensure that there’s not more [methylmercury] poisoning, and we’re fighting to ensure that our people don’t get drowned because Nalcor doesn’t tell us anything — they’re not being transparent,” she said, referencing the public concern around the North Spur and what she calls crown energy corporation Nalcor Energy’s failure to alleviate anxiety among people living downstream by providing evidence their lives are not being put at risk by the dam.
“If they were transparent this would be a whole different story,” she added. “But you kind of wonder — it’s all corrupt when they’re not telling you everything.”
On Monday Beatrice Hunter supporters temporarily blocked an RCMP van slated to take the Inuk land protector away to a nearby jail. Facebook photo.
Dicker says when his mother was brought back into the courtroom later Monday afternoon Murphy asked her multiple times if she would promise to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.
“But she held her guard and she said, ‘I’m not keeping that promise,’” he recalls.
Dicker says the judge ordered a recess and allowed him and his mother to speak in another room in the courthouse.
“And she said, ‘I can’t — I know in my heart this is the right thing to do, so I can’t back down from it.’
“We were talking for about 5-10 minutes, me trying to convince her, but she still held her ground,” Dicker recalls. “When the recess was over we went back in, and the judge asked again if she would keep the promise and she said no. And then the sheriff’s [officers] put her in cuffs and in the back room.”
The sight of Hunter being handcuffed after her first refusal to comply with the judge’s order upset Dicker, who says he “ended up punching a door in the courtroom” before walking away.
When Hunter was ordered into custody for 10 days, one woman in attendance reportedly shouted out an expletive and left the courtroom, slamming the door on her way out. She was brought back before the judge by sheriff’s officers and apologized.
After the hearing supporters blocked an RCMP van arriving at the courthouse to take Hunter to jail.
They eventually let the van through, but once Hunter was escorted into the vehicle five supporters laid on the ground in front of the van, preventing it from taking Hunter away.
Dicker said the scene was “at a standstill for about 20 minutes” before police brought his mother back into the courthouse.
Police warned Hunter’s supporters, many of them land protectors, that if they blocked the vehicle again they would be charged with obstruction.
On Monday evening supporters waved Labrador flags outside the RCMP’s Happy Valley-Goose Bay jail cell where they believe Hunter is being held in custody. Janet Cooper / Facebook.
Hunter was subsequently put aboard the van and taken to jail at the RCMP detachment up the road from the courthouse.
Later that evening about 50 supporters held a vigil outside the RCMP detachment on Hamilton River Road.
People drummed and waved Labrador flags in front of the elevated windows of the jail cells inside.
At one point, supporters reported on social media, they could hear a banging sound from inside the brick walls that was in synch with the drum beat outside. They also said they saw a hand reach up from below one of the barred cell windows.
“You feel like you’re standing alone…trying to make a voice for Labrador”
Dicker says he, his mother and their family is “really close,” and that Hunter has “always been there for other people.
“She has a big heart,” he says, pausing to compose himself, his voice over the phone audibly emotional. “Even throughout the [Muskrat Falls] protests she was the only one who was able to keep me in line, from over-reacting and stuff. She’s always been the level-headed one in the family.”
While Monday’s court appearance was on a civil matter of breaking an injunction and recognizance, on Tuesday afternoon Hunter appeared in Goose Bay provincial court, where she faces two criminal charges related to the Muskrat Falls occupation.
Dicker says she informed the judge she would represent herself and that she intended to plead not-guilty to the two criminal charges of mischief relating to a testamentary instrument or property greater than $5,000, and unlawfully disobeying a court order.
Dicker says his mother appeared tired when she was escorted into the courtroom in handcuffs, and that she began to cry when she looked at him.
Pilgrim says Hunter is a “strong” and “wonderful person,” and that she is standing by her convictions because she “believes in leaving clean, fresh water and food for her family — because we all eat traditional food, we all go out fishing and hunting; we eat it.
“And she knows if the methylmercury poisoning is going to go ahead, which it is because they’re not clearing [the reservoir], we won’t be able to do that anymore. And she knows what they’re doing is wrong, wrong for everybody. People lost their homes, and I think that’s what sent her over the edge — that’s why she stood her ground.”
In April Hunter told The Independent she and others continue to resist Muskrat Falls because they were “called to do this.”
She said on Oct. 22, the day a protest outside the project’s main gate spontaneously turned into an occupation of the on-site workers’ camp, “everyone felt it — even the non-believers felt it.
“I remember one land protector during the occupation say he didn’t know if he believed in God, but he knew there was a higher power at work when we went through that gate,” she explained.
“This is pushing me beyond my boundaries, but when deep down you can feel it being the right thing to do, then you can’t question it.”
But Hunter admitted continuing to resist the project after Premier Dwight Ball and Indigenous leaders negotiated a deal behind closed doors after the occupation last fall, public support and support from the Indigenous governments and organizations has been diminished, leaving her and other feeling alone.
The deal included, among other things, a monitoring program of methylmercury levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir. But locals have repeatedly said they don’t understand the methlymercury data published on the government’s website, and that they don’t trust Nalcor or the government will clear the reservoir of topsoil and vegetation or otherwise act in the people’s best interest.
“You feel like you’re standing alone and you’re trying to make a voice for Labrador,” she said. “So it was a little bit difficult there, but I felt a lot better today after seeing all the other Labrador land protectors, because we hadn’t seen each other for a while,” she continued, explaining she had reunited with others at a court appearance that day.
“We believe what we’re doing is right”
Pilgrim says she and Hunter and others are “only standing up because we believe what we’re doing is right. We believe we have the right to clean drinking water and fish and hunting rights — what we’ve always done.”
She says she would “love to see a lot of people come out and stand up for [Hunter] and say, no, we’re not going to take this.
“I want to see a lot of people stand up [against Muskrat Falls] the way Beatrice did.”
In April Hunter, a Nunatsiavut beneficiary, repeatedly called for Nunatsiavut Government to support her and other Inuit land protectors in their legal battle.
“This is for the future, this is for generations to come,” she said.
“We need all the support we can get. I can’t afford a lawyer. Me and my son can’t afford a lawyer, [but] we feel it was the right thing to do, when we went in in October, because we had no voice.”
Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe did not respond to a request for comment for this story by the time of publication.
Hunter and other land protectors have repeatedly said elected politicians have not adequately supported them or addressed their concerns.
“Our premier is also our Labrador and Aboriginal affairs minister,” she continued. “Who are we supposed to turn to? We had no one to turn to if we have any concerns. We had no voice.”
Labrador MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Yvonne Jones, who has often touted the federal government’s commitment to reconciliation, also did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Nor did provincial justice minister Andrew Parsons, who has only said his department is consulting with other provinces on how they are addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action related to integrating Aboriginal systems of justice.
According to 2014-2015 Statistics Canada data, 27 percent of adults admitted to correctional services in Newfoundland and Labrador were Aboriginal, though the most recent available data indicates Indigenous people comprised only seven percent of the province’s population.
Last month Parsons told The Independent that the provincial government “recognizes the importance of Indigenous justice systems and is committed to Indigenous engagement on justice issues,” and that they are “diligently working with other government departments, as well as our federal and territorial counterparts, to develop policies in response to the TRC.”
However, he said the matters presently before the courts in relations to Indigenous people in Labrador trying to protect their land and livelihoods “must be allowed to take their proper course.”
On Monday Inuk land protector Marjorie Flowers said in a livestream broadcast on the Labrador Land Protectors’ Facebook page that Judge Murphy’s ordering Hunter into custody for 10 days is “a direct hit on the Labrador Land Protectors to stop us from protesting the destruction of the culture.
“He’s effectively put an end to it, or he thinks he has, because he’s took her and jailed her. This is total colonialism at its goddamned finest.”
Supporters of Beatrice Hunter plan to hold daily vigils outside the cell where they say Hunter is being held, as long as she is in police custody. Facebook photo.
On Tuesday supporters returned to the RCMP detachment in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in an attempt to communicate with Beatrice from outside the facility.
They chanted “the people united will never be divided,” and then chanted her name, cheering when they saw what they thought was Hunter’s hand.
On Friday in St. John’s Premier Dwight Ball met with leaders and representatives from Indigenous governments and organizations within Newfoundland and Labrador as part of the province’s first annual Indigenous Leaders Roundtable.
The delegation discussed a need to bring consultations for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to Newfoundland and Labrador, support for Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe’s effort to repatriate the remains of Demasduit and Nonosbawsut from the National Museum of Scotland to their homeland, and the need for greater support in addressing mental health and addictions in Indigenous communities.
“This new roundtable allows us to share ideas, experiences and insights across all Indigenous communities that will help us stand together and to try to advance and make progress on some common issues,” Ball said during a press conference after the event, adding he “look[s] forward to incorporating the feedback from today into actions that we take into the future.”
Promise of truth and reconciliation
The meeting comes a year and a half after Ball was elected premier, at which time he appointed himself minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs and promised to “lead the implementation” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action.
In 2015, after seven years of collating interviews with residential school survivors and input from Indigenous Peoples across Canada about how their families and communities have been impacted by colonization, the TRC released its final report, compelling governments and other institutions to take specific steps to end institutionalized discrimination of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people.
Reconciliation is “an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships,” a critical part of which “involves repairing damaged trust by making apologies, providing individual and collective reparations, and following through with concrete actions that demonstrate real societal change,” the TRC wrote in the report.
To date, Ball has not said how the Liberals plan to follow up their promise of reconciliation, only that they are working on 20 of the 31 calls to action that fall under provincial jurisdiction.
Amid ongoing efforts by Indigenous people and communities to protect their water, food and way of life from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, repeated warnings from Innu chiefs of housing crises in their communities, and the continued overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care, and of Indigenous adults in correctional facilities, members of the Indigenous communities in this province hear political leaders speak of reconciliation while assimilation and other forms of systemic violence — intentional or not — continue against Indigenous Peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Journalist Ossie Michelin documented part of the Muskrat Falls resistance in Labrador in Fall 2016. Photo by Justin Brake.
Some say that while reconciliation won’t happen overnight, if he’s serious about his promise Ball must do more to understand the truth component of truth and reconciliation.
Ossie Michelin, an Inuk journalist from North West River and former APTN reporter, says reconciliation cannot happen in Newfoundland and Labrador without first acknowledging and understanding the truth of Indigenous Peoples’ lived experiences here. Any government that desires true reconciliation, he says, must deal with “the hard part” first.
“[Premier] Ball has never been one for the truth, he has never listened to us intently. The most truthful thing he has ever done for us is ignore us,” Michelin says, citing the premier’s handling of the Indigenous-led Muskrat Falls protests.
“It took three people on a hunger strike and 50 people occupying the dam site for this man to speak to our Indigenous leaders. [It took] that much for him to hear our truth.”
Roots of the struggles
In an effort to gauge Ball’s understanding of Indigenous struggles The Independent recently interviewed the premier by phone.
Asked if he knew why so many Innu and Inuit children were in foster care, and why suicide rates in Indigenous communities in Labrador are so disproportionately high, Ball said “there’s a lot of lessons we can learn from history.”
