Tag Archives: Muskrat Falls

Photo by Hans Rollmann.

Truth first, then reconciliation

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.

Photo by Justin Brake.

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 Photo by Justin Brake.

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.

Pull Quote Kelly Butler Truth 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.

Photo by Justin Brake.

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.

Pull Quote Dwight Ball Indigenous Roundtable“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.”

Last fall a group of land protectors in Labrador drafted a letter to United Nations (U.N.) High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein with the hope the U.N. will intervene at Muskrat Falls since the project, they say, infringes on Innu and Inuit rights.

“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.”

Pull Quote Binky Andersen Muskrat FallsProvincial 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.”

(With files from Hans Rollmann.)

Mud Lake on Friday, May 19, two days after the flood. Yvonne Jones / Facebook.

“I have nothing else left to lose”: Mud Lake leader to Nalcor

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

Photo by Justin Brake.

Cop behind violent Muskrat Falls arrest named “Officer of the Year”

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.

The Independent was the only media present at the scene.

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.”

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.”

PullQuote Emily WolfreyThroughout 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 joined by land protector Marjorie Flowers (left) on a 10 km walk along the Trans Labrador Highway to the main entrance to the Muskrat Falls project site. Photo by Denise Cole.

Penashue resumes protest of Muskrat Falls

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?”

PullQuote Elizabeth Penashue 18 May 2017Asked 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.”

Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour Gerry Byrne is successfully dividing and conquering the Memorial University community, says Jon Parsons. Facebook photo.

MUN community must unite against provincial government’s austerity

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.

Jon Parsons is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on cultures of resistance. He recently published his book, Everyday Dissent: Politics and Resistance in Newfoundland and LabradorCatch up with Jon on Twitter @jwpnfld

Premier Dwight Ball spoke at the Hebron oil platform "tow-out" event at the Bull Arm Site in Trinity Bay on April 18, 2017. Photo: N.L. Department of Natural Resources / Twitter.

Enabling dependency

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.

Ball Bennett Current Plan

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.

Oil Production And Royalties

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.

Stability

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.

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett and Premier Dwight Ball shake hands after Bennett delivered the Liberals 2017 budget speech April 6. During the speech 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, she said the government is working to "position our province as a preferred location for development." Photo by Brian Carey.

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.

Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe, who led a march up the Trans Labrador Highway outside the Muskrat Falls project site last Oct. 16, has asked Premier Dwight Ball to advocate for charges against land protectors to be dropped. Photo by Sam Culleton.

Land protectors see renewed support in wake of new charges

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.”

Beatrice Hunter Thank You Johannes Lampe

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.

The Independent documented Russell and the NCC members’ actions that day.

Charges inconsistent and political: Cole

Cole, who is of Inuit descent and a former member of the NCC, said Russell has an obligation to  support 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 is arrested during the April 5 protest. Photo by Kirk Lethbridge.

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”.

On Oct. 17 NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell tore up a copy of the Oct. 16 Nalcor-initiated Supreme Court of N.L. injunction. NunatuKavut / Facebook.

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.

CUPW Letter of Support for Labrador Land Protectors

“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.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action #42.

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.

Photo by Justin Brake.

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.”

Two-thirds of more than 13,000 votes in a VOCM poll conducted on Wednesday supported having the charges against land protectors involved in the Muskrat Falls protests dropped.

The courts in Labrador have struggled to accommodate the number of cases in the region. In February charges against a former RCMP officer in the Inuit community of Hopedale accused of child luring were stayed because the case took too long to go to trial, a provincial court judge ruled.

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.

Photo by Justin Brake.

Of civil disobedience, injunctions, and the public’s right to know

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.

Injunctions

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, or Maple 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.

Photo by Justin Brake.

Transgressive resistance to Muskrat Falls

Among the most important lessons to learn from the ongoing debacle of the Muskrat Falls project is that the political establishment in Newfoundland is immune to reason.

Before the project was even sanctioned in 2012, many people were saying it was a bad idea and resisting in various ways. Some of these people were specialists: economists, lawyers, journalists, scientists, and even a few politicians. But most of these people were just regular folks from communities throughout Labrador and Newfoundland.

These regular folks that resisted the project didn’t have a pile of axes sitting next to their grinding wheel or a specific political agenda. Rather, they saw that the project was a threat to their families and their way of life, and a threat to everyone else in the province too. Some recognized that it represented an ecological disaster, others that it represented an economic disaster, others that it represented the further extinguishment of Indigenous culture, and others recognized different threats as well.

Everyone resisting the project recognized it as an injustice, that it is good for only a small number of people and would create hardships for everyone else, and of course that is precisely what is happening.

So people got organized. They got together in their communities and talked things over. They contacted their MHAs, MPs, and other elected officials. They consulted experts, wrote letters and editorials, held demonstrations and marches and boil-ups to bring attention to the injustice.

But the political establishment didn’t listen and didn’t budge. The establishment said things like “least cost option” and other ridiculous slogans. They mocked and derided anyone who asked reasonable questions. They produced flyers and mail-outs and ads that could only be dreamt up in overpriced PR consulting firms.

And so regular folks started to escalate their forms of resistance. What else can be expected when the political establishment won’t listen to reason? Resistance to the project has all along remained peaceful, even as there has been some property destruction and economic damage.

And people continued to organize towards a large-scale social movement. However, as the resistance escalated it became transgressive. People involved in the resistance began to cross the line drawn in the sand.

It’s not that being transgressive always meant breaking the law, though sometimes that was the case. Transgression, rather, meant to employ tactics that go beyond trying to convince the political establishment through reason, since reason had no effect whatsoever.

Lots of people continue to try to use reason. Actually, it’s not that there is anything wrong with reason or that the resistance should stop attempting to reason with the political establishment and informing the general public; indeed, as the polling data indicates, the general public, at least, has slowly come to its senses such that now the project is not supported by a majority of people.

However, it is a paradox that many people who have obviously recognized the failure of reason on the political establishment will never contemplate tactics other than reasoned discussion. They will keep doing the same thing over and over, continuing to try to use reason to change the mind of those in government or running Nalcor, and this potentially is a failure of tactical and strategic thinking for resistance.

The simple fact is, many people that are opposed to Muskrat Falls will never cross the line in the sand over into transgression. They will never go on hunger strike. They will never put themselves in a position to be arrested. They will never occupy a work site (or, as journalists, will never follow the story of the resistance onto a work site). Many people will simply never transgress.

Transgression, rather, meant to employ tactics that go beyond trying to convince the political establishment through reason, since reason had no effect whatsoever.

And that’s okay. Not everyone involved in resistance is able to transgress. It’s no small thing to put oneself in harm’s way or to get in a situation where one may be arrested or face criminal charges. But not everyone involved in resistance needs to cross the line — there are plenty of things that have to be done (including continuing to try to reason with power and to inform the public) that are not at all transgressive.

What everyone who considers themselves part of the resistance needs to recognize, though, is that since reasoned discussion has on the whole failed, transgression is justified. If you consider yourself part of the resistance, then you must (1) support those people who transgress, or (2) at the very least not say that transgression is unjustified.

It doesn’t make any sense for someone to say the project is bad and to recognize the obvious fact that the political establishment is immune to reason, but then go on to say that transgression is not justified.

Such a position is essentially the same as supporting the project, because reasonable discourse can continue ad absurdum, as far as the political establishment is concerned, as long as the project continues on. Such a position is not resistance, but resignation.

Meanwhile, the land is destroyed and the water is poisoned and money is poured into a hole in the ground in Labrador.

Right now, there are dozens of people facing charges for transgressive forms of resistance to the Muskrat Falls project. These are regular people who recognized reason was having no effect, and so they crossed the line, doing what they felt they needed to do in order to protect their families and their way of life.

All these brave people need support and solidarity now more than ever. You don’t personally have to cross the line over into transgression, but you can still be on the side of those brave people that transgress.

Which side are you on?

Jon Parsons is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on cultures of resistance. He recently published his book, Everyday Dissent: Politics and Resistance in Newfoundland and LabradorCatch up with Jon on Twitter @jwpnfld

Independent Letters

Press freedom a “cornerstone of a healthy democracy”

The charges brought against Independent journalist Justin Brake for mischief and disobeying a Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court injunction while covering the Indigenous-led Muskrat Falls protests this past fall have garnered international interest.

And so they should. Advocates of press freedom are speaking out against the Nalcor led legal action which has become the latest case in which independent media coverage of Indigenous-led protests are being quashed.

We, a group of Grenfell Campus, Memorial University students and young alumni, are adding our voices to the growing opposition against these charges. Moreover, we are opposing what these charges represent not only for journalism, but for youth entering and shaping what is to be our future.

What follows is a letter of support for Justin Brake, the work he has done and what it represents. It is also a call to action from a generation inheriting a politically and socially polarized world in which truth and information are used, misused, and manipulated in often dangerous and undemocratic ways.

For many students in the province, and for those of us writing this letter, it was evident that our education and our developing understanding of the world were not simply theoretical, out there concepts. What we read in our textbooks, we saw reflected in our local communities. Most specifically, environmental issues such as oil and gas development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, proposed fracking developments on the west coast of Newfoundland, and the development of Muskrat Falls (to name a very few). Such issues have a localized and acutely felt importance which, when examined thoroughly, have relevance on a much larger scale.