He then veered away from discussing the historical roots of Indigenous struggles and instead cited a recent announcement of federal funding for prevention-based programming in Innu communties.
“What it means is intervention, making sure we have the communities to the point where we inform, in some cases, the parents,” he continued, addressing the issue of Indigenous children in foster care. “So the intervention is not about removing the child, it’s putting in place proactive measures and working with the families [is] where we need to be.”
Ball said addressing the high rates of Indigenous children in foster care, and high rates of suicide in Indigenous communities, “in a lot of cases…comes down to education.
“As we meet and talk with Indigenous leaders in all those communities, it is not lost on any of us that it really comes down to a very grassroots level of working with those families, putting in place measures that will actually prevent those interventions,” he said.
Residential schools in both Labrador and Newfoundland have been cited by survivors as major government and church-sponsored efforts to colonize and assimilate Indigenous children and communities.
The systemic violence perpetrated against Indigenous children in those schools, among other forms of assimilation at the hands of settlers and colonial governments, have created cycles of intergenerational trauma largely to blame for social and health epidemics in Indigenous communities, like substance abuse and high suicide rates.
“Many of these problems stem from the intergenerational legacy of residential schools. The destructive beliefs and behaviours of many students have been passed on to their children and grandchildren as physical and mental health issues,” the TRC wrote in its final report.
“Governments in Canada spend billions of dollars each year responding to the symptoms of the intergenerational trauma of residential schools. Much of this money is spent on crisis interventions related to child welfare, family violence, ill health, and crime.”
Present day assimilation and colonization
Other forms of assimilation continue today. According to one Native Studies scholar from the University of Manitoba, megaprojects like Muskrat Falls developed on Indigenous land against the will of Indigenous people is one example.
Last year Peter Kulchyski, who has studied the impacts of large hydro dams on Indigenous communities for almost two decades, told The Independent that “once you start tallying [the pros of large scale hydro dams for local Indigenous communities, versus the cons] you see that it’s hurting more than it’s helping.
“When politicians talk about reconciliation they will say they’re giving jobs and money, but that looks more like assimilation than reconciliation,” he said, citing loss of access to traditional lands, loss of traditional subsistence practices, and the erasure of traditional economies as examples of how hydro dams contribute to assimilation.
At an anti-Muskrat Falls rally last fall in Labrador Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident and Nunatsiavut Deputy Minister of Health and Social Development Michelle Kinney said the government’s promise to “compensate” those whose ability to harvest country food from Lake Melville will be diminished by methylmercury contamination amounts to a form of colonization.
Inuit, she said, “have had relocation and compensation. We’ve had residential schools and compensation. And now we’re looking at methylmercury and then compensation. Money doesn’t pay for any of it. In the midst of all of it, we have lives that are devastated. We have social issues, and we’re just contributing more to them. I think it’s time that we just need to put our foot down and say enough is enough and stand up to some of the colonization.”
Binky Andersen of Nain says Premier Dwight Ball should spend more time in Indigenous communities if he wants to truly represent the interests of Inuit and First Nations people. Photo by Justin Brake.
Binky Andersen, a 20-year-old Inuk student at Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook from Nain, Nunatsiavut, told The Independent in a recent interview that if Ball is serious about reconciliation he and the Indigenous communities “need to get to a level where we’re meeting each other halfway,” and that she wants Ball “to get to know us.”
Andersen, who recently won Grenfell’s second annual Indigenous Leadership Award for her efforts to help Indigenize the university campus, said meeting with the province’s Indigenous leaders isn’t enough if Ball is sincere about building relationships with Indigenous communities based on understanding and mutual respect.
“The reality is he meets with our Indigenous leaders but he never meets with us,” she said. “He meets with Indigenous leaders in Newfoundland — he don’t come to Labrador. I want to suggest to him to come and see us.”
The young mother, second year business student and niece of Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds said the fact Ball is “not Labradorian and…not Indigenous” puts the premier at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the lived experiences of Indigenous Peoples in this province.
“There’s only so much you can read, there’s only so much you can hear,” she explained. “I want him to be passionate enough to come to our communities and give us the proper representation, and care about us.”
Silence around progress on calls to action
The Independent recently filed an access to information request to the Office of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs asking for all correspondences and records between April 14, 2016—the date of the Ball Government’s first budget—and Feb. 8, 2017 related to the government’s implementation of the TRC’s calls to action.
The query returned 202 pages, 170 of which were entirely redacted. Many of the remaining 30 pages revealed bureaucrats from various departments trying to figure out how to respond to a question from The Independent to provincial Finance Minister Cathy Bennett about why there wasn’t any money allocated in budget 2016 to implementing the calls to action.
Asked for an explanation of the secrecy around the Liberals’ response to the TRC, Ball said in a statement to The Independent earlier this week that his government “maintains an open and continuous dialogue with Indigenous governments and organizations on all issues of concern to Indigenous governments and organizations in the province.
“Government is in the process of preparing to report on the TRC Calls and will engage Indigenous governments and organizations on that report before any release. In the meantime, Government continues to further reconciliation in its ongoing engagement with the Indigenous governments, organizations and people of the Province.”
The TRC’s calls to action include, among other things, modernizing health, education and justice systems federally, provincially, and municipally.
Kelly Anne Butler, Grenfell Campus’ Aboriginal Resources Officer and Vice-chair of the Bay St. George Mi’kmaw Cultural Revival Committee, says reconciliation is a “process,” and that there are two central problems evident in governments’ attempts to achieve reconciliation.
“‘Reconciliation’ is not a [public relations] thing, or something to tick off in a box,” she says. “You cannot have reconciliation without truth—and we don’t yet have truth.
“We are still arguing about truth in our province,” she continues. “Speaking of Mi’kmaw people in particular, we still have to educate [people] about the various myths of our existence here on the island of Newfoundland.”
Butler says she also sees an issue of motivation with governments who’ve promised reconciliation with Indigenous nations and communities.
“Governments and institutions often see [reconciliation] as a burden, something they have to satisfy. It’s all wrapped up in negative connotations, and that is really unfortunate. Once you look at something as a burden, it’s a chore—it’s not fun, and it’s not positive,” she says.
“It’s unfortunate that reconciliation is not viewed instead as an amazing opportunity—an opportunity to incorporate Indigenous principles and perspectives into current structures because they are recognized as being beneficial—not as a chore that someone thinks they need to complete because it’s 2017. There is actual, real benefit to society to attempt genuine reconciliation.”
Muskrat Falls as impediment to reconciliation
The TRC report states “establishing respectful relationships requires the revitalization of Indigenous law and legal traditions,” and that it is “important that all Canadians understand how traditional First Nations, Inuit, and Metis approaches to resolving conflict, repairing harm, and restoring relationships can inform the reconciliation process.”
Land protectors and others in Labrador and across the province have repeatedly cited Muskrat Falls as an impediment to reconciliation.
The dam, they say, threatens an important traditional food source, destroys culturally and historically significant trapping grounds, transportation routes and sacred sites, and leaves hundreds of people downstream living in fear of a dam breach and potentially fatal flooding.
Upward of 60 people in Labrador, most of them Indigenous, face civil and criminal charges for blockading and occupying the Muskrat Falls site last year in what many of them have repeatedly described as a last-resort act of self-defence to protect their food, families, communities and way of life from imminent and irreparable harm after political and legal institutions failed to ensure their safety.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports that “establishing respectful relationships requires the revitalization of Indigenous law and legal traditions.” In Labrador upward of 60 land protectors face civil and criminal charges for undertaking what they’ve repeatedly regarded as a last-resort act of self-defense against a government-sanctioned project expected to cause imminent and irreparable harm. Photo by Justin Brake.
The TRC report highlights dispossession from traditional lands and loss of access to language, traditional hunting and fishing practices, among other things, as contributors to the colonization and assimilation of Indigenous Peoples.
Asked if he disputes the claim by some that colonization of Indigenous Peoples and lands continues today in Newfoundland and Labrador, Ball did not give a straight answer but did acknowledge the importance of maintaining Indigenous languages and access to cultural activities like hunting.
“We must make sure those cultural activities are protected as best we can,” he said.
“And we also know, with economic development, there is a way we must share, with impacts and benefits agreements and those things. We cannot basically proceed with economic development without including our Indigenous groups, and [making] sure that their cultural activities are protected as best we can — but always in conjunction in working with those leaders.”
Asked if he thought Muskrat Falls in particular demonstrates ongoing colonial policies and assimilation, the premier said “there’s no doubt that when you look at what’s happening in Labrador, the impact on land, the impact on some of the cultural activities that our Aboriginal groups have been able to participate in over the years, [they are] impacted by this.”
Ball emphasized that as opposition leader he did not support Muskrat Falls, and that there “were lots of questions from me when I was in opposition, and there’s no doubt right now that, as I find myself in this role as premier of the province, I’m going to manage my way through this. I will do this in conjunction within those Indigenous communities.”
The TRC report says governments must consult with Indigenous communities and get their free, prior and informed consent before developing on their lands.
In 2012, before Muskrat Falls was sanctioned, former provincial Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy repeatedly responded to concerns around Muskrat Falls raised in the House of Assembly, arguing that the province had fulfilled its duty to consult the Innu and Inuit of Labrador.
Meanwhile, the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) and Nunatsiavut Government both launched unsuccessful court challenges against the project and repeatedly argued they had not given free, prior and informed consent to the destruction of their lands and to a project they said threatened a traditional source of food.
“All these rights we fought for for years—to be able to hunt and fish and harvest what we need on a daily basis—will be impacted by this methylmercury coming into our settlement area [from Muskrat Falls],” Darryl Shiwak, Nunatsiavut’s Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, told The Independent last year. “That right is essentially being taken away.”
“The 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples noted that, historically, land and resource development activities, such as hydroelectric dams, mines, and agricultural and urban development activities, have had many adverse impacts on Aboriginal communities,” the TRC report reads.
“Aboriginal Peoples were economically marginalized in their own homelands when irreversible environmental damage was done in the name of ‘progress’. All too often, economic development has disrupted Indigenous peoples’ cultural, spiritual, and economic ties to the land, resulting in the devastation of traditional economies and self-sufficiency, community trauma, public welfare dependency, and poor health and socio-political outcomes.”
Though the TRC report and the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)—which the TRC advises governments to use as the framework for implementing the TRC calls to action—explicitly prohibit the kind of treatment of Indigenous Peoples that the province is presently engaged in around Muskrat Falls, Ball said he won’t intervene in the criminalization of land protectors and others who resisted the dam through protest.
Asked if he would advocate for amnesty on land protectors’ behalf in light of the fact their actions were a direct response to the government’s own failure to protect them from an imminent threat to their health and way of life, Ball said while his government “respects and abides by…the fundamental freedoms we have within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms…we also have the rule of law and we must respect that.
“Regardless of if it’s with our Indigenous communities, or if it’s with Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in a more general sense, the last thing we want is a premier, or any leader, interfering with our law, and interfering in justice,” he said. “Always protect our right of expression — we must always do that. But we must do it in a law-abiding fashion.”
“The parties directly involved in this damming process…are committing actions that violate basic human rights, provisions of free, prior, and informed consent in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UNDRIP], as well as the protocols and natural laws of Indigenous nations,” the letter reads.
“The Indigenous nations of Labrador have not given free, prior, and informed consent, and the [federal and provincial] governments and Nalcor are not negotiating with transparency, clarity, and accountability. Therefore we ask you, Commissioner Hussein, to intervene and stop the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric damming project until these issues are addressed.”
Andersen said while the premier may cite his need to refrain from interfering with the legal process, Ball has “no excuse to stand by and allow” members of Indigenous communities to be criminalized for protecting themselves from harm.
The TRC explicitly calls for the province to “commit to the recognition and implementation of Aboriginal justice systems in a manner consistent with the Treaty and Aboriginal rights of Aboriginal peoples, the Constitution Act, 1982, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons recently told The Independent the Liberals are consulting with other provinces on the matter, though he did not say if he is engaging Indigenous Peoples on Indigenous justice systems.
Andersen said in addition to how history will remember a government that participated in the prosecution of Indigenous people who were defending themselves from that very government’s policies and inaction, the Ball administration may also be remembered as a government that failed to prevent serious human rights infringements on its own watch during a time of supposed reconciliation.
“There will be studies in the future [of] how Muskrat Falls affected people,” she said, citing the possibility of methylmercury contamination of traditional foods and the disruption of traditional aspects of life “influencing the health and development of our youth.”
Michelin said if Ball wants to achieve reconciliation, he must first develop a genuine understanding of their lived experiences.
“When people in power actually listen to the truths of Indigenous people, hear them, their struggles, pains, and triumphs, and connect and understand, that’s how we move forward as a nation, as a province, as neighbours.”
Protests at Muskrat Falls have ramped up again following the flooding of Mud Lake last week, but locals in the Upper Lake Melville region of Central Labrador are divided over whether or not, and how, to continue resisting the controversial megadam in the face of grave concerns for people’s health and safety.
Over the weekend dozens gathered outside the project’s main gate along the Trans Labrador Highway, for a short time stopping buses carrying workers trying to enter the site.
Land protectors joined Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue, who walked 10 kilometres to the gate on Thursday and set up her tent in the designated protest area across the highway.
Residents of Mud Lake displaced by the flood that drove them from their homes and community also joined the protest.
The 50 or 60 residents of the remote historic community downstream of Muskrat Falls were airlifted to Goose Bay in the early hours of Wednesday morning after water rapidly rose to what many in the region say are unprecedented levels. Many are blaming Nalcor and the Muskrat Falls facilities, namely the spillway and cofferdam, which were in operation for the first time this past winter and spring.
Mud Lake community leader Melissa Best went to the Muskrat Falls main gate on Saturday and stood in the same place many land protectors have been summonsed to court for protesting at.
“We can’t go home,” she said, distressed and holding a Labrador flag. “We have animals spread everywhere because we have no home. we have parents buried and we can’t go visit them. We got a church that we can’t enter. We got a school that we can’t put children in. We have people with their houses just floating and tipping over. And [Nalcor’s] worried that I’m on their goddamned land?”
Nalcor continues to deny that the Muskrat Falls facilities had anything to do with the flooding of Mud Lake.
On Wednesday Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill told The Independent that the spillway “did not stop the ice flows at Muskrat Falls,” and that “generally all the ice that did reach the spillway went through with ease.
“On only a couple of occasions the ice built up very briefly (a few hours) just upstream of the spillway/temporary cofferdam area, but then flushed through the spillway,” O’Neill said in an email. “The spillway did not change the flow of ice at the Muskrat Falls portion of the river.”
Locals are skeptical, saying Nalcor has not provided evidence to prove the facilities didn’t change the behaviour of ice and water downstream. Many have said they’ve lost all trust in the crown corporation after the way Nalcor has handled locals’ concerns around methylmercury and the North Spur since construction on the project began five years ago.
“Nalcor’s full of deceit and lies and trickery,” says Marjorie Flowers, an Inuk living in Happy Valley-Goose Bay who faces civil and criminal charges related to the protests last October.
“There’s dozens, if not hundreds, of older people in the Lower Valley and Mud Lake Road area that have said this has not happened before. And I firmly believe in the traditional knowledge of our elders, as does a lot of people.”
Outside the main gate Saturday Best told those gathered in protest that she “tried to be civil [and] tried to be nice. I tried to see the good in [Muskrat Falls].”
She said Nalcor can “do whatever they want. If they want to take me to jail, go ahead. At least I’ll have a roof over my head. At least I’ll have a toilet I can flush.”
Best said nobody from the provincial government reached out to her and the residents of Mud Lake in the immediate aftermath of the flooding, though Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper and Labrador MP Yvonne Jones met with Mud Lake residents on Friday, more than 48 hours after the evacuation.
Unconfirmed reports were circulating Monday morning that Premier Dwight Ball and Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper were in Goose Bay.
Speaking to The Independent by phone from the Muskrat Falls main gate Sunday, Best said she’s “just letting [Nalcor] know I have nothing else left to lose. My home is gone. Everything is gone. So if they want to make a fool of me they can go ahead.”
I’m against the project and I’m ashamed that we let it get this far. — Melissa Best
Best married her husband Andy 30 years ago and has lived in Mud Lake ever since. The couple raised three children in the community and were planning to spend the rest of their lives there.
Prior to the flood Best, as the chairperson of the community, said she “tried desperately to maintain an unbiased opinion” on Muskrat Falls, and “to see both sides. I felt that I should try to be civil,” she said.
She said she was informed by Nalcor the evening before houses began to flood that “things were maintained the same, there was no problem with the water and there was no water coming through and the gates weren’t open — and 12 hours later we were being evacuated.
“Needless to say, I’m against the project and I’m ashamed that we let it get this far. We should have listened [to people’s concerns] long before now. Yeah, the dollar signs are huge, but life has got no dollar value. Our homes are destroyed and the community will never be the way it was ever again.”
Best said her family is “not going home anytime soon.”
“Ninety percent of us left with just the clothes on our back. A few people remembered to take their medications and maybe a change of clothes.”
Nalcor representatives “never denied” Muskrat Falls to blame
On Sunday two Nalcor representatives met with Mud Lake residents in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Best said the two Nalcor reps present at the meeting, Jim Keating, a senior executive member of Nalcor’s leadership team, and Inidigenous Liaison Kevin Burt, “never denied”the hydro facilities had anything to do with the flooding of Mud Lake when pressed on the issue.
She said the representatives showed empathy and promised to take the Mud Lake residents’ concerns back to Nalcor’s executive.
Inuk artist and North West River resident Billy Gauthier joins the protest outside the Muskrat Falls main gate. Gauthier has said he will resume his hunger strike if Nalcor and the government don’t uphold their end of the bargain on the October 2016 agreement between Premier Ball and the Indigenous leaders. Photo by Janet Cooper.
The Independent reached out to Nalcor for comment on the meeting but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
“In all seriousness we know it’s Muskrat’s fault,” says Best. “I have no disregard for the employees, the ground workers — they’re doing their job…and you know what, they’re disposable. If I quit today they’d hire somebody else in my position within minutes — their employees mean nothing. A community meant nothing to them.”
For years Mud Lake residents and members of other communities downstream of Muskrat Falls in the Upper Lake Melville region have shared concerns around the North Spur, known to the Innu and others in the area as Spirit Mountain, over what they say is an unstable area for a large hydro dam.
The natural structure juts out into the river at Muskrat Falls and is being used in the facilities’ design to partially anchor the dam surrounded by riverbanks of sand and marine clay.
Locals have repeatedly called for Nalcor to develop an emergency evacuation plan in the event the dam fails, but the corporation has said getting people out of harm’s way is the government’s responsibility.
Last October Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Jamie Snook wrote in an op-ed for The Independent and said, based on the town’s preliminary analysis, “a full dam breach would affect over 250 properties in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and cause nearly $60 million in real property damage.
Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue and others moved their protest to the main gate of the Muskrat Falls project over the weekend. Photo by Janet Cooper.
“This would also flood 15 km of municipal roads; the town would lose its water, sewer, and electricity; road access to the Trans-Labrador Highway and the dock would be cut off; and all the cabins and farms on the Mud Lake road would flood, as would the entire community of Mud Lake,” he wrote.
Snook said when representatives from the town met with Nalcor to share concerns about the absence of an adequate plan to deal with a dam breach and the flood waters it would bring, “we were essentially told we are on our own.”
At Sunday’s meeting with Nalcor representatives Mud Lake residents echoed land protectors’ and others’ calls for an independent inquiry into the North Spur.
Critics say Nalcor should bear the burden of proving the Spur is stable, and guarantee those living downstream that their communities and lives are not being put at risk.
Future of protests uncertain
Many, including land protectors already facing charges related to protests, have begun or resumed protesting in recent weeks.
Last week several people defied the Nalcor-initiated Supreme Court of N.L. injunction and walked onto the Muskrat Falls site to the North Spur.
But now that Mud Lake has been destroyed, Flowers says there’s even more incentive to resist the dam.
“People are angry, people are upset, people want to support Mud Lake,” she says. “What we’ve seen is an unscrupulous wipeout of a historic community here in Labrador, one that was here before Goose Bay ever was built. There’s lots of tradition, lots of history, lots of culture around people and their ancestors in Mud Lake.”
What we’ve seen is an unscrupulous wipeout of a historic community here in Labrador. — Marjorie Flowers
John Learning, who was arrested in 2012 for exercising his right to trap on traditional lands and now, along with dozens of others, faces a civil contempt charge related to last year’s protests, said on Saturday he and a number of others were content to join Mud Lake residents at the main gate and block traffic trying to enter the site.
“We’re hoping it’s going to wake somebody up,” he told The Independent Sunday. “We’re hoping this time people see the reality—because we were saying all along that this is going to flood Mud Lake and part of the valley. And the fact is it did flood Mud Lake — it’s right there in front of everybody. Now they can see what’s happening, so it’s time now to get up there and really step everything up: stop the flow of traffic.”
Some locals have been critical of the protests on social media, saying blocking busloads of workers trying to enter the site is preventing locals from working their shifts. Land protectors have made clear though that they only stopped traffic on Saturday, claiming any decision by Nalcor after that to hold local workers back from entering the site is intended to create divides in the community.
“Protesters I understand the frustration you feel but stopping our own people from going to work is just what they want! It creates bad blood in the town and among family’s friends etc,” one local commented on Facebook.
Learning said he wants “to stop the whole thing if at all possible,” and that regardless of what Nalcor and the government do, Muskrat Falls is “just too dangerous — it’s been proven.”
Learning’s not alone in wanting the project shut down altogether, but locals remain divided over how to stop it. With upward of $12 billion already sunk into the project, Muskrat Falls is projected by some to double in cost from the original estimates and continue rising over the coming years.
Premier Dwight Ball and other political leaders say the project, despite its threats to residents living downstream, is too far along to stop. Many in the province are calling for a forensic audit of Nalcor and the entire project to reveal how things got so out of hand.