The same can be said for any number of social justice issues or economic and political concerns felt in this province. Indigenous identity in Newfoundland and the handling of the Qalipu Nation membership, the cutting of important programs at College of the North Atlantic, threats to university students in the form of tuition hikes, and austerity measures in the province that threaten the literacy and health of vulnerable people are all important issues that have greater relevance. But these issues require scrutiny, a voice and a platform. They need a dedicated journalist to bring them to life as stories. Enter Justin Brake and The Independent, who by continuing to report on these stories, show the necessary role of investigative journalism on a local level. 

What good journalism should do is provide accurate and comprehensive information about important, developing stories. These stories must be accessible to everyone so that we, citizens of a democratic country, can be well-informed when participating in our civic society. Justin Brake’s coverage of the Muskrat Falls protests and occupation was second to none. His live coverage reached thousands and the extent of his reporting made this coverage a central source of a vital story.

The story Brake was covering at the time of his summons to court was of historical  importance.

We would like to note, as Brake has also done, that this was a demonstration which saw Innu, Inuit and white settler populations standing side-by-side, perhaps for the first time in recent Labrador history, united in a single cause. Colonization and exploitation of Indigenous Peoples is happening around the globe congruently with Canada coming to terms with its histories and trying to adapt reconciliation. The story Brake was covering at the time of his summons to court was of historical importance. 

The Muskrat Falls story, which Brake and other writers at The Independent have been reporting on for some time, is one among many which either had no other voice in the province, or received only one-sided coverage from other media outlets.

As students at Grenfell, it was partly The Independent’s interest in stories developing locally (see hyperlinks above) which legitimized our concerns and gave us a mirror to reflect on the immediacy and the context of what was happening around us. In turn, we began our own, small and independent print publication focused on giving an alternative voice to folks living on the west coast of the province. We called it the 4 O’Clock Whistle, and Justin took an interest in what we were trying to do because he understood the importance of providing alternative voices, no matter how small the platform. We need to be able to see ourselves and our immediate and broader realities in ways that are nuanced and complex, in ways than cannot be fit into 140 characters or swiped past on our news feeds. 

To see the case of Brake’s charges in a larger media context, a recent Public Policy Forum (PPF) report on the state of media in our country is forebodingly and aptly titled “The Shattered Mirror”. Things are looking grim. More than 200 Canadian newspapers have been closed or merged since 2010.

The PPF report points to nationwide slashing of staff and resources at media organizations, which generally means amalgamated newsrooms and less investigative pieces being developed on the ground. Indeed, the recommendations from the report include proposals for a new “local mandate ensuring there are more journalistic boots on the ground.”

In addition, recommendations include an “Indigenous journalism initiative to put more resources into communities and governments that are often overlooked.”

Anyone coming to mind that has shown the tenacity to combat these media shortfalls?

As it stands, charging a journalist in a provincial court for doing nothing more than bringing to light an important Canadian story is a disturbing breach of healthy democratic participation. As young people and as students, we are witnessing the institutions of this province and country (the RCMP, the provincial crown energy corporation Nalcor, and the provincial courts) actively quashing the public’s right to information. 

Charging a journalist in a provincial court for doing nothing more than bringing to light an important Canadian story is a disturbing breach of healthy democratic participation.

These charges against Brake bring into question the very instruments of democracy that brought light to our actions in our own communities and campuses, the very mirror which legitimized our concerns as being real and worth knowing about. 

While the provincial court and some mainstream media sources are focusing on the particularities of Brake entering a gate whose lock was cut and walking on Nalcor property, they lose sight of the story’s context. As a result, debates end up being about trespassing on private property and not about Indigenous sovereignty, histories of colonialism, and a journalist simply documenting an important act of civil defiance.

If it weren’t for Brake’s footage of a peaceable group of occupiers sitting around, drinking tea and chatting amiably with Nalcor employees (many of whom were friends and relatives of the occupiers), this story could easily have been painted as another group of violent, angry Indigenous people causing mischief and hindering development. 

Journalistic freedom, and more broadly, freedom to pursue and report on the truth, is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. We are not reporters, so we are not facing tough questions about whether or not to follow history through an open gate and keep the camera rolling. We are not faced with fear about losing our jobs and livelihoods over a story that could be traded for an easier piece of click-bait which wouldn’t require a plane ticket to the remote north. But, we are young people in Newfoundland and Labrador with a vision of what a healthy democracy should look like. This vision includes informed citizens, thoughtful debate, and access to all information from all sides.

Holding to this desire, we are calling for all charges against Brake to be dropped and for constitutional rights and press freedoms to be upheld.

For anyone wishing to help financially support The Independent and aid in Brake’s legal fees, please go to www.defendtheindy.com.

As well, we urge you to sign Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s petition calling on Jody Wilson-Raybould (Minister of Justiceand Attorney General of Canada) and Frances Knickle (QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, Newfoundland and Labrador) to drop all charges against Brake: “Journalism In Not A Crime”.

Sincerely,

Stephan Walke
Lindey Touzel
Connor Curtis
Kyle Curlew
Meghan Bush

Photo by Justin Brake.

Press Freedom and the Law 101

Our editor and colleague here at The Independent, Justin Brake, is currently facing both civil and criminal charges stemming from his coverage of the Indigenous-led resistance at Muskrat Falls in October 2016. These charges were initiated, in the first instance, by Nalcor, the crown corporation responsible for the Muskrat Falls project.

The criminal charges against Brake—disobeying a court order and mischief greater than $5,000—carry a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison, potentially a criminal record, and hefty fines.

Recently, Justice George Murphy, sitting in Supreme Court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, ruled in the civil matter that Brake’s status as a journalist was not a material fact and has no bearing on the case.

To briefly overview a few of the important points of the ruling:

  • Nalcor agrees with the fact that Brake was a working journalist throughout the occupation of the work site – there is no debate of this fact.
  • There was no obligation for the party initiating the court injunction, Nalcor, to disclose that Brake was a working journalist.
  • Even though Brake was a working journalist, there is no special status for journalists in such cases.

This ruling, unfortunately, sets the tone for the upcoming criminal case. I hope that those with more knowledge will respond and correct any discrepancies, but as far as I can tell there has never been a similar case, or a case of such gravity with respect to press freedom and the law, in recent Canadian history.

In his ruling, Justice Murphy drew on a case of journalists inside the barricades of the Oka standoff. Two journalists applied for an injunction against the military that was blockading and denying food and supplies to the Mohawk and others inside the barricades. The journalists argued that denying them food and supplies infringed on their rights to press freedom enshrined in the Charter. The judge in that case ruled that if journalists put themselves in dangerous or compromised situations that there is no obligation for anyone to provide them with resources – they were viewed by the court as no different from any other people inside the barricades.

[A]ny rulings will set a precedent for the way press freedom is understood throughout Canada.

There is some relationship between the Oka journalists and Brake at Muskrat Falls, but mainly in that Brake and his lawyer argued their case based on the freedom of the press section of the Charter. However, the main differences are obvious: Brake was subject to an injunction, not initiating one, whereas the journalists at Oka made their claim based on being denied food and supplies, not because they were subject to an injunction. The journalists at Oka were not facing any charges and were not otherwise impeded from reporting on the standoff, other than being essentially starved off the story. The similarity is, of course, that judges in both cases ruled that Charter rights to press freedom do not grant journalists any special status.

It is odd that Justice Murphy would draw on the case of journalists at Oka, which is somewhat beside the point, but did not look at any other relevant cases, specifically those cases of journalists charged with trespass. Brake is not exactly charged with trespass; however, breaking the injunction and entering the Muskrat Falls site is a very similar act, and Murphy mentions trespass numerous times in his ruling.

Generally, cases in which journalists are charged with trespass are extremely minor and have not resulted in criminal charges. Here are links to two cases involving journalists and trespass in Canada (see here, and here), neither of which carried any criminal charges and were in the end reasonably settled. Furthermore, here is an extract from an article in the Ryerson Review of Journalism on trespass law and journalism, which recounts other relevant cases:

On September 24, 1984, seven reporters, photographers and cameramen – Jonathon Craven, Al Clouston, Stan Coulton and Danny Cook from the CBC, Jim Russell from The Toronto Star, Richard Crabb from Broadcast News and Eaton Howitt from the Canadian Press – were convicted of trespassing in Peel Provincial Court and fined $200 each. Three others – Kenneth Kerr of The Toronto Sun and John McGhie and Al Hogan of The Brampton Daily Times – were acquitted when they could not be properly identified in court. In his decision, Judge Kenneth Langdon noted that “each of these gentlemen has an obligation to gather and disseminate news. …The media has a recognizable interest in getting to [the news] quickly. These people are not criminals.” […]

Though journalists sometimes trespass when they believe the public good requires it, few are charged, according to Stuart Robertson, a Toronto lawyer and author of Courts and the Media. Robertson attributes this immunity to special treatment often accorded members of the press. Those with identification are regularly allowed past official barricades. Others are permitted, even invited, to visit restricted areas. But while such privileges are understood to exist by reporters, they are not officially recognized [by the law]. […]

Bert Bruser, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in media law, predicts it is only a matter of time before a case of journalistic trespass is defended on constitutional grounds. Such a case could be critical in determining the media’s limits in pursuit of a story and in resolving the conflict between the public’s right to know and the rights of privacy and security. With the present judicial attitude toward the press, it is unlikely a decision would favor the media unless the information gathered by the journalist proved to be of exceptional public interest. If it is anything less, a precedent might be set that would make subsequent defences of journalistic trespass even more difficult.