Meanwhile, locals in Central Labrador continue to debate how to deal with the issues and threats presented by the dam.
“Everyone has their own ideas of how to shut it down, but I’m content to stand in front of that gate all day and all night,” said Learning.
David Nuke, who participated in the occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp last fall and now faces criminal charges for his role in the protest, told The Independent Friday that it’s “obvious” the flooding of Mud Lake is a direct result of the Muskrat facilities, and that he thinks the project needs to be shut down until all problems are addressed.
Nuke said methylmercury problems have “not been addressed yet,” despite what people think.
“There will be mercury — we all know that. They won’t be clearcutting the reservoir as they have tentatively agreed to do.”
“The question is, is anybody being awakened by Mud Lake?” asks David Nuke of Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation. “Mud Lake lost just about everything.” File photo by Justin Brake.
Nuke’s arrival at the Muskrat Falls protests last October marked a turning point in the resistance. Other Innu from Sheshatshiu accompanied him, and with upward of 150 or 200 people outside the main gate Nuke led the reinstatement of the blockade that had been broken up days earlier when RCMP arrested nine land protectors.
Asked if he will join Penashue and the others outside the main gate for this round of protests, Nuke said he doesn’t think protesting outside the gate, or even reinstating a blockade, will achieve any effective outcomes, but that other forms of protest can stop the project.
“You can stop it until you’re listened to,” he said. “We didn’t stop nothing [last fall]. Bulldozers were just idling. They didn’t stop.”
Nuke wouldn’t elaborate on what kind of protest tactics he is referring to, saying only that “you don’t need 200 people” like last fall, and that “you don’t need to go through the gate.”
But Nuke said he won’t be leading the charge, and that he’s “ready to go tomorrow” if other Innu are motivated to stop the project until all concerns are addressed.
“The question is, is anybody being awakened by Mud Lake?” he said. “Mud Lake lost just about everything.”
Asked again how he thinks the project can be stopped until locals’ concerns are addressed, Nuke would only say that “if a movement was to be created by the Innu today you’d see a different ball game.”
On Sunday Inuit Elder Shirley Flowers, who is fighting a civil contempt charge in court related to last fall’s protests outside the main gate, wrote on her Facebook wall that “colonialists will get what they want by orchestrating scenarios that are deceptive and self deflecting.”
Speaking of Nalcor and the government, she said they “create disparities and divisiveness to set people against each other and in doing so sets it up so that people (the colonized) feel responsible and take responsibility for the colonists doings.
“The colonial set up leaves those colonized to either make unpopular decisions or to waver because of not wanting to hurt loved ones, thus leaving the colonized weak and most likely unable to carry through with decolonization,” she continued.
“Why do I think like that? I am a colonized person. Labradorians are colonized people. Colonization is on our doorsteps today. We are ‘FLOODED’ with the colonial attitude and presence. We are silenced and limited by the very presence of colonialism. We want Labrador but we have our limits on what we will do or what it will take to get our freedom and to keep our land and waters healthy and well serving.
“I am one of those sitting on a fence. I want what I believe to be best for Labrador and Labradorians but I carefully watch to what distance I will go because I don’t want to be swallowed up by them.”
A police officer behind the violent arrest of a young Inuk woman outside the Muskrat Falls hydro project last fall has been recognized as the RCMP “Police Officer of the Year” by Crime Stoppers of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Corporal Troy Bennett of the Happy Valley-Goose Bay RCMP detachment was celebrated Friday afternoon outside St. John’s during the annual Police and Peace Officer of the Year Awards (POYA) ceremony organized by Crime Stoppers to recognize the top RCMP officer, RNC officer and peace officer of the year within the province.
Bennett, whose bio from the awards ceremony describes him as a husband, father and status Mi’kmaq person, is the subject of an official complaint to the RCMP by 25-year-old Inuk and Rigolet resident Emily Wolfrey, who was arrested by Bennett and other police officers on Oct. 17, 2016 during a blockade of the Muskrat Falls site by land protectors undertaking what many of them described as a last-resort act of self-defense in an effort to protect a traditional source of food and way of life.
Unless its reservoir is cleared of vegetation and topsoil, Muskrat Falls is projected to drive up levels of methylmercury in the water and wild foods of Lake Melville, exposing Inuit in Rigolet and members of other communities to unsafe levels of the dangerous neurotoxin.
On Oct. 16 more than a dozen land protectors formed a blockade of the main entrance to the Muskrat Falls site alongside the Trans Labrador Highway. That evening some of them were served a Supreme Court of N.L. injunction initiated by project proponent Nalcor Energy. The following morning before sunrise Bennett and several other RCMP officers moved in to clear the blockade and facilitate the flow of work traffic trying to enter the project site.
Bennett instructed land protectors to cross the highway and stand in a designated area he referred to as a “safe zone”. Several of them, including Wolfrey, complied. After watching her father Tony arrested Wolfrey began yelling at Bennett, who was standing in the middle of the highway.
Moments later Bennett pointed at Wolfrey, who was still standing in the safe zone, and said, “You’re under arrest,” before charging at her and, joined by at least two other RCMP officers, arresting her violently.
Wolfrey says she was “shocked” to hear the news Friday evening that Bennett had been recognized as the top RCMP officer in the province.
“I never ever in my life thought a police officer would come over and actually wrestle me, grab my hand, squeeze my hand until it was bruised and I couldn’t bend my thumb,” she says, speaking to The Independent by phone from her home in Rigolet Saturday morning.
“I didn’t think I could ever get handled like that by a police officer. I’ll always remember his face; I’ll never ever forget his face — I’ll always remember it.”
Wolfrey, who faces a civil contempt of court charge for her involvement in the protest that day, says she filed an official complaint against Bennett with the RCMP, but has not heard back from the federal police on whether they are investigating.
Last November The Independent asked the RCMP to confirm the name of the officer who arrested Wolfrey, and to confirm if he was being investigated for his actions on Oct. 17. A spokesperson said the RCMP “cannot provide any further information at this time” because “this matter is currently before the courts.”
Relationship between Indigenous people and police “strained at best”
Amy Norman, a young Inuk woman and land protector from Happy Valley-Goose Bay who also faces a civil contempt charge for protesting outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls project, said she is “disgusted” by Crime Stoppers’ recognition and celebration of Bennett as the RCMP’s “Police Officer of the Year,” and that “honouring [Bennett] right now, after what he’s done, is condoning violence against Indigenous people.
“I don’t feel safe, I’ll tell you that,” she told The Independent by phone from Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“The relationship between Indigenous people and the police is, I think it’s safe to say, strained at best. Whether it’s the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison system, or whether it’s Indigenous people suffering from police brutality, like Emily did…the relationship between police and Indigenous folks, and especially Indigenous women — it’s not good.”
Norman also said if Bennett is “the best of the best in this province, what does that say about the state of policing in Newfoundland and Labrador?”
According to his bio from the awards ceremony, Bennett is a “champion in the creation and the implementation of the Labrador Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) Extra-Judicial Measures committee, a facilitator for the Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) program…and [a member of] the RCMP/Community Mental Health (Labrador Grenfell Health Centre) Liaison Board.
Bennett’s bio goes on to say that “being a status Mi’kmaq person and growing up in an aboriginal community [he] has seen first-hand the importance of developing positive partnerships/relationships through Aboriginal Policing. He’s the RCMP Aboriginal Liaison Officer with the Labrador Friendship Centre, and a member of the Community Conflict Management Group (CCMG) responsible to respond to Muskrat Falls protest activities with objectives to build relationships with all stakeholders.”
In an email to The Independent a spokesperson from Crime Stoppers said nomination documents can’t be made public because they “were submitted in confidence,” and that “for reasons of being impartial we do not share the individual names of the POYA selection committee.”
They did say, however, that the selection committee “consists of volunteers only…from the [N.L. Crime Stoppers] board, community organizations, faith based groups, business community, law industry and funding sponsors,” and that “no members of the enforcement agencies are involved in the review of the nominations or selection of the finalists and winners.”
The POYA nomination form explains those nominating an officer for the award should submit documentation addressing the nominee’s “professionalism and dedication to public service and benefit to others,” their “contribution to community, region and/or province,” their “demonstrated leadership and…outstanding accomplishments on the job,” their “performance of special acts or services in the public interest [and] any other information you may wish to supply to best describe why you are nominating this person.”
The Independent reached out to Bennett Friday evening via an RCMP dispatch worker, who promptly returned the call to say that Bennett said he was not available for an interview.
Provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons spoke at Friday’s awards ceremony. Following the ceremony he issued a statement to the press, calling the award recipients “a testament to bravery and devotion, despite the inherently dangerous nature of their jobs. The communities where they work are better places because of their commitment and dedication.”
Mark Brown, Chair of N.L. Crime Stoppers, said in a media release following the ceremony that his organization “takes pride in honouring officers in our province that go above and beyond the call of duty in their service to the community. Courtesy, kindness, understanding, compassion, courage and devotion to duty are key qualities required in police officers in their normal duties. The nominees and recipients of 2017 Awards exemplify these characteristics, and we are pleased to recognize these individuals for their outstanding achievements.”
RCMP Corporal Troy Bennett of the Happy Valley-Goose Bay Detachment is the 2017 RCMP Police Officer of the Year. pic.twitter.com/JSVnT3XuVk
The Independent sent an email to Crime Stoppers Saturday morning asking if the organization was aware of Bennett’s role in the arrest of Wolfrey, and whether it had any way of ensuring it doesn’t celebrate police officers who have contributed to the worsening of relationships with residents in the communities they serve. No response was received by the time of publication.
“We’re already seeing a lot of distrust between the public and the RCMP [in Labrador],” Norman said Friday. “We’re seeing 65-plus land protectors going through all these court dates. The charges are being drawn up and it’s getting so ridiculous. You have so many people…going through the Supreme Court system, but you have the [RCMP] officer in Hopedale whose charges of child luring were dropped.”
In February child luring charges against RCMP officer Ian Kaulback, who was stationed in the Inuit community of Hopedale, were stayed by a provincial court judge because the case took too long to go to trial.
Meanwhile, said Norman, dozens of Indigenous people who were trying to protect their food and way of life are being criminalized and forced through the already over-burdened court system in Labrador.
“All of this is adding up and the distrust is building,” she said. “And then for this officer to be awarded and recognized like he has been is only going to further that distrust.”
Justice and reconciliation coming for Indigenous communities in N.L.?
Minister Parsons didn’t respond to a request for comment on Bennett’s involvement in Wolfrey’s arrest and subsequent recognition with the POYA award.
In 2015 the provincial government committed to implementing the calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Final Report, among them a call to commit to “the recognition and implementation of Aboriginal justice systems in a manner consistent with the Treaty and Aboriginal rights of Aboriginal peoples, the Constitution Act, 1982, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
In his mandate letter, after being appointed Minister of Justice in 2015, Parsons was instructed by Premier Dwight Ball that “it is critical that our government’s decisions are also informed by engagement with stakeholders, including our Aboriginal partners, to ensure everyone’s voices are heard.”
The Independent recently asked Parsons for an update on his progress in implementing the TRC calls to action related to justice. In a written response the minister said the provincial government “recognizes the importance of Indigenous justice systems and is committed to Indigenous engagement on justice issues. We are diligently working with other government departments, as well as our federal and territorial counterparts, to develop policies in response to the TRC.”
The minister did not say if the government was engaging Indigenous people in the province in the process of implementing Indigenous justice systems.
According to 2014-2015 Statistics Canada data, 27 percent of adults admitted to correctional services in Newfoundland and Labrador were Aboriginal, though the most recent available data indicates Indigenous people comprised only seven percent of the province’s population.
The TRC Final Report states “In Canada, law must cease to be a tool for the dispossession and dismantling of Aboriginal societies. It must dramatically change if it is going to have any legitimacy within First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities. Until Canadian law becomes an instrument supporting Aboriginal peoples’ empowerment, many Aboriginal people will continue to regard it as a morally and politically malignant force.”
Throughout the Muskrat Falls protests land protectors and others referred to the RCMP, including Bennett and those who arrested land protectors at the blockade, as agents of a government actively pursuing colonial policies.
In an interview with The Independent last October during the Muskrat Falls blockade Mi’kmaq lawyer and scholar Dr. Pam Palmater said Muskrat Falls is “so much bigger than…a dispute over a dam,” and that its projected consequences, including the poisoning of traditional foods, forced relinquishment of traditional hunting, fishing and sustenance practices, and its potential to displace people from their communities, were part of a “modern day form of genocide” that is also seen in extractive industries in other parts of Canada.
“The basic fundamental human rights of Indigenous people are being violated,” Palmater said. “They are, without comprehensive study or getting their free informed and prior consent, being put at risk for profit. They are not being put at risk for a national emergency. It’s for the profit of corporations. And that’s unacceptable.”
Palmater also noted that RCMP officers, when compelled to arrest Indigenous land defenders, “essentially have gone from being impartial enforcers of the law to political pawns for governments and security forces for the extractive industry.”
Wolfrey has two children, ages four and eight. Asked if her arrest by Bennett made her afraid to protest against the threat to her food, community and way of life, she said “I really think we need to do it again.
“I think we need to go up to the line and start again, because it’s not right. [Muskrat Falls] needs to be stopped. There’s no reason why people’s lives should be on the line for the sake of a job.”
Asked if she thought the agreement reached last October between Premier Ball and Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders would protect her family and community, she said “I don’t think it’s going to protect anybody. Mud Lake was flooded, their houses was flooded, they can’t get nothing from their houses back no more.
“What if next time it’s Goose Bay, North West River and [Sheshatshiu]? It’s scary, it’s dangerous — it should just be shut down and stopped.”
Elizabeth Penashue shares Wolfrey’s belief that Muskrat Falls must be stopped altogether. On Thursday the respected Innu Elder walked 10 km to the designated protest area where Wolfrey was arrested last fall and set up her tent, where she plans to spend several days.
Elizabeth Penashue is not done resisting Muskrat Falls.
On Thursday the respected Innu Elder from Sheshatshiu First Nation embarked on a 10 km walk from the Goose Bay–Cartwright junction along the Trans-Labrador Highway to the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project site.
Joined by supporters and land protectors, upon arriving at the government-designated protest area adjacent to the Muskrat Falls entrance Penashue set up a tent, where she plans to spend at least the next few days.
Shortly after arriving at the protest site Penashue told The Independent by phone she is “very concerned about Muskrat Falls,” because “so many things are going to die.
“Water is going to die. What’s going to happen to the animals? What’s going to happen to our medicine on the ground? And what’s going to happen to my people — young children?” she asked.
“They’re not going to be able to hunt anymore. Innu people, the children are always hunting, always. Where are our children and our grandchildren—where are they going to hunt? I feel so sad about Muskrat Falls, and Muskrat Falls is not finished yet. There’s too many problems, all kinds of problems.”
Penashue also said she’s concerned about the people of Mud Lake, whose community, which is downstream from Muskrat Falls and accessible only by snowmobile or boat, flooded earlier this week.
The situation, which has forced many Mud Lake residents to choose between rebuilding their homes or abandoning their home community altogether, is “very, very sad,” said Penashue.
Nalcor Energy has said the Muskrat Falls facilities, including the cofferdam and the spillway, had nothing to do with the flooding downstream.
“The increased water inflows from upstream as a result of the natural spring thaw are passing through the Muskrat Falls spillway and to the river downstream,” Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill said in a statement Wednesday.
Penashue fears the consequences for Innu may be similar to those facing Mud Lake’s approximately 50 residents at present.
“Mud Lake people are always hunting, every spring and winter — always hunting,” she added, expressing sympathy for the families displaced by the flood.
“That’s why I walk — I want to walk with my people. And maybe the young children are going to be here [outside the Muskrat Falls main gate] tomorrow. That’s why I walk. I’m very, very concerned.
“The government should think about this — this is our land, this is our river,” she continued. “[For] thousands and thousands of years Innu people have hunted here — and where are the people going to hunt anymore?”
Asked if she has sought the support of Innu leaders, Penashue said “I think [they’ve] seen me; I put [notice of my walk] on the computer,” she said, referring to numerous posts on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that advertised her walk in advance.
“I will wait to see what happens. They should be here, one of them — Innu Nation or band council [representatives]. It’s very, very important; everybody — Innu Nation and band council — have father and grandfather always hunting here [on] Churchill River. That’s why I walk. I cry sometimes when I look [at] what happens. Everything’s such a mess.”
In 2014, as part of her well-known annual trek in nutshimit — the backcountry, or the bush — Penashue said she wanted to “see [Muskrat Falls one] last time.”
In an interview with The Independent that winter she recalled trips up the Churchill River — known to the Innu as Mistashipu — with her late husband Francis, as well as childhood trips with her parents to hunt and pick berries.
“I want to say goodbye…and I want to see [Muskrat Falls one] last time,” she said.
Penashue asked Nalcor permission to let her walk to the falls, but the crown corporation turned her down.
Last fall, as Muskrat Falls protests in Central Labrador grew in anticipation of the first phase of reservoir flooding by Nalcor, Penashue joined land protectors, elders and others in prayer and for a walk along the Trans Labrador Highway on Oct. 15, the first potential day of flooding.
Days later, after nine land protectors involved in a blockade of the Muskrat Falls site were arrested, she and other Innu elders and members of Sheshatshiu First Nation set up tents alongside Inuit and settler Labradorians in the protest area outside the project’s main gate.
On Oct. 24, as she remained outside the main gate while dozens of land protectors occupied the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp, Penashue told The Independent she was concerned that Innu Nation leaders weren’t supporting their people, and that October 2016 marked the “first time I see it in my life like that…[when] the people [are] protesting together.
“If I were tomorrow’s Innu Nation, I’d be so worried, I’d be so sad [about] what happened, and worry about the people in Muskrat Falls. I’ve been thinking I’ve got to support the people, what they’re doing. And it’s not only Metis, a lot of people protest, Nain, Halifax, Wabush, everywhere, big protests. This is very, very important. I’m very, very happy.”
Penashue says she plans to spend several days with her tent outside the Muskrat Falls main gate.
“I’m thinking about the animals, and Innu medicine, berries, blueberries, red berries — everything’s going to die,” she told The Independent Thursday. “Everything.”
Whoever is behind the recent political strategy in the premier’s office and in cabinet deserves a raise.
Compared with the beach balls lobbed at their political opponents in 2016, this year government did a wonderful job of mitigating unrest. The 2017 budget rolled out with little fanfare, and the way it was presented seems specifically designed to avoid sparking protests. In the ongoing spat with MUN over funding cuts, even Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour Gerry Byrne managed a couple slam dunks.
The government’s strategy with MUN is to offload on university administration any responsibility for tuition and fee increases, a move that is designed to avoid the wrath and protests of the students. This year government made another cut to MUN’s funding, but said it was up to the university administration to decide whether to raise tuition to cover the loss.
This is the third year in a row the provincial government (under the former PC government, too) made cuts to MUN’s budget. Tuition and fees were previously raised on graduate and international students, and it was obvious that a raise in undergraduate tuition was in the cards.
Byrne’s strategy to divide and conquer the university community is to go after the low-hanging fruit, pointing to the university’s salaries and expenses. He also made dubious statements about the university’s financial accountability and suggested its books were not in order (which was swiftly debunked by the university’s Board of Regents). This paints a picture of the university as out of touch and living high on the hog while austerity sweeps through the province.
Even as the university administration has recently pushed back in some ways, it is obvious that Byrne and the provincial government have the initiative. Byrne is even so bold to say that he and the provincial government are on the side of the students, absurdly demanding that MUN maintain the tuition freeze while it is the provincial government that put raising tuition on the table by continuing to cut funding from MUN.
Unfortunately, the various factions in the university community – upper administration, students, faculty, and staff – have been making it relatively easy for Byrne and for the provincial government by playing into their strategy.
A better strategy for the students is to go after the source of the problem: the provincial government.
For example, the student unions and student representatives have largely focused on the salaries of the university president and senior administrators. It does seem, at first glance, that senior administration makes exorbitant salaries, and there are indeed a significant number of faculty on the sunshine list.
However, what is rarely mentioned is that many of these upper administration and faculty members are worth every penny. University presidents, for example, are usually hired and compensated relative to their Rolodex – i.e. their ability to rub elbows, fundraise, and grow the university’s endowment fund. Senior administrators and faculty are likewise evaluated not only on their academic research but also on the funding and grants they bring in.
The student unions and union representatives might also consider re-evaluating their arguments about the economic impact students have on the province, with respect to consumer spending, taxes, and the ways they will contribute to the economy in the long term. It seems disingenuous to critique the corporatization of the university and the way broader neoliberal practices have crept in, and then to turn around and discuss students as financial units using that same neoliberal logic.
A better strategy for the students is to go after the source of the problem: the provincial government.
It is the provincial government that continues to cut funding to the university, and the university administration is being put in an impossible position, especially given the mounting deferred maintenance and crumbling infrastructure on campus.
I also wonder what can possibly be gained with the current strategy of going after upper administration. In the short term, sure, they may be badgered into maintaining a tuition freeze for another year, but the cuts will keep coming from the provincial government year after year and the root of the problem will not have been addressed.
The university administration made a mistake by doing government’s dirty work and by allowing themselves to be pitted against the students. A better strategy may be to put up staunch resistance, and to come to some agreements with the students, faculty, and staff about how to move forward against their common foe, the provincial government.
Organized resistance and solidarity in the university community would pose a significant threat, and this government and premier likely won’t be able to withstand another round of unrest and disruption.
One way to do this would have been to reframe the discussion around the enormous value the university brings, not just with respect to jobs and direct economic activity, but with respect to the knowledge that is being produced. This knowledge functions to the benefit of our whole society, but also significantly to the private sector – to the extractive industries, to the financial industries, and to a variety of other industries. This is essentially a subsidy whereby public funds pay for research that is then monetized in the private sector.