Overall, the law with respect to journalists and trespass, and with respect to the Charter rights to freedom of the press, is not clear. Indeed, as far as I can tell, in recent years there has not been any case quite comparable to the one facing Brake for his work as a journalist at Muskrat Falls, since it carries serious criminal charges, and not simply a slap on the wrist like other trespass cases involving journalists.

As this case proceeds, it may go deeper into the murky waters of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and any rulings will set a precedent for the way press freedom is understood throughout Canada. This is certainly no light matter, and any thorough look at the issue of press freedom leads to the conclusion that it is not clear cut or simple. It is not enough to just say, “he trespassed, so he’s guilty.”

In fact, in recent years there has been an effort to try to understand trespass law in a more robust manner. Calls have been made to come to some legal terminology of trespass that will help courts deal with cases of journalists crossing legal boundaries, precisely because such laws are currently applied in a haphazard and irregular fashion. For example, Ben Depoorter, Professor of Law at U.C. Hastings, has worked toward developing a concept of “Fair Trespass” of which he says:

First, this novel doctrine more carefully balances the access/exclusion tradeoff that exists in trespass law. The proposed doctrine would force courts to explicitly weigh the interests of society in access against the potential costs to property owners. Second, by replacing the existing patchwork of ad hoc situations where courts excuse trespassory acts, this proposal provides a more coherent and consistent framework to adjudicate trespass conflicts. In doing so, the suggested doctrinal changes will enable individuals to distinguish ex ante trespassory acts that are strongly discouraged from acts that should be excused. By developing a balancing test to assess trespass claims, the proposed doctrine seeks to protect the rights of property owners on the basis of a more explicit and predictable framework, while at the same time safeguarding the societal interests in access.

Considering the agreed upon fact that Brake entered the Muskrat Falls site as a working journalist, and considering that the law with respect to journalists and the free press is by no means clear, the important question in my mind is really about whether what was reported was of public interest and of such significance that it warranted breaking the court injunction. My view in this matter is that Brake’s reporting was certainly in the public interest.

 

The take-away point, in closing, is a plea for everyone to step back and to think in broader terms of what is happening here. It seems to me that this is not only a legal matter, but also an ethico-political matter, about the kind of society we want to live in and the role of the press and of journalists in Canada.

In that regard, it matters how we understand this case and how we respond to it, because the ripples will extend far beyond.

Jon Parsons is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on cultures of resistance. Catch up with him on Twitter @jwpnfld

Goose Bay resident Marjorie Flowers was arrested during a peaceful blockade outside the main entrance to Muskrat Falls on Monday, Oct. 16, 2016. Photo by Justin Brake.

Land protectors face criminal charges for defending water, food, culture

Land protectors who protested the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador last fall could be facing jail time, an outcome that, according to a prominent Indigenous lawyer and scholar, would perpetuate a disturbing trend in Canada’s justice system.

Mi’kmaw lawyer and Ryerson University’s Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance Dr. Pam Palmater told The Independent this week that the criminalization of Indigenous Peoples protesting as a form of self-defence is becoming “more and more prevalent” in Canada despite the fact the protests themselves are an effort to guard constitutionally-protected rights.

Palmater, who has published extensively on Indigenous rights and sovereignty and was a leading figure of the Idle No More movement, said the RCMP should be “protecting and defending those constitutional rights,” but instead are charging those Indigenous people who are forced to do so themselves.

Dr. Pam Palmater. Twitter.

Dr. Pam Palmater. Twitter.

“Even when it’s a small charge, charges have an impact on Indigenous people—it’s a pipeline to other charges, it’s a pipeline to higher sentences, it’s a pipeline to being arrested and possibly facing prison time,” she said, citing the 2013 Mi’kmaq-led protests in Elsipogtog in New Brunswick that ended in a violent RCMP raid of a protest camp.

Earlier this month the RCMP announced 58 criminal charges against 27 mostly Indigenous land protectors who blockaded and then occupied the Muskrat Falls site in Central Labrador. Most of those criminally charged already face civil contempt charges for defying a court order after entering and occupying the site on Oct. 22.

“The RCMP respects and protects the right to peaceful demonstrations as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” the federal police said in the March 7 press release announcing the charges. “The role of the RCMP when unlawful acts occur during a demonstration is to ensure public safety, preserve the peace and enforce the law while upholding the fundamental freedom of peaceful demonstrators.”

The occupation was broadcast exclusively by The Independent, and this journalist faces both civil and criminal charges for that coverage. In response to an injunction granted to Nalcor by Supreme Court Justice George Murphy on Oct. 24 that explicitly named me, I left the project site and The Independent ceased its coverage from inside the occupation.

On Oct. 25, three days into the occupation, Premier Dwight Ball held an eleventh-hour marathon meeting in St. John’s with Indigenous leaders. An agreement was reached to address projected methylmercury contamination of traditional foods based on four demands put forth by three hunger-striking Inuit artists and youth.

To that point, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Labrador and the governing bodies of two Inuit groups had exhausted diplomatic and lawful avenues to protect locals’ traditional foods in downstream marine ecosystems.

A peer-reviewed study led by researchers at Harvard and Memorial University projected that flooding without fully clearing the reservoir would expose Inuit living downstream to unsafe levels of methylmercury.

Land protectors continue their occupation of the Muskrat Falls main site. Photo by Justin Brake.

Dozens of land protectors occupied the Muskrat Falls main workers’ camp on Oct. 22, 2016. Photo by Justin Brake.

The provincial Liberal government responded by promising to do the best it could to minimize methylmercury production post-flooding, but in the event levels exceed Health Canada guidelines, the government said it would issue consumption advisories and financial compensation to affected families.

Upon appointing himself as Minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs in 2015, Ball promised to “lead the implementation of the calls to action set out in the interim report of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission which are applicable to the provincial government,” including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

UNDRIP explicitly prohibits governments from destroying Indigenous lands, waters, food and ways of life for profit or any other reason.

In November former Environment Minister Perry Trimper told The Independent the results produced from ongoing methylmercury monitoring in the Muskrat Falls reservoir would be published on the government’s website any day. That information has still not been made public.

This week Ball and NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell both told The Independent the province and Indigenous leaders were close to reaching a consensus on the terms of reference for the agreement.

Criminalization presents land protectors with difficult choice

Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Marjorie Flowers, who originally hails from the Nunatsiavut community of Rigolet, has been arrested three times resisting the Muskrat Falls dam.

Flowers faces three criminal charges, including failure to comply with condition of Undertaking or Recognizance since she went on to the site after signing an undertaking following a previous arrest saying she would not do so.

This week Flowers told The Independent being incarcerated would change her life drastically. “I have a job, I have a mortgage, I have a truck payment.

“But at the same time I feel that it’s a risk that I took, [and] if the judge comes down hard I’m prepared to accept whatever it is.

“I stand by my conviction — bottom line,” Flowers continued. “We’re doing it for our culture, for a whole entire way of life — not just for ourselves individually, my god.”

Dennis Burden of Port Hope Simpson also faces criminal charges for participating in the occupation at Muskrat Falls.

We’re doing it for our culture, for a whole entire way of life. –Marjorie Flowers

In 2012, the fisherman and tourism operator chopped part way through a hydro pole linked to the Muskrat Falls project as an act of civil disobedience. In 2014 a judge ordered him to pay Nalcor $8,000 in restitution to replace the pole.

Now, on charges of mischief over $5,000 and disobeying a court order, Burden faces more serious punishment. If he is convicted, he fears he won’t be able to support his two daughters.

“One just started university a couple years ago, and I got another one heading off in a couple years. And they need me not to be in jail,” he told The Independent this week.

Burden also worried that, given his financial situation, the criminal charges could lead to the repossession of his home and belongings.

“Can they come and boot my girlfriend and my kid out of my house and come after them too for money?” he said. “It’s really, really hard to decide what I’m going to do next, but the decision is: You leave your kids on the street with no money, or you try and make a better world for them.”

Palmater said the Muskrat Falls controversy highlights other significant problems with how Indigenous Peoples are treated in Canada’s justice system.

“One of the big misunderstandings in Canada is that there’s something called the ‘Rule of Law’,” she said. “In fact, it should be called the ‘Rule of Laws’, because Indigenous laws predate any Canadian laws, and Indigenous laws are still in effect. Nothing has been done to extinguish those laws, and the Supreme Court of Canada has long realized that we were here with our own governments with our own laws, and there’s nothing to say that Indigenous laws can’t work alongside the imposed Canadian laws.”

On Thursday, Ball echoed the RCMP’s comment that people’s right to protest and freedom of expression should be respected, but went on to say that “we also have the rule of law, and we must respect that as well,” he told The Independent.

Asked if he would advocate for amnesty for Newfoundland and Labrador’s Indigenous people in cases where they have been charged for defending their rights and protecting the things the TRC report and UNDRIP say they need to continue their way of life without interference, Ball said the provincial government “support[s] people’s right to expression, their opinions, their beliefs, and so on. But we must do that in a law-abiding fashion, and that is kind of fundamental of where the system is, regardless if it’s with our Indigenous communities, or whether it’s 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. [We must] always protect our right of expression…but we must do it in a law-abiding fashion,” he said.

Palmater said when it comes to the treatment of Indigenous land defenders the federal and provincial governments “are not even following Canadian law — they’re not respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and all of our liberties. They’re not respecting Section 35 and the right of people to protect their land and territories.

“We have the right to protect our lands from destruction,” she continued. “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.

If law enforcement was enforcing all of the laws in Canada, we wouldn’t have any problems. –Pam Palmater

“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 “enforcing corporate privileges.”

On Oct. 22, after land protectors broke through the front gate, provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons wrote a letter to the RCMP requesting redeployment of officers.

“I am concerned about the well-being of all individuals at the Muskrat Falls site along with those in Happy Valley-Goose Bay,” he said in the letter obtained by The Independent. “I am writing in accordance with article 9.1(a) of the Provincial Police Services Agreement to request the redeployment of RCMP officers to the extent necessary to ‘maintain law and order, keep the peace and protect the safety of persons or property’ at the Muskrat Falls site in Happy Valley-Goose Bay generally.”

During an interview last month in Happy Valley-Goose Bay with land protectors and others opposed to Muskrat Falls, Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Michelle Kinney said people always talk about how Indigenous people are “more prevalent in the justice system, and don’t have the power to fight against it,” and that law enforcement’s response to the Muskrat Falls resistance reveals a disparity between Indigenous and settler ideas of justice.

“If [people are] doing things that are wrong they deserve to be punished, but I think it’s become really clear to people that you don’t necessarily have to do anything wrong to be punished,” she said, adding if she’s learned anything from the events at Muskrat Falls, “it’s what this is teaching our children.”

Warrior spirit “a rare quality”

Palmater said it’s “always the people with the least [who] put their bodies on the line, literally, to defend the lands and waters for everybody else,” and that those people need better support from the community.

“We need to evolve the social justice movement to find ways in which we can wrap our arms around the people who are willing to put their bodies on the line, because that’s a huge sacrifice—one of the biggest sacrifices anyone can make.”

Palmater added land protectors and others on the frontlines to protect Indigenous rights, lands and waters are today’s “warriors”, and that being a warrior is “not something you can ask of anyone.

“All we can do is be thankful for the people who do that, and actually support them in a wide variety of ways: publicly, by applying political pressure, trying to make sure they have adequate defence. Because that warrior spirit to protect our people — it’s a rare quality. People need to realize that these people are defending us in our own territories.”

That warrior spirit to protect our people — it’s a rare quality. People need to realize that these people are defending us in our own territories. –Pam Palmater

Land protectors from Labrador’s three Indigenous groups have told The Independent their leaders—Nunatsiavut Government President Johannes Lampe, NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) President Todd Russell, and Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee—have not offered legal or financial support to those being charged.

Lampe and Qupee could not be reached for comment, but in an interview earlier this week Russell told The Independent that while he shares “some of the same concerns” around Muskrat Falls as NCC members who took part in the blockade and occupation of the project site, those members “participated in activities not under the leadership and direction of the NCC.”

Russell said the NCC has “not made any decision about providing legal representation for individuals,” and that they are looking at the possibility of 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,” said the former Liberal MP for Labrador.

On Oct. 17, the same day nine people participating in the blockade outside the main gate to the Muskrat Falls project were arrested and detained by RCMP, Russell held a press conference in Happy Valley-Goose Bay announcing the NCC was officially throwing its support behind the protests. He then tore up the court order in front of journalists.

The next day Russell and about eight or 10 NCC members travelled up the Churchill River to Muskrat Falls and disembarked on to the site to “assert their Aboriginal rights” to the land. They were confronted by Nalcor security and asked to leave. After approximately a half hour they left on their own accord.

Russell, NunatuKavut Elders Jim Learning, Lloyd Pardy, Richard Michelin and the others then visited another part of the site, a beach near the North Spur, where they shared food and tea around a fire before returning by boat to the same location, near the spillway, where they had previously disembarked.

The Independent broadcast most of these actions on its Facebook page.

Russell and several others were arrested in 2013 for protesting Muskrat Falls on the Trans-Labrador Highway outside the main gate. Those charges were later dropped when the injunction was thrown out by the court.

Flowers, a Nunatsiavut beneficiary, said she and many land protectors feel abandoned by the Indigenous leaders and are forging a path of their own to defend their rights.

“I don’t have any hope for what they would do for us,” she said, adding Lampe has not met with land protectors since the Indigenous leaders struck an agreement with the province and the occupation ended.

The land protectors and their supporters share a deep sense of duty to protect the environment.

“On the one hand, you look around this planet you see what’s going on — this is a very fragile place we’re living on here; it’s unreal what the destruction is,” said Burden.

“She’s dying really fast. So do you fight that battle?” he continued. “I can’t see me not fighting this battle for the future for my kids. You look around and people are dying from smog and pollution, and water is not fit to drink, and our food is now being polluted. Somebody has to do something, and for some reason I feel one of those people is gonna have to be me. But then on the other hand, I don’t have any money, I’m a step or two away from bankruptcy…and there’s only so much I can do, and I don’t want the justice system to come in here and boot my family out on the streets.”

Billy Gauthier, the Inuit artist who launched a hunger strike and put forth the four demands to the government and Nalcor to address the methylmercury issue, said he’s eagerly awaiting the government’s announcement of the terms of reference for the agreement with Indigenous leaders.

Billy Gauthier. Photo by Justin Brake.

“If for some reason they decide they aren’t going to remove the soils and are going to contaminate the waters…why should I be off the hunger strike?” Billy Gauthier told The Independent in February 2017. Photo by Justin Brake.

“If for some reason they decide they aren’t going to remove the soils and are going to contaminate the waters,” Gauthier told The Independent last month at his home in North West River, “then there was no real agreement, and, therefore, why should I be off the hunger strike?”

Gauthier said he will resume his hunger strike if the government or Nalcor don’t fulfill the terms of the agreement, and that he doesn’t “care how much it costs [to clear the reservoir], because these waters, and the abundance of life in the waters, is important to us. We’re not just going to let it be destroyed because somebody wants to save a few bucks. I don’t care how much money it is.”

Jennifer Hefler-Elson, one of dozens of land protectors facing civil charges for protesting outside the project’s main gate, told The Independent last month she joined the effort to stop Muskrat Falls because she has an obligation to her descendants.

“I’m going to be an ancestor one of these days,” she said, “and my grandchildren or great grandchildren are going to say, ‘My ancestor fought against this project and helped shut it down…because she was one of the ones who stood up and said this is not gonna happen on our watch.’”

Disclosure: Dennis Burden donated to a fundraising effort last fall to help The Independent get to Labrador to report on how the Muskrat Falls project was impacting locals.

Image from one of Justin Brake's Facebook live streams from inside the occupied Muskrat Falls camp. Oct. 24, 2016.

STATEMENT: Criminal charges against Justin Brake an attack on press freedom

The Independent strongly condemns the criminal charges brought against journalist and Independent reporter/editor Justin Brake on March 7 for his reporting from the Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project site in Labrador last fall.

On March 8 Brake was summoned to appear in provincial court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay April 11 on charges of mischief exceeding $5,000 and disobeying a previous Supreme Court of N.L. injunction prohibiting people from entering or blocking access to the site. According to a March 7 RCMP press release the charges stem from an RCMP investigation into activities at the Muskrat Falls site last October and are among a total of 60 charges laid against 28 individuals.

“These criminal charges, which carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, are not only an attack on The Independent for doing important journalism,” says Brake, “they also amount to an attack by the RCMP on press freedom in Canada.

“In light of the revelations last year of police surveillance of journalists in Quebec and Ontario, these new charges deliver yet another blow to the integrity of Canada’s police agencies, including the RCMP, when it comes to protecting, not hurting, press freedom,” Brake added. “They should be withdrawn immediately. If they are not, we will fight them vigorously in court.”

On Oct. 22, 2016, following weeks of protests by Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians on and around the Muskrat Falls site, land protectors cut the lock on the project’s main gate and proceeded down a dirt road to the main worker’s camp, where they remained for four days while demanding the project be halted until concerns around methylmercury contamination of their traditional waters and wild foods were adequately addressed.

Throughout the protests land protectors maintained their actions were in self-defence, and that Nalcor Energy, the crown corporation in charge of the project, and the provincial and federal governments were not respecting their Indigenous rights and human rights.

Brake was the only journalist to cover the story from inside the occupied camp, bringing information of local, national and international importance to tens of thousands of readers and viewers.

On Oct. 24 Brake was named on a new court order compelling authorities to arrest him if he did not leave the Muskrat Falls site. Brake left the site and currently awaits Supreme Court of N.L. Justice George Murphy’s decision regarding whether or not Nalcor had an obligation to inform the court, when it applied for the injunction on Oct. 23, that Brake was on the Muskrat Falls site as a working journalist.