Aside from this angle, one might also make the case that the provincial government’s priorities are out of order to be throwing good money after bad in that huge money pit in Labrador called Muskrat Falls; this year Nalcor got around $700 million from the public purse.
It seems to me the university administration should also do everything possible to stand in solidarity with the students. Even if upper administration is in an untenable position, it costs nothing to preface every statement by saying that the students are the top priority.
And even if tuition increases are on the table, the university can still hold the moral high ground by maintaining that ideally there should be no tuition. Arguments can be made that tuition is not ethically justifiable and that students should be paid for their part in the production of knowledge. The Faculty of Education can help with arguments in this regard, given that constructivism and critical pedagogy (such as from Paulo Freire) are standard fare.
Overall, the students, upper administration, faculty, and staff need to get together, find some common ground, and direct their combined forces at the provincial government. The government did a good job this year of mitigating unrest, and they obviously learned some lessons from last year’s budget revolt and the uprising at Muskrat Falls.
But the provincial government is still vulnerable and still in many respects weak. Organized resistance and solidarity in the university community would pose a significant threat, and this government and premier likely won’t be able to withstand another round of unrest and disruption.
Continuing to allow the various factions in the university to be pitted against each other means that everyone in the university community will surely lose. Building solidarity and a culture of resistance gives us a fighting chance of reversing the cuts to the university, averting more in the future, maintaining the tuition freeze, and hopefully getting back on track of the values and principles the university is founded on.
Every year for the past decade, the provincial government locks me up. Not in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, nor in the lock-up in the basement of the St John’s courthouse, but in the Comptroller General’s office in Confederation Building. There I join a dozen other people in the NDP lock-up, where custodians from the Finance Department confiscate our phones, register our computers and monitor any visit to the washroom.
The lock-up immediately precedes the provincial budget speech. We inmates have three to four hours to make sense of close to 500 pages of documentation: the speech itself, an overview of the economy, a packet of press releases accompanied by the now mandatory graphics package and detailed spending estimates. It is a daunting task to grasp a whole series of complex issues and then formulate a meaningful and coherent response in such a short time. It is not a process that normally results in new understandings. This time, for me, it was different.
Over the past three years, ever since the Davis budget of 2015 first forecast dire economic times ahead, our task has become even more difficult. The nature of this difficulty is simple: there is a profound disconnect between what the economic indicators forecast and what the government plans to do.
The government is now predicting all of the key economic indicators to worsen markedly from the situation prevailing when they took office, represented in this graph by indices of one for 2015.
If Ball and Bennett are successful — that is, if all goes according to plan — then by 2021 retail sales will be decimated, household disposable income cut by an eighth, employment by a sixth, final domestic demand by a quarter, housing starts by 43 percent and capital investments by more than half.
With the exception of capital investments, almost none of the $8.25 billion that the government will spend in the coming year addresses any of these dire predictions. Capital expenditures by the provincial government include $710 million (the equivalent of 91 percent of the projected provincial deficit) on Muskrat Falls and $200 million on roads.
It is as if the government simply does not know what to do to help the people so badly affected by not only the economic downturn but also by their own panic budget of last year.
In the face of the worst situation since the cod moratorium, government’s only response is to hold the line on spending while waiting for oil royalties to once more begin to flow, some time in the mid-2020s.
To explain this political choice, critical voices in our province have come to increasingly rely on the idea that Newfoundland and Labrador has become a petro-state, a perspective that views our dependency on oil-derived revenues as the systemic weakness impeding appropriate government action. If this is the case, then the policy alternative is clear: To escape the trap of dependency, we need to diversify our economy along the lines proposed by Common Front NL.
What if we recognize [government’s] current inaction as being a choice?
The conundrum posed by this analysis is simple. Why have successive governments not done this? Is it really because, as I suggested to The Independent on budget day, that they lack imagination?
Since then I have been giving a good deal of thought to an idea that came to me during the lock-up almost as a revelation. It is a scary idea, for if correct, then the nature of the problem we face is much greater than we imagine.
What if, instead of conceiving a petro-state as a relationship of dependency where the government has little choice, we restored agency to the government’s actions? Instead of conceiving the government as being so dependent on oil revenues that it has few, if any, options, what if we recognize its current inaction as being a choice? It is choosing to enable expansion of the oil industry to the deliberate exclusion of other strategies.
Enabling directly relates to dependency, because enablers benefit from the dependency of others. Thinking in terms of enabling has helped us better understand the dynamics of sexual abuse, drug addiction, bullying, misogyny and a whole host of other social- and gender-based problems. It is not, however, how we tend to think of either democratically elected governments or advanced capitalist economies.
In support of this radically revisionist understanding, I offer two pieces of evidence. I know they are not in and of themselves sufficient proof of concept, but I hope they are enough to initiate a very necessary conversation. I start with a highly revealing graphic prepared by the government as part of the package that accompanied the budget.
This is a cleverly deceptive graphic. It builds on the popular misconception that royalties are tied to production to allay fears that there might be any imbalance between the two. In this representation, production figures and the royalties they generate appear to move in tandem.
In fact, the royalties we receive each year are not at all related to how much oil is produced that year. This disjuncture is because no serious royalties are paid until the transnational consortiums that control each oil field receive back all the funds they have invested, plus interest. Only then are any substantive royalties paid into provincial coffers. This is known, tellingly, as “reaching payout” — and it takes years.
The resulting imbalance can be seen by comparing Hibernia in dark blue and Hebron in green. Hibernia reached payout in the mid-2000s and so, despite declining production, will continue to provide the bulk of the province’s royalties for the foreseeable future.
The bar chart shows an increase in royalties from Hibernia despite considerably reduced production by 2019. This is because royalty payments are tied to the price of a barrel of oil and the government is banking on a 40 percent increase in oil prices. Its current forecast for the price of a barrel of oil would see $440 million in additional annual revenues by 2022.
By contrast with Hibernia, Hebron will be producing most of the province’s oil by 2020, but will not be contributing anything substantial to our coffers until the mid-to-late 2020s. This is true no matter what the cost of a barrel of oil might be.
This royalty regime allows transnational corporations in oil and mining to make exceptional rates of profits. In most advanced capitalist economies net corporate profits usually amount to a third of the total paid in wages and salaries.
In Canada, as is visible on the graph below, this has been quite a stable relationship, with wages around 45 percent of GDP, while net corporate profits fluctuated around 15 percent.
Thanks to our royalty regime, however, through the 2000s corporate net profits in Newfoundland and Labrador tripled the share of GDP and in 2007 and 2008 rose to almost double the share of all wages and salaries in the province.
The scale of the profits are truly mind-boggling. Treating the boom years between 2002 and 2014 as whole, net corporate profits actually exceeded all wages and salaries paid out in the province by $6 billion during these 13 years.
The largest share of these excessive profits were in extractive industries that permanently deplete our natural resources, meaning profits went quite disproportionately to corporations head-quartered in other countries. During the boom, our province averaged a mere 17 cents in royalties for every dollar of net profits that went largely elsewhere.
There is a further complication to consider. While it is our oil, we don’t know how much there is in any of the fields. The data used to estimate oil reserves are the proprietary information of the very transnational corporations which so profit from their exploitation. Each of the oil fields has its own royalty agreement, but the structure of payments in all cases ensure that if there is less oil than anticipated, then it will be the belated royalties that will suffer, rather than any up-front corporate profits.
Why hasn’t this exceptionally weak royalty regime and its inherent risks been the subject of public debate? After all, for decades we made the Churchill Falls agreement a political issue, but during the boom that deal involved a transfer of wealth to Hydro Quebec of less than a sixth of the profits that accrued to the transnationals in oil and mining. A partial answer to this question is offered by the findings of a recent analysis of provincial fiscal policy, which shows how profoundly the boom transformed our economy.
In 2005, the first year oil royalties approached half a billion dollars, the overwhelming majority of people (95%) filing a tax return were in the bottom two tax brackets. They earned four-fifths of all taxable income that year. Only one in 20 people were in the top tax bracket, and they took home a fifth (21%) of taxable income.
By 2013, as the boom came to an end, those in the top tax bracket had swelled to a sixth (17%), and they took home almost half (47%) of the taxable income in the province, while pocketing almost two-thirds (64%) of the individual tax credits. The remaining half (53%) of the income and a little over a third (36%) of the tax credits were shared by the four out of five people (83%) in the lower tax brackets.
This seismic shift in the political economy of taxation means that there is now a significant and influential minority with a vested interest in both inequality and maintaining the current fiscal regime.
What do these two disparate images tell us? Is the deliberately misleading suggestion of a balance between oil production and royalties related to this radically altered political economy? Taken together, can they help us understand either the provincial government’s refusal to diversify the economy, or its blind indifference to the damage inflicted by its policies?
Over the past 20 years, a complex new political economy has been created in Newfoundland, one that Labrador has known in differing forms for centuries. Central to its success has been a royalty regime that ensures extraordinary profits for transnationals while allowing a minority within the province to prosper as never before.
During the Liberals’ 2017 budget speech on April 6 Finance Minister Cathy Bennett said the government is “optimistic about the future of our offshore oil industry,” and that they “believe that Hebron will be one of a number of future developments in our offshore.” Further, Bennett said, the government is working to “position our province as a preferred location for development.” Photo by Brian Carey.
This is, to be sure, an unequal partnership, but it is one that benefits both parties.
The wealth accumulated within our province during the boom has been more than enough to change our politics and our culture. Despite the evident damage being done to people and communities, the plan of those in control of government is to maintain this new political economy until Hebron reaches pay-out and brings a return to the distorting, local profit-taking of boom-time conditions.
In the mid-19th century, amidst the first boom and bust cycles of capitalism, a leading politician of Upper Canada was challenged to defend his actions. Sir Allan McNab responded unapologetically: “Railways are my politics.” Few politicians would respond so honestly now.
Beyond that marked difference, however, there is a fundamental similarity.
Just as that first liberal revolution generated qualitatively new forms of inequality through an unprecedented and highly gendered exploitation of nature, so too does the present neoliberal agenda.
The difference is that we are all well aware of global warming, and so we know the inescapable costs of allowing our government to enable the continued destruction of the planet by transnational corporations.
Sadly, we are also now learning all too well the cost to our communities of our failure to act on that knowledge.
Robert Sweeny lives in the Georgestown neighbourhood of St John’s with Elizabeth-Anne Malischewski. An historian of capitalism, his study ‘Why did we choose to industrialize?’ won the Governor General’s award for scholarly research in 2016.
Land protectors facing charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests in Labrador last fall are seeing renewed support for their effort to protect their communities’ water, food and ways of life.
Earlier this week one of Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders spoke out in support of land protectors who face civil and criminal charges for their role in reducing the probability of environmental and human health risks the Muskrat Falls project poses to downstream populations.
Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe sent a letter to Premier Dwight Ball Wednesday requesting that Ball consider asking Nalcor to have the charges dropped. Upward of 60 individuals face charges in relation to the Muskrat Falls protests, including the blockade of the site’s main entrance and the occupation of the workers’ camp.