The approximately 40 land protectors, including elders, youth and clergy, left the site on Oct. 26, after the premier held an emergency meeting with Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders and acceded to demands laid out by three hunger-striking Inuit artists and youth.

In December Brake was shortlisted by the N.L. Human Rights Commission, an agency of the provincial government, for the 2016 N.L. Human Rights Award in recognition of his work covering the Muskrat Falls protests.

He fears that if he is convicted of a civil or criminal offence due to the charges precipitated by Nalcor or the RCMP, the consequences would be devastating for journalism in Canada.

“If journalists fear their constitutional rights will not be recognized and respected by corporations, governments or police, then they will hesitate to cover stories such as this, a scenario that presents a bleak outlook for journalism in Canada.”

UPDATE: The Independent has launched a Legal Defence Fund. Click here or visit www.DefendTheIndy.com to support Justin Brake and protect press freedom.

Defend The Indy

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball meets with Labrador land protectors. Feb. 10, 2017. Photo by Janet Cooper.

Premier meets with Labrador land protectors

After months trying to get a face to face meeting with Premier and Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Dwight Ball, land protectors in Labrador finally got to sit down with Ball to share their concerns and intentions regarding Muskrat Falls.

On Friday, after Ball had reportedly turned down an invitation to join the land protectors in a sharing circle, the premier extended an invitation for land protectors to participate in an impromptu round table discussion with himself, Labrador’s four MHAs and Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Deputy Minister Ron Bowles while the officials were in Happy Valley Goose Bay for the annual Combined Council of Labrador meetings.

With about 12 land protectors at the table and more standing behind them, protector Denise Cole started the discussion in a traditional sharing circle format, where only the person holding the talking stick could speak.

“Welcome to our land. This is Innu, Inuit and settler territory. We’ve been here for generations. We’ll be here for generations,” said Cole, who promised a respectful meeting and explained that the land protectors standing behind those at the table were “bearing witness…a traditional practice, that when there is relationships being built or decisions [being made], or conversations happening that people come to bear witness and give support.

“This is not a consultation — this is the beginning of dialogue. We believe the only agreement that can come out of today that we can all walk away and say it’s a win is if you’re here to tell us you’re shutting Muskrat Falls hydro project down to protect Labradorians and our land and our water.”

Land protectors speak

"You Dared To Call Us Savages" by Shirley Flowers.

You Dared To Call Us Savages by Shirley Flowers. (Click to enlarge.)

Inuit Elder Shirley Flowers, who has been present throughout the protests against Muskrat Falls in recent years, announced she is “number 26” on the land protectors’ list of more than 50 locals who have been summoned to court for violating injunctions during the Muskrat Falls protests.

“I can’t talk about what’s happening without talking about our colonial history,” Flowers, a residential school survivor, told the premier.

“I know and I believe that our lives have value. We’re not the savages that people believed we were, or thought that we were, or though that we were less than so—it gives other people authority over us.

Flowers then shared a poem she wrote, You Dare to Call us Savages, in which she described the ravages of colonization.

Jennifer Hefler-Elson of Happy Valley was one of several on Friday who criticized the Labrador MHAs and called for Ball to step down as minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs.

“I am requesting that you, premier, step down as minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs and appoint someone who is elected within Labrador.

“I sometimes sit in my living room and wonder, how do you bring concerns to the premier as the minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs? How can you do that? How can you have a conversation with yourself, and say ‘I have a concern about the people in Labrador’?”

John Learning, a NunatuKavut elder who was arrested in 2012 for defying an injunction when he and two other elders set marten traps in the woods near the Muskrat Falls site, called the situation “ridiculous,” saying in order “to get a meeting and save our people from being drowned or poisoned — we had to get arrested.

“I’m totally disgusted with our MHAs,” he continued. “When we first came out with the methylmercury [concerns] not one of you publicly come out and said, ‘No, we gotta stop, we gotta look at this seriously.’ Our so-called minister of environment said we’ll cut a few more trees…which is ridiculous.”

Learning then called on Ball to “step away from Aboriginal Affairs — you’re too busy for this, you haven’t got time to come and meet with us, step away.”

Mud Lake resident Craig Chaulk, who has been vocal in his concerns about the North Spur, which experts have projected would put his entire community underwater in the event of a dam breach, said he fears elected officials don’t fully appreciate the dangers he says the Spur poses.

“What boggles my mind is that a lot of you ministers seem to be not very knowledgable on the North Spur. Without the North Spur you have nothing. If it fails, lives will be lost, properties will be lost, and you will have no power for yourselves or anybody else.”

Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Peggy Blake introduced herself as “one of a lot of people who are going through the court system” due to her involvement in resisting Muskrat Falls.

“How you can sit there and look at us and know that you are putting us through this?” she asked. “We’re only doing this to protect our lives, to protect our homes and our families. I’m wondering how you can sit there and let this happen?

“There are so many things that are wrong with this project, yet you choose to turn a deaf ear to everything, to turn a blind eye, to ignore everything that’s going on, that’s being said to you,” she continued, as Ball kept his head down, taking notes. “I think it’s very arrogant of people like you to come here and expect that you can just take from us once again and just destroy our land. We have people going to bed in fear because of that dam.

We’re only doing this to protect our lives, to protect our homes and our families. –Peggy Blake

“Yet you sit there and look at us and say, well we have to keep going because of the money we’ve already put into it? I’m telling you, our lives are worth more than $12 billion, or if it’s going to go up to $15 billion or $20 billion. It’s not the monetary aspect that’s important to me — it’s the humanitarian aspect. You have to sit back and think about it: we are humans. We deserve better than this.”

Marjorie Flowers, a resident of Goose Bay originally from Rigolet who has been arrested twice protesting Muskrat Falls, had pointed criticism for Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds and Cartwright — L’Anse au Clair MHA Lisa Dempster.

“We were balling for you, yelling for you, we wanted you to support us. We wanted you, Lisa, to come here and show your face and tell us everything was going to be okay. We wanted you, Randy, to come here and tell us that you supported us and you were going to stand up against your own government and say the people are more important, people’s safety against methylmercury poisoning is more important, and more important than possible drowning. But you didn’t come here, and you didn’t come here.

“I’ve been arrested twice, because I have a strong conviction that this is f—ing wrong,” she said, apologizing for her language. “This is one of the reasons I didn’t want to come, because I get really, really, really emotional about it.

“Randy, when Aunt Shirley [Flowers] was reading that poem—you’re one of us. Lisa’s one of us. This is your home, too. Why aren’t you standing up for the people? It just blows my mind that this has carried on this long without someone having a voice for us. We’ve had to take it upon ourselves to create our own voice, to beg for a meeting….somebody listen to us, somebody hear us. What the hell is wrong with this picture? I suppose we all know what it is — it’s money and power. We’re not that naive, not that ignorant, that we don’t know what’s happening here. Money and power.”

Randy MacMillan identified himself as one of the workers who drilled on the North Spur.

“I need you to look at me as a father, a husband…I’ve been on that Muskrat Falls project since day one. I’m the guy that drilled them holes. Don’t tell me that North Spur is safe. Look at me. Look at me,” he said to Ball, commanding his attention.

“I need you to realize that we drilled 420 feet in the most crucial spot on that North Spur…[and] I also worked on that cofferdam all summer long, everyday that I was there. I realized it was going to break before it even broke. I was there. I seen the damage. I seen the coverup,” he said, referring to the leak in the temporary cofferdam that forced Nalcor to release water from the reservoir, which raised water levels downstream upward of one metre in the early morning hours of Nov. 18.

“I never seen such an anomaly in all my life,” he said, urging the premier and MHAs that they “gotta see those core samples,” referring to the material dug up during the North Spur drilling.

Roberta Benefiel of Grand Riverkeeper Labrador has been opposed to the dam for years. Speaking directly to the premier, she said, “I voted for [Lake Melville MHA and Environment and Climate Change Minister] Perry Trimper, and I voted for you. I voted out the Conservatives, and I thought that what you said, that you would have the books on Nalcor opened—I thought, okay, what choice do I have? You didn’t open the books on Nalcor. You had a change the legislation to take care of the ATIPP problem. You had a chance to change the legislation that the [Public Utilities Board] could look at Nalcor properly…but you didn’t do either one. You promised to do that and you didn’t do it. You will never get my vote again.”

Premier responds

Ball responded to the concerns, including the repeated calls for him to step down as minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs, saying he appointed himself to that position because it enabled him to directly participate in “government to government relationships”.

Ball also said he grew up next to a hydro dam his whole life, referring to the dam above Deer Lake built in 1925 to power the paper mill in Corner Brook. The dam recently made headlines over concerns around its stability and the anticipated flooding and other consequences related to a hypothetical dam breach.

Ball’s brother Dean is the mayor of Deer Lake. In 2013 he issued a warning to residents living downstream from the dam that there could be flooding as the company that operates the dam had to release water from the reservoir due to high levels of precipitation. 

An NTV investigation into the dam last November revealed the province has no legislation in place to monitor its integrity, and that Corner Brook Pulp and Paper, the private corporation that operates the dam, is responsible for monitoring and oversight.

Asked by NTV News reporter Colleen Lewis what would happen in the event of a catastrophic failure, the mayor said “that piece of information isn’t readily available to us today.”

Documents obtained through access to information requests reveal “a rush of water would strike the town of Reidville, Nicholsville and continue through the Humber Valley, taking several sections of the Trans Canada Highway with it,” NTV reported.

“And also shocking, Deer Lake airport would be lost, along with parts of Pasadena, Little Rapids, Humber Valley Resort and Steady Brook,” Lewis reported.

Premier Ball told land protectors Friday “it’s never acceptable to put someone’s health at risk, so you do it with the evidence you have.”

Last year researchers out of Harvard University released a peer-reviewed scientific study that projected methylmercury created by the dam’s reservoir would expose Inuit living downstream of the dam to unsafe levels of exposure to the neurotoxin. News of the dangers associated with methylmercury, downplayed by Nalcor and Minister Trimper, prompted a series of protests last fall, including two blockades and an occupation by land protectors of the Muskrat Falls site.

It’s never acceptable to put someone’s health at risk, so you do it with the evidence you have. –Premier Dwight Ball

On Oct. 25, during the occupation, Ball called a meeting between provincial and Indigenous leaders, who reached an agreement for further independent assessment of the dam’s impacts, the formation of a special committee to assess ways to reduce potential methylmercury contamination, and for potential further clearing of the dam’s reservoir.

While the agreement satisfied some, many land protectors have continued protesting the dam, calling for a complete shutdown of the project due to numerous other concerns, paramountly the North Spur and the risks a hypothetical dam breach poses to people and communities downstream.

During a community presentation in Happy Valley-Goose Bay last month engineers working on the dam assured land protectors and other concerned locals that the dam will not breach. Nalcor has repeatedly directed people to a trove of engineering and other documents archived on its website for evidence of the still incomplete dam’s integrity.

But many, including MacMillan, Innu elders and other locals, have said the riverbank’s high composition of sand and marine clay make the area permanently unstable for a large hydro dam.

MacMillan told the premier on Friday that he wasn’t informed by Nalcor that part of the drilling operations he undertook on the North Spur was atop a 1978 landslide.

“They had me drill…240 feet down on a landslide,” he said. “Like I said, I got three kids and four grandkids, b’y. I’m upset. The more I research–come on, we gotta go look at that.”

Ball told MacMillan the government “will ask [Nalcor] questions” regarding his concerns.

“The decisions we make as elected officials are not always easy,” he told the land protectors. “We do so with the evidence we have. And we try and make the best decisions as we can with the evidence we do have.”

Last November, after Nalcor had begun partial flooding of the dam’s reservoir, Trimper told The Independent that methylmercury monitoring had begun and results would be made available “as quickly as possible.”

On Friday Ball told land protectors the government is still working to make that information public. “We want to get that information out there,” he said.

The Independent has made multiple requests for a phone interview with the premier in recent weeks, but at the time of publication an interview had not yet been granted.

Trimper told land protectors on Friday that he “wake[s] up every morning making sure the evidence before me is accurate and that the people have looked under every stone.”

Responding to concerns around financial compensation in the event of a dam breach, Trimper said the “idea of compensation is there in the event everything else fails.”

But many locals don’t accept the promise of compensation.

“If I lose my husband and my three children, and my grandchild, there’s no amount of money that can cover that,” said Linda Cull.

“We are shutting Muskrat Falls down”

Cole said instead of “trying to fight for our lives and our land and our water,” residents of Labrador “should be here having a conversation about how we can have the best sustainable economy for our kids’ futures.

She pointed to the recently released National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy’s emphasis on creating cultural continuity as a priority area for reducing suicide among Inuit, citing the ability to “live off the land, to connect with culture, to eat traditional foods” as important means of maintaining good mental health and well-being.

Posted by
Labrador Land Protectors on Friday, February 10, 2017

“What you’re doing [with Muskrat Falls] is threatening our ability to do that, in a time when we talk about relationships of government to government,” she continued. “How can we talk about truth and reconciliation in a meaningful way if we do not talk about how we protect tradition? I don’t think any of us want an apology 50 years from now on a mistake that was made today—we should know better now.”

Cole then read a prepared statement from land protectors: “We are shutting Muskrat Falls down. We would like to do it with your help. We will do it without it. And that is where we are,” she said. “As the Labrador land protectors we can no longer [meet] halfway on anything. We are prepared to go to jail. We are prepared to put our lives at stake, if that’s what it takes — because we have to be there for the next generations and be able to say that we did what was right. So we invite you to come over to the side of what is right, and we’ll all work together.”

She said land protectors are tired of “being treated like terrorists” for resisting the dam.

“You need to know that we are humans. We don’t want to lose our culture. We want to have safety, we want to have peace of mind, we want to eat our foods, we want to keep our identity. This is our home. This is our way of life. We would like to live it and stop doing this. We would like to get back to enjoying the river, enjoying the land and enjoying our families.”

Rising Tide Theatre is touring its Revue 2016 production around the province until March 10. Photo courtesy Rising Tide Theatre.

Revue 2016: The good, the bad and the ugly

“The satirist’s most effective weapon is irony,” Arthur Koestler reminds us in his 1964 classic The Act of Creation. “Its aim is to defeat the opponent on his own ground by pretending to accept his premises, his values, his methods of reasoning, in order to expose their implicit absurdity.

“Irony purports to take seriously what it does not; it enters into the spirit of the other person’s game to demonstrate that its rules are stupid or vicious. It is a subtle weapon.”

If Koestler had been able to look into the future, he would probably have cited Rising Tide Theatre as an exemplary practitioner of the form.

Rising Tide Theatre’s Revue 2016 kicked off its provincial tour last week, and the annual production continues to entertain and delight the St. John’s audience which got first crack at it. Revue offers a satirical recap of key figures and events in the past year of provincial politics and other doings, through a fast-paced combination of musical acts and sketch comedy.

The past year provided Revue’s team with no shortage of material. From the moment veteran trouper Rick Boland staggers onstage carrying the literal weight of the world on his artificially muscled shoulders, the action targets the foibles of the past year of Liberal governance in Newfoundland and Labrador. A musical spoof of “American Pie” puts it bluntly: “Bye-bye Liberal lie / Sold my Chevy for the levy because my wallet was dry / Did you have to tax the book of love?” You get the idea.

Revue’s greatest strength this year was, as it often is, its musical elements. From a rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart (Dwight Ball: “I was totally screwed from the start!”) to a lively folk spoof tuned to Muskrat Falls (“Even when we’re halfway up / We’re really halfway down”), the musical comedy is lively, compelling and sarcastically biting. The viewer is torn between tapping their toes, laughing their lungs out or sobbing at the naked truths unveiled; the audience invariably does all three.

Two extended sketches stand out. A multi-song parody of Little Shop of Horrors—Little Flop of Horrors—is themed around Muskrat Falls, with Nalcor as the ravenous man-eating plant (“Feed me! Feed me!”). The growing number of Indigenous Peoples and Labradorians who are being legally prosecuted by Nalcor may not find much to laugh at in the situation, but Rising Tide aptly portray Nalcor and Muskrat Falls as the destructive beast that must be destroyed.

Revue 2016 Poster

Another skit offers an Alice in Wonderland themed piece, with Cathy Bennett as the evil queen (“Off with their heads!”), Ed Martin as the Cheshire Cat (“comes and goes as he pleases”) and Telegram reporter James McLeod as the dormouse. A rendition of “White Rabbit” (Dwight Rabbit) is the icing on the cake.

While some skits are stronger than others, Revue continues to deliver pithy one-liners that do just what Koestler said irony is meant to do: expose the “implicit absurdity” of our political leaders and their policies. Muskrat Falls: “It’s like an upside-down carton of cold molasses. It just keeps coming…We can’t afford it, but we can’t afford to not afford it.” Dwight Ball and his policy consultations: “We were very adamant that we survey everyone who shares our foregone conclusions.” There’s plenty of others, but you’ll have to go see the show for them.

So far as revue programs go—other jurisdictions do them too—Rising Tide’s Revue series is without a doubt among the world’s best. This is partially due to the consistently absurd government policies that give them so much fodder each year; but it has just as much to do with the talent of its cast and crew (this year’s cast also includes Jim Payne, Tina Randell, Bernadine Stapleton, Amelia Manuel, and Michael Power).

Let’s be critical too

As talented as Revue is, it’s useful to reflect on what role shows like Revue actually play in our society, and whose interest they draw. The Revue tours do quite well, by all appearances—the one I attended looked to be almost, but not entirely, full, yet its audience is visibly older; younger folk were remarkably sparse. The friendly woman I sat next to informed me she and her husband had been attending Revue since 1985, its inaugural year.

Some of Revue’s age demographic appeal can be attributed to the excessively high cost of theatre tickets (a problem compounded by the provincial government’s fee hikes on theatre and other forms of entertainment), which has priced most youth out of the theatre. It’s a tragic trend as it means many of our province’s youth have no choice but to turn to Netflix and other American entertainment since they can’t afford to enjoy our own local talents and provincially-produced creations. Little wonder Revue turned its scathing wit on Ball and Bennett’s backward-minded shenanigans this year.

But one also has to wonder whether part of the youth absence has to do with the shifting demographic and mindset of the province, too. Wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes about seniors and sex, and trying to make people laugh at supersized bay accents has long comprised an important part of Newfoundland humour, but like all forms of humour it comes with an expiry date, and that date may be fast approaching.