“Many of these people feel they have done nothing wrong, but were simply taking action to protect their health, culture and way of life, and, as a result, have been branded criminals,” Lampe said in his second such letter to Ball since the occupation last October.
“This is very unfortunate and will, without a doubt, add to the growing discontent people have towards Nalcor and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Lampe said having the charges dropped would “serve as a significant and meaningful gesture of good faith and good intentions going forward, and would help to restore positive and constructive relations among the Indigenous leaders, the people of Labrador, Nalcor Energy and the Province.”
“We need all the support we can get”
Land protectors welcomed Lampe’s letter but said they want to see the Inuit elder and political leader’s words accompanied by actions.
Beatrice Hunter, a Nunatsiavut beneficiary who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, is facing civil and criminal charges, along with her 23-year-old son Scott Dicker.
For the past two weeks Hunter has been sending messages to Lampe via public Facebook videos.
One of dozens who occupied the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp last October, Hunter told The Independent Wednesday she hadn’t been expecting Lampe to advocate for the land protectors, and that she’s grateful because she thought her calls were “going to fall on deaf ears again.”
Land protector and Nunatsiavut beneficiary Beatrice Hunter posted this photo on Facebook April 12 thanking Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe for advocating for amnesty for land protectors. Facebook.
But Hunter said more support is needed from Nunatsiavut Government, including legal assistance for beneficiaries who face criminal charges and potential jail time, which she said would place enormous financial and emotional strain on their families.
“This is for the future, this is for generations to come,” she said. “We need all the support we can get. Me and my son can’t afford a lawyer, and we feel it was the right thing to do when we went in [to the worksite] in October — because we had no voice.
“Our premier is also our Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs minister; who are we supposed to turn to? We have no one to turn to if we have any concerns; we have no voice,” she continued, claiming land protectors exhausted all efforts to convince elected officials and Nalcor to prevent harm to locals’ food and way of life, but that none of the parties took adequate steps to do so.
Denise Cole, a spokesperson for the Labrador land protectors, told The Independent Thursday that Lampe’s letter “sends a strong message that he’s prepared to stand up again and say that he supports his people.”
But Cole said Lampe and the other Indigenous leaders need to better support those who put their bodies and freedom on the line last fall.
She pointed to the two Inuit leaders, Lampe and NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) President Todd Russell, who she said were encouraging their memberships to “make Muskrat right”.
“When you encourage your membership to support [the cause], you help them get rides to rallies, and you take those opportunities to speak motivational words to your people, they expect that you’re going to stand with them throughout the rest of the cause.”
As protests intensified in the fall in anticipation of the first phase of reservoir flooding, members of all three Indigenous groups in Labrador began calling out their elected leaders, as well as Labrador’s four MHAs, who are all members of the governing Liberal Party.
Land protectors demanded their political representatives join them on the ground to try and stop the imminent flooding and the projected increase of methylmercury in their traditional foods downstream of the dam.
On Oct. 15, the first potential day of flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir, Lampe joined the protests for the first time since he, Russell and Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee stood side by side in Goose Bay four months earlier in an unprecedented symbolic act of unity to demand that Nalcor heed the calls of Nunatsiavut’s Make Muskrat Right campaign.
Our premier is also our Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs minister; who are we supposed to turn to? … We have no voice. — Beatrice Hunter
That day in October, approximately 200 people representing all three Indigenous groups and settler Labradorians gathered alongside the Trans Labrador Highway, where they listened to speeches from Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue, hunger-striking Inuk artist Billy Gauthier, and Lampe himself.
Lampe then led a march up the highway that stalled west-bound traffic for about 45 minutes before the majority of those in attendance entered the Muskrat Falls worksite and walked toward the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the south side of the river.
The next morning about a dozen or so land protectors initiated a blockade of the main entrance to the worksite, stopping the flow of all traffic trying to enter the site. That evening authorities served notice of an injunction granted to Nalcor by the Supreme Court of N.L., and the following morning eight land protectors were arrested for refusing to end the blockade.
The next day, on Oct. 17, NCC President Todd Russell held a press conference in Goose Bay and vowed on the ground action to halt the flooding of Muskrat Falls until methylmercury concerns were addressed. At the announcement Russell was handed a copy of the injunction by land protector and NCC member Kirk Lethbridge. Russell took the injunction and said, “I suppose this is what we can do with injunctions” as he tore it up in front of the media and to the applause of many in attendance.
The following morning Russell and several NCC members went up the river in boat and disembarked on the Muskrat Falls worksite, claiming they were exercising their Aboriginal rights to the land. NunatuKavut has an outstanding land claim which includes much of the land around Muskrat Falls.
Cole, who is of Inuit descent and a former member of the NCC, said Russell has an obligation tosupport his people who are facing civil and criminal charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests, and that she thinks there is hypocrisy at play on the NCC’s part, and a double standard on the part of the justice system.
When Russell tore up the injunction on Oct. 17 and then defied it by going on to the site on Oct. 18, “that told [NCC members] that their leader was going to have their back,” she said.
Last month Russell told The Independent he had “not made any decision about providing legal representation for individuals,” and that the NCC is considering challenging the Oct. 16 injunction in the courts.
“We have serious concerns with the injunction itself, and the pervasiveness of the injunction and whether it is legal in and of itself,” the former Labrador MP said.
In a written statement to The Independent Thursday, Russell distinguished between NCC-sanctioned protest actions and those undertaken by land protectors when they blockaded and then occupied the Muskrat Falls site, saying the NCC “is not aware of any of its members being charged in relation to actions that NCC led.”
NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell was arrested April 5, 2013 alongside other NCC members protesting near the entrance to the Muskrat Falls site. Russell says the NCC filed a complaint to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP three and a half years ago over concerns of “inconsistencies and discrimination in the actions of law enforcement officials,” but have not received the results of the investigation. Photo by Kirk Lethbridge.
Cole said if Russell had been charged for defying the injunction, as many NCC members were after going on to the site on Oct. 22, NunatuKavut “would be providing financial assistance to fight this legally.”
Russell “should be no different from his membership,” she continued. “His membership should be just as equally represented. The question begs to be asked, why hasn’t he been charged, and why isn’t he providing legal counsel to his members, who he actively encouraged?”
Russell and other NCC members were arrested in April 2013 for defying a previous Nalcor-initiated injunction by protesting on the Trans Labrador Highway outside the main entrance to the project site.
NunatuKavut Elder Jim Learning, after he was detained and held in custody, launched a five-day hunger strike before being released.
The NCC challenged the injunction in court and was successful in having it thrown out on grounds the court order was unconstitutional.
Russell did not say in his statement Thursday whether the NCC has decided to challenge the Oct. 16, 2016 injunction.
He did say, though, that “while we cannot speak to the decisions that are made by law enforcement agencies, we can attest to the fact that there are sometimes inconsistencies and double standards in their approach.”
In the fall of 2013 the NCC issued a statement that the arrest of Russell and other NCC members made by the RCMP on April 5 of that year were “tainted and biased” because, Russell claimed at the time, “information has come to light that a high-ranking RCMP officer who was directly involved with the arrests and charges…is now employed with the Muskrat Falls hydro-electric project holding a senior position in security.
“Information provided to NCC indicates that the RCMP officer was aware of, and may have been actively pursuing, the position with the Muskrat Falls project on or about the same time as the NCC arrests were made. The RCMP officer in question is currently on a leave of absence from the RCMP,” the Oct. 1, 2013 statement read.
In his statement to The Independent Thursday, Russell said “three and a half years later, we have yet to receive a formal response to that complaint,” and that the NCC “continues to be vocal around the heavy-handed approach and the use of injunctions and the courts related to Muskrat Falls on-the-ground actions.
“NCC has consistently shown leadership in making these views known with Nalcor and the province and have advocated that this latest injunction be thrown out and the charges dropped.”
Cole believes the decision to charge some who defied the injunction and went on to the site, but not others, is “political”.
Land protector Denise Cole says NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell’s decision to tear up a copy of the Oct. 16 Supreme Court of N.L. injunction “made it very clear…that [NCC members] shouldn’t respect the injunction either.” NunatuKavut / Facebook.
“I think the reason why [Russell] hasn’t been charged is because Dwight Ball knows he’s going to have to sit to a negotiation table with Todd Russell, and there’s resources in southern Labrador that he’s going to want,” she said, pointing out the NCC has already, prior to finalizing its land claim agreement with Canada, “signed letters of agreements with Alderon [Iron Ore Corp.], who is a big supporter of Muskrat Falls and needing that power for resource extraction,” and with “Search Minerals [Inc.] to look at rare minerals.”
Cole said if land protectors acting in self-defence to protect their water, food and way of life are being charged for breaking the injunction, so too should Russell.
“He broke that injunction before those who went through that gate and was not charged and has not been investigated to our knowledge, even though he made it very public that himself and other council members were breaking the injunction,” she said.
“He tore up that injunction in front of [land protector] Kirk Lethbridge and said, this is what I think of that injunction. Kirk Lethbridge is now facing charges, even though his president made it very clear in a message to him [by] tearing up that injunction that they shouldn’t respect the injunction either.”
Cole said she voluntarily renounced her NCC membership based on the organization’s “lack of clarity about their stance on Muskrat Falls and what I felt was double-messaging and looking to manipulate a situation for the benefit of the NunatuKavut land claim and government,” and “because I felt their values are not in line with my cultural values of being somebody of Inuit descent.”
Being a person of Inuit descent, she said, “makes me a steward of the land [and] means that I stand up for the protection of land and water and life.”
Justice and reconciliation
Though expressions of public support for land protectors dwindled following the leaders’ agreement that effectively brought the Muskat Falls occupation to an end, Cole said there has been a recent resurgence in support.
Last month land protectors received a letter from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) accompanied by a $1,000 donation to their legal defence fund.
“The defense of your territory and Mother Earth is well noted and inspiring. The attempt to extinguish title and destroy even more land and territory is something you have rightfully opposed. We recognize that after generations of destructive and invasive colonialism the Innu and all collective Indigenous spirit on these lands is alive, well, and gathering steam,” reads the letter, signed by CUPW Second National Vice-President Dave Bleakney.
“It gives us comfort and hope that others will follow your example in order that destruction of the Earth cease and human beings will nurture and live in harmony with all living things.”
Cole said receiving the letter from CUPW was “incredibly encouraging,” and that it “tells us that we aren’t alone in this walk at a time when it seems that our Aboriginal leaders and our provincial and federal government leaders have turned their backs on us.”
Last month Mi’kmaq lawyer and Indigenous rights scholar Pamela Palmater told The Independent land and water defenders, or protectors, play the modern day role of Indigenous nations’ warrior societies, and that others should “support them in a wide variety of ways” since they make the largest sacrifices to protect the land and water for everyone.
“That warrior spirit to protect our people — it’s a rare quality,” she said. “People need to realize that these people are defending us in our own territories.”