A growing portion of our population no longer finds the notion of seniors having sex something to laugh at, finds little to laugh at in mental health jokes (“Sleep all day? You’re not depressed – you’re a cat!”), and takes pride in their accents without feeling defined by them.

Photo courtesy Rising Tide Theatre.

Photo courtesy Rising Tide Theatre.

Humour relies on manipulating the audience’s sense of what’s ridiculous, and what was considered ridiculous 20 years ago is by no means today. Last year’s production, with skits poking fun at Caitlyn Jenner among others, caused controversy and offense and led to some of the younger people in the audience walking out in disgust. Fortunately, Rising Tide seems to have taken this lesson to heart.

Humour such as this is also remarkably white and Anglo-Irish in a province which, more and more every day, is no longer that. Whether as a result of growing diversity in our population, or the fact that our youth are raised in the multinational ether of the web, humour rooted in white, Anglo-Irish values and traditions speaks to a slowly shrinking segment of our population.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with appealing to that segment of Newfoundland society, and making them laugh, a show meant to speak to the province should acknowledge its greater diversity, which has changed tremendously in the past 20 years.

And while the only skit that featured Indigenous Peoples was one critical of the Muskrat Falls project that threatens Innu and Inuit communities in Labrador, there is certainly room for more Indigenous content.

Revue writers fared well in satirizing class divides in our society, with some of the more potent skits targeting upper-class louts who move to the bay in search of clotheslines and ‘getting back to the land’, while others showcase the dangers of tourists being given priority and better treatment over locals.

We ought to also give thought to how much of our humour seems to rely on the extravagant deployment of local accents and sayings. We used to showcase these things as a way to claim pride in the face of our province’s marginalization on the national stage, but today’s generations have a broader and complex range of concerns. The accents and traditional attitudes we once defiantly showcased are now among the very tools being used against us in an effort to monetize and sell our culture. Are there new and more challenging ways we can be humorous without buying into stereotypes and caricatures?

To be fair, Revue recognizes the problem to a degree, poking fun at government’s obsession with tourists and with stereotyping traditional culture. Yet the show relies on similar stereotyping in order to sell tickets.

We don’t just laugh because there’s nothing else we can do; we laugh because we know how ridiculous the status quo is, and how urgently it needs to be changed once and for all.

And as potent and scathing as Revue’s satire can be, it’s tempered with that timeless technique which undermines the power of dissenting commentary, and which our own Newfoundland and Labrador folk culture is terrible for—a sort of ‘grin-and-bear-it’ mentality. A ditty toward the end of this year’s Revue features a verse proclaiming “Some years are jewels, and some years are gold / And some years are nothing but sawdust and coal / Still we think someday our dreams will come true,” an affirmation that this province’s social, political and economic woes may be terrible right now, but that’s just our lot in life. Next year might be better, just hold on and wait.

Time-tested and true folk logic, for a society that thinks itself incapable of changing anything.

It’s disappointing when satire disarms itself with such apolitical shrugs. We don’t just laugh because there’s nothing else we can do; we laugh because we know how ridiculous the status quo is, and how urgently it needs to be changed once and for all. Finding humour in the absurdity of our status quo doesn’t mean we should resign ourselves to the powerless acceptance of years of sawdust and coal.

We mustn’t forget that satire isn’t just for entertainment; it also serves an educational and social levelling function. We laugh at our political leaders not just because they’re funny, and not just to encourage them to laugh at themselves sometimes, but also to help them realize their ridiculousness and encourage them to change their course.

We make fun of ourselves not just to say in the end, “Oh well, better luck next time,” but to also recognize our agency and ability to evolve as a people, a province, and to respond as responsible citizens to political and economic institutions that are culpable for the very plight that is the source of both our collective grief and Revue’s satirical success.

If this musing sounds like harsh love, it’s because we love Revue and what it has given Newfoundland and Labrador over the years. Regardless of the province’s changing dynamic, the production will continue to pack theatres and play an important role in our society and culture for some time.

This year’s show is well worth catching, but let’s hope that in the years to come its talented producers, writers and cast continue to challenge not only politicians, but also themselves.

Revue will tour through Grand Falls-Windsor, Corner Brook, Stephenville, Gander, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador West, Bonavista, Carbonear, and St. John’s before its final show in Trinity on March 10. Visit the Arts and Culture Centre website for more information, including dates and ticket sales.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

Facebook photo.

Land protectors shut down government office in Labrador

Labrador land protectors have denied government employees access to the Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, effectively shutting the building down as part of the ongoing protests against the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Central Labrador.

Shortly after 8 a.m. local time about a half dozen protectors denied a group of employees access to the building, which serves as Lake Melville MHA and Environment Minister Perry Trimper’s constituency office and Premier Dwight Ball’s office as minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs.

“Government refused to listen to us on Monday and dismissed us and disrespected us,” Land Protector Denise Cole told the eight or 10 employees who had shown up for work.

“This has nothing to do with the staff on the ground, but the two ministers who like to call this office home, who are never here, they have not listened to our demands. And we are not opening this office until we start to have some conversations. So we respectfully ask you not to try to enter the premises today.”

On Monday a group of about 20 land protectors occupied the same government office for about three hours and demanded Trimper’s resignation and the resignation of Premier Ball as minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs.

The two ministers who like to call this office home, who are never here, they have not listened to our demands. — Land Protector Denise Cole

Cole said in a live stream of Friday morning’s protest that government never responded to the land protectors, who have maintained throughout the ongoing protests that they are acting in self-defense to protect their traditional food supply and way of life.

In September and October hundreds of Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians united in an attempt to halt Muskrat Falls before the first phase of reservoir flooding began because, they have said, the government did not adequately address the projections outlined in a peer-reviewed scientific study that flooding the dam’s reservoir would poison fish, seals and other country foods Indigenous people have depended on in the region for thousands of years.

The study projected increases in methylmercury in the downstream Lake Melville estuary, where thousands of people harvest food in a northern region where grocery prices are high and where hunting, trapping and fishing are crucial practices to locals’ Indigenous and Labrador identities.

The protests last fall culminated in an occupation of the Muskrat Falls worker’s camp by about 50 land protectors. On the third day of the occupation Premier Ball met with Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders, who negotiated an agreement based on four demands devised by three hunger-striking Inuit and one of the lead researchers on the methylmercury study.

Land protectors ended the occupation following the announcement of that agreement, on Oct. 26, but have reignited protests because, they say, they have lost faith in Nalcor and the provincial government’s commitment to protect local’s health and way of life and to respect Indigenous rights and the government’s prior commitment to reconciliation.

In October, days after the occupation ended, Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall publicly stated that he doubted there would be any harm caused to people from methylmercury, effectively undermining the findings of the scientific study led by researchers at Harvard University.

Land protectors also maintain that local ancient Indigenous knowledge held by Innu elders predicts the dam is unsafe due to the hostile nature of Spirit Mountain, which serves as part of the North Spur on the south side of the river and will help to anchor the dam.

Moments after land protectors denied government employees access to their office Friday morning the group erected a Labrador tent as others joined the protest and Inuit drum dancers began drumming.

Cartwright Mayor Dwight Lethbridge, whose town council vowed last fall to block the transport of equipment headed for Muskrat Falls via the community’s port, said on social media Friday that he’s hoping to join the protest later in the day.

At 8:30 a.m. local time CBC reporter Katie Breen reported on social media that there was an RCMP presence at the protest but that the police had not interacted with the land protectors.

About 20 Labrador Land Protectors occupied the Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Monday morning. Photo by Mike Hynes.

Land protectors occupy government office, demand Muskrat Falls be “shut down”

A group of about 20 Labrador Land Protectors temporarily occupied the Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Monday to demand the Muskrat Falls hydro project be shut down.

The project is currently under construction, behind schedule, over cost, and projected to threaten the local food supply for nearby Innu and Inuit communities.

The land protectors also called for Premier Dwight Ball to resign as minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs, and for the resignation of Lake Melville MHA and Environment Minister Perry Trimper.

“This has gone on far too long. Muskrat Falls is a threat to the health and safety of Labradorians. It is crippling the economy of the entire province. Environmentally, the costs to our land and water far outweigh any gains,” NunatuKavut Elder Jim Learning announced outside the government office, reading from a written statement on behalf the Labrador Land Protectors. “This boondoggle of a project hurts every single person in Newfoundland and Labrador. We demand you to shut it down.”

Land Protectors George Cabot and Denise Cole were among those who occupied the Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Monday morning. Photo by Mike Hynes.

Land Protectors George Cabot and Denise Cole were among those who occupied the Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Monday morning. Photo by Mike Hynes.

Learning also stated in what the land protectors are regarding as a 2017 “Call to Action” that they are “strong and…determined” and are “putting all levels and types of governments and Nalcor on notice.

“We will take the actions necessary to ensure the continuation of our people and environment for many generations. If you do not, make no mistake, we will shut Muskrat down!”

The group then entered the office, where they announced their demands to staff.

Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Communications Manager Val Oliver told The Independent by phone moments after the occupation began that the government is following a “normal process” in assessing how to respond to the act of peaceful civil disobedience.