Cole said in addition to ensuring the terms of the leaders’ agreement around mitigating methylmercury are adequate and respected in a way that will protect people’s health, “there’s still a lot to hold the government accountable for. So we really need people to understand that it’s not done, and Make Muskrat Right is far from being over.
“We had over 600 artists sign on last fall, and there were groups right across the nation who stood up and [supported] the Make Muskrat Right campaign — so they need to get back on the path with us again now.”
Palmater also told The Independent in March that when it comes to the treatment of Indigenous land defenders in Canada the federal and provincial governments are “not respecting Section 35 [of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms] and the right of people to protect their land and territories.
“If law enforcement was enforcing all of the laws in Canada, we wouldn’t have any problems. But they’re not even enforcing their own laws, let alone Indigenous laws, and that’s where we have the problem.”
Palmater also noted that when RCMP arrest Indigenous people in the midst of protecting their rights against government and corporate encroachment, they are effectively “enforcing corporate privileges.”
When the Liberal government came to power both federally and provincially in the fall of 2015, both governments pledged to implement the calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
Among those was a call upon the provincial governments “to commit to the recognition and implementation of Aboriginal justice systems in a manner consistent with the Treaty and Aboriginal rights of Aboriginal peoples, the Constitution Act, 1982, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed by Canada in November 2012.”
In the fall of 2015 Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball committed to implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
Another call to action compelled “the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to ensure that lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency training, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.”
After appointing himself Minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs after the Liberals won the provincial election in November 2015, Ball promised to “lead the implementation of the calls to action set out in the [TRC report] which are applicable to the provincial government.”
On Thursday provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons responded to President Lampe’s letter to Ball, saying the provincial government would not advocate for amnesty of land protectors as “decisions to prosecute, terminate proceedings or launch an appeal are independent decisions made by individual prosecutors in accordance with established legal criteria. These matters must be allowed to take their proper course.”
Asked if the provincial government has made any progress on recognizing and implementing Aboriginal justice systems, and whether the Director of Public Prosecutions and any Crown attorneys who will be involved with the prosecution of land protectors have received the cultural competency training as outlined in the TRC report, Parsons said he cannot release this information because of the charges related to Muskrat Falls.
Rigolet Elder Charlotte Wolfrey (blue coat, red toque) appeared before a provincial court judge on April 5, 2017 on criminal charges for her participation in a blockade outside the Muskrat Falls main gate last October (pictured above). Following her court appearance Wolfrey told the CBC that in addition to Canadian laws “there’s another ultimate law, that as an Indigenous person, and as an Inuk, that’s our responsibility [to uphold] … and that law is to protect the land and the water and everything that sustains you and moves you forward for the next generations to enjoy. So that’s what I was doing. I was standing up for our rights.” Photo by Justin Brake.
“I am unable to respond to your questions due to the fact they are related to a matter that is presently before the courts and to which you are a litigant,” he said, referring to the charges placed against this journalist for my role in covering the protests at Muskrat Falls last October (see disclosure below). It is not clear if Parsons means information related to the Department of Justice’s response to the TRC calls to action cannot be disclosed so long as there are Indigenous people in the court system, or whether he means information cannot be disclosed to litigants of the Nalcor and RCMP-initiated charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests.
A follow-up request was sent to Parsons Thursday asking for a general response to the question of implementing Aboriginal justice systems, but a reply had not been received by the time of publication. This story will be updated, or a follow-up story published, once The Independent has more information on this matter.
According to 2014-2015 Statistics Canada data, 27 percent of adults admitted to correctional services in Newfoundland and Labrador were Aboriginal, though the most recent available data indicates Indigenous people comprised only seven percent of the province’s population.
Last month Ball told The Independent he would not advocate for amnesty on the land protectors’ behalf because “the last thing we want is a premier, or any leader, interfering with our law, and interfering in justice.”
Land protectors have repeatedly denounced the charges against them as unjust, describing their actions to halt flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir as a last-resort act of self-defence when the political and legal institutions failed to protect them from imminent harm.
Disclosure: The author of this article faces one civil and two criminal charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests in October 2016. As a journalist, I followed the story and documented and reported on the Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp. I left the project site once a Supreme Court of N.L. judge approved a Nalcor-initiated injunction that specifically named me. I am currently fighting these charges in court as they pose a threat to press freedom, which is constitutionally protected under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This op-ed was originally published April 11 as an editorial in French-language provincial newspaper Le Gaboteur. It has been translated, lightly edited and re-published with the author’s permission.
On April 11, 28 people appeared in provincial court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to face the criminal accusations laid against them by the RCMP following the Muskrat Falls blockade and workers’ camp occupation in October of last year.
The group is comprised of Justin Brake, the editor of this publication, and of 27 Land Protectors, a collective of Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians. In addition to the criminal charges, many of these folks, and others involved in the Muskrat Falls protests, are also facing civil contempt charges.
Their alleged crimes? Having defied an injunction that outlawed the disruption of work on the Muskrat Falls construction site, and mischief in excess of $5,000. The injunction was issued by a Newfoundland Supreme Court judge on Oct. 16 at the request of Nalcor. Those accused of criminal activity could be facing several years in prison. The Crown has reduced the criminal charges against Brake to summary instead of indictment, so he is unlikely to do much time, if any.
Brake and the Land Protectors are facing the same accusations, but the reasons behind their actions are different.
Protecting culture, land and life
The Land Protectors defied an injunction. Nalcor made use of planes and buses to evacuate its workers. The RCMP dispatched dozens of officers to Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the surrounding area to enforce the Nalcor-obtained injunction.
More importantly, though, the Land Protectors succeeded in stopping the imminent flooding of the reservoir and the much-feared methylmercury poisoning sure to follow.
If they were called as witnesses to court, anyone who watched Justin Brake’s live-streamed reports…could state beyond the shadow of a doubt that the occupation of the site was peaceful and led by people defending the common good against a legal power they felt was iniquitous.
They were not the only ones who wanted to stop the flooding. Hundreds had gathered at the site’s entrance for more than a week in October, many more had protested in St. John’s, and some had even gone on hunger strike.
Defying the injunction was the only effective way of slowing Nalcor’s plans to flood the reservoir, and forcing Premier Dwight Ball to negotiate with Indigenous leaders to protect, if only temporarily, Labrador’s culture, land and life.
The Land Protectors did so with the utmost respect for the principles of civil disobedience.
It is defined as “the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power. Civil disobedience is a symbolic or ritualistic violation of the law, rather than a rejection of the system as a whole. Civil disobedience is sometimes, though not always, defined as being nonviolent resistance.”
If they were called as witnesses to court, anyone who watched Justin Brake’s live-streamed reports on The Independent’s Facebook page could state beyond the shadow of a doubt that the occupation of the site was peaceful and led by people defending the common good against a legal power they felt was iniquitous.
Before these acts of civil disobedience took place, most attempts to slow the provincial government and Nalcor in the project had failed, as had attempts to have questions answered. The list of those who tried is a long one; among them can be counted the Nunatsiavut Government, the NunatuKavut Community Council, the Ekuanitshit Innu Council, the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Grand Riverkeeper Labrador, academics, bloggers and journalists (not only Justin Brake).
If the Land Protectors committed a crime, it is the crime of having successfully defied Nalcor and the provincial government.
It was in Québec that the largest civil disobedience movement in recent Canadian history took place — the student uprising of 2012, a widespread protest movement which came to be known as the printemps érable, orMaple Spring. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one of the movement’s three main spokespeople, wrote about it all in his book Tenir Têtre, for which he received the Governor General’s Award in the francophone Essay category in 2015.
During the many months of protests, many injunctions were issued to force students and teachers to move their picket lines away from the doors of colleges, universities and other institutions of learning.
Nadeau-Dubois recalls in his book that “Court orders were very rarely respected by the students,” and that “respecting these orders meant giving up their struggle.”
The same reasoning applies to the Land Protectors: Respecting last October’s injunction meant the reservoir would be flooded before any of the poison prevention measures recommended by the Harvard researchers could be implemented.
“In such a drawn out and polarising conflict, how could the judges believe, even for an instant, that these injunctions would be effective? Many of the students on strike likened the heavy reliance on injunctions to a political hijacking of the courts,” Nadeau-Dubois writes in Tenir Têtre.
Later in the book, Nadeau-Dubois gives the example of Judge Jules Deschênes of the Superior Court of Québec, who refused to sentence a group of Société des transports de Montréal bus drivers for contempt of court in the 1970s. In his decision, Judge Deschênes wrote (quoted by Nadeau-Dubois): “Until a political authority finds an appropriate solution to these social conflicts, I am of the opinion that the superior Court must not make use of its power to crush a group of citizens with fines and imprisonment. (…) It must not collaborate in deeds that are doomed to fail, deeds that will not help in resolving a conflict which for some time now has been the political authority’s responsibility.”
Nadeau-Dubois concludes by telling his readers that “a social crisis calls for a negotiated political agreement.”
What happened in Labrador in October of 2016 was a social crisis, which culminated in acts of civil disobedience. How do we know? Largely because of Justin Brake’s journalism.
The public’s right to information
Brake spent weeks in Labrador before protesters blocked the site’s entrance and eventually occupied the site. With his written articles and his live reporting, he aided in raising general public awareness of the magnitude of the Labradorean resistance.
Like the Land Protectors, Brake now faces civil and criminal charges for having defied an injunction. However, he acted as a witness of the events, rather than as an instigator or participant. He did his job.
[Brake] acted as a witness of the events, rather than as an instigator or participant. He did his job.
Many journalist organizations are demanding that the charges against Brake be immediately dropped, arguing the charges are an unprecedented violation of the freedom of the press. But a judge recently ruled that Brake held no special status before the law. Herein lies the basis of a long and expensive legal battle.
What has been clear throughout this whole conflict is the ferocity and perhaps the ease with which Nalcor erects barriers that deprive citizens of their right to know what is happening in Nalcor offices and on the Muskrat Falls site. If people are able to know, it is in no small part thanks to the work of journalists. It is for this reason that journalists are given “special status” in various circumstances.
Journalists are citizens’ eyes and ears – when they do their work properly.
During the occupation of the site, the public’s right to information was ensured by The Independent’s eyes, ears, voice, mobile phone and Facebook account.
Justin Brake was the only one on the scene. Many more were needed, just as many more will be needed to thoroughly investigate this public infrastructure project’s multiple slips and slides.
Will the project garner more civil disobedience movements in the coming weeks and months? If such is the case, let us hope that this “conflict which for some time now has been the political authority’s responsibility,” borrowing from Jules Deschênes choice of words, be resolved in the political arena and not in a courtroom.
Jacinthe Tremblay has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. She has spent much of her career as an independent journalist working in Québec, and has lived in St. John’s since 2011. Jacinthe currently serves as editor of Le Gaboteur, Newfoundland and Labrador’s francophone newspaper. In Québec, she was a member of the board of trustees for la Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, and is a former chair of l’Association des journalistes indépendants du Québec.
Note: Quotes from Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois come from an English traslation of ‘Tenir Tête’, titled ‘In Defiance’, published by ‘Between The Lines’ publishing in 2015.