Land Protector Denise Cole said governments that say they want to “build nation to nation relationships with Indigenous people can’t do so if they don’t listen to Indigenous people.”

According to Land Protector Amy Norman Assistant Deputy Minister for Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Ron Bowles informed the group about three hours after the protest began that the decision was made to keep the office open.

The protectors discussed their next steps and decided to leave for the day, Norman explained, adding there is “more action planned for later this week,” though specifics are not being made known to the public.

Here is the full statement from the Labrador Land Protectors:

We are the Labrador Land Protectors. We are a group of concerned citizens fighting against the development of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric megaproject. We are a diverse group and we come from all walks of life. We all bring different experiences, perspectives, and opinions. We are Innu. We are Inuit. We are Metis. We are Settlers. We are Labradorians, united and strong! And today we are here to make our voices heard.

We are here at the office of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs to send a message to Dwight Ball and Perry Trimper.

To Dwight Ball: We demand that you step down as Minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs. You do not speak for Labradorians. When was the last time you even stepped foot in Labrador? How dare you hold that position! For you to hold the title of Minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs is insulting! Step down.

And to Perry Trimper. We have one word for you: Resign. You have failed us time and time again. Your incompetence as our representative is astounding. You have allowed Muskrat Falls to become an unmitigated disaster in your own backyard. Shame on you. You have not listened to your constituents on this issue and your inaction is not acceptable. We call on you to resign immediately.

And finally, the Labrador Land Protectors are calling on the provincial Liberal government to shut Muskrat down. This has gone on far too long. Muskrat Falls is a threat to the health and safety of Labradorians. It is crippling the economy of the entire province. Environmentally, the costs to our land and water far outweigh any gains. This boondoggle of a project hurts every single person in Newfoundland and Labrador. We demand you to shut it down.

As the Labrador Land Protectors, we are strong and we are determined. We are putting all levels and types of governments and Nalcor on notice. We will take the actions necessary to ensure the continuation of our people and environment for many generations. IF you do not, make no mistake, we will shut Muskrat down.

Video of the protest can be viewed on the Labrador Wild” Facebook page.

Last updated Monday, Jan. 9, 2:30 p.m. NST.

Photo by Jenne Nolan.

The Independent’s Top Stories of 2016

As 2016 draws to a close, we take a look back at The Independent’s coverage of two of the biggest stories of the past year: the Indigenous-led grassroots resistance to the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador, and the public response to the Dwight Ball Government’s austerity budget.

Muskrat Falls, Indigenous Rights & Press Freedom

In September Independent reporter Justin Brake traveled to Labrador to report on locals’ concerns around the impending megadam at Muskrat Falls, just 30 kilometres upstream from Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Lake Melville, an estuary home to several Indigenous communities whose residents rely on country food like seals, fish and seabirds.

Despite years of pleas from the Nunstsiavut Inuit to address environmental and health risks posed by methylmercury contamination as a result of reservoir flooding—a worry substantiated by a peer-reviewed scientific study led by researchers at Harvard and Memorial Universities—the provincial government and Nalcor proceeded with the project without following recommendations by scientists to fully clear the dam’s reservoir of vegetation and topsoil to minimize the risk to Indigenous people living in the area.

As Oct. 15 approached—the earliest date Nalcor said they would begin flooding—anxiety and fear grew in local communities, who were also concerned about the nature of the geology around Muskrat Falls. Many, including Innu elders who have ancient knowledge of the area, believe the dam will not hold once the reservoir is flooded. People began organizing rallies in Goose Bay and practicing peaceful civil disobedience by organizing group walks to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the north side of the dam construction site.

On Oct. 16 protestors who identify as land protectors blockaded the main entrance to Muskrat Falls, turning away transport trucks and busloads of workers and partially shutting down work at the site. Nine of them were arrested in the early hours of Oct. 17 after Nalcor obtained a Supreme Court of N.L. injunction prohibiting individuals from trespassing on or blocking access to the site.

The arrests, documented exclusively by The Independent, spurred outrage among people in Labrador and across the province and country, prompting support for the movement to grow. Days later the blockade was reinstated, this time with growing support from members of the Innu Nation.

During an Oct. 22 protest outside the main gate, as the blockade continued, a land protector cut the lock on the gate and approximately 60 protectors entered the site and headed down the 20-plus kilometre road toward the construction area. Between 40 and 50 people occupied the worker’s camp that evening, prompting some companies to send workers home amid messages from Nalcor that land protectors had created a “significant safety risk” for workers and that everyone on site should “exercise extreme caution”.

Meanwhile, The Independent’s exclusive coverage of the occupation showed a peaceful group of concerned, mostly Indigenous locals working together in what was frequently described as an act of self-defence to protect their traditional food and way of life.

Brake’s Facebook live streams reached tens of thousands of people across the province and country, drawing attention to the Indigenous rights aspect of the Muskrat Falls story.

On Oct. 25 the public learned through media reports that Nalcor had obtained a new injunction from the Supreme Court ordering the arrest of land protectors occupying the Muskrat Falls camp. The court order also specifically named Brake, the only journalist on the ground inside the worker’s camp to document the historic event.

Indigenous leaders claimed the occupation prompted N.L. Premier Dwight Ball to call an emergency meeting in St. John’s while land protectors remained inside the Muskrat Falls camp. The leaders reached an agreement that satisfied the demands of three Inuit who were on hunger strike and prompted the land protectors to end their occupation.

The Supreme Court injunction and its threat to the constitutionally-protected right of press freedom sparked outrage across Canada, prompting organizations like the Canadian Association of Journalists, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and Reporters without Borders to condemn Nalcor and the N.L. Supreme Court. The move also garnered strong condemnation from media outlets across Canada, which argued the attack on press freedom could set a dangerous precedent and have a chilling effect on journalists nationwide.

Meanwhile, not one media outlet in Newfoundland and Labrador publicly criticized the attack on press freedom. The Telegram instead published an op-ed by TC Media columnist Russell Wangersky that argued against press freedom and compared Brake’s coverage from inside the occupied worker’s camp to reckless driving.

On Nov. 3 APTN Executive Director of News and Current Affairs Karyn Pugliese cited Brake’s reporting from the occupied Muskrat Falls site as the best story of the last year in Canada, and Brake was subsequently shortlisted for the N.L. Human Rights Award for that same work. He will appear in court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Jan. 25.

Meanwhile, Labrador land protectors, including many from the dozens who are being forced to navigate the legal system as a consequence of defending their Indigenous rights, continue to protest the Muskrat Falls dam, which is at least two years behind schedule, billions over cost, and many say still threatens reconciliation with the Innu and Inuit. Their latest protest is scheduled for New Year’s Day outside the Muskrat Falls main gate.

Budget 2016 & resistance to Austerity and Neoliberalism

Similar to its reporting on the Muskrat Falls resistance, The Independent’s coverage of the 2016 provincial budget last spring contributed important perspectives and insight lacking in mainstream media reportage.

In the lead-up to the April 15 budget announcement the Liberals claimed austerity was necessary to address the province’s projected $2 billion deficit and burgeoning debt expected to reach nearly $15 billion.

During the province’s oil boom the previous PC government implemented neoliberal policies such as corporate tax cuts and lower tax rates for high income earners in the province. The lost government revenues could have helped pay down the province’s debt, many argued.

So when in its 2016 budget the newly elected Liberal Government announced it was raising fees, closing libraries and cutting other social services that would disproportionately impact lower income earners and those living in poverty in the province, it became apparent to thousands in Newfoundland and Labrador that while not everyone enjoyed the benefits of good economic times, everybody — especially the poor — would be footing the bill during periods of recession.

The Independent was the first news outlet to focus on the impact the 2016 budget would have on the province’s most vulnerable groups, and consistently gave voices from those communities an outlet as an anti-austerity movement swelled across the province.

From St. John’s to Gambo and Corner Brook to Labrador, people took to the streets to defend the province’s health and education systems, the justice system, and access to services integral to maintaining a healthy society in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Here are our editor’s Top Picks (News, Opinion & Letters) for The Independent’s coverage of Budget 2016 and the subsequent fallout:

News

Government “definitely does have a choice” in NL Budget 2016: economist
By Justin Brake
There are alternatives to austerity, say federation of labour president and an independent economist. They just have to be sought out.

Liberals’ austerity budget will hit most vulnerable hardest
By Justin Brake and Hans Rollmann
Despite reassurances by government that all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will share the burden of addressing the province’s $1.83 billion deficit, critics say the Liberals’ first round of austerity is disproportionately targeting the marginalized and least privileged first.

Residents take anti-austerity fight to streets of St. John’s
By Justin Brake
Province-wide, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are concerned and angry about the devastating consequences the Dwight Ball Government’s austerity budget will have on the most vulnerable people in the province and even the working class.

A movement is born
By Justin Brake
The provincial government’s 2016 austerity budget has sparked province-wide outrage and politicized a “whole new generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians [who are] not going away.”

Latest anti-austerity protests “only the beginning”
By Justin Brake
Saturday’s “NL Rising” protest in St. John’s was more than just a warning from the unions. It was a show of solidarity with an explicit message for the Liberal government.

Opinion

A budget for the rich, by the rich
By Hans Rollmann
Budget 2016 was not about making tough choices. It was about taking from the poor to protect the rich.

Is there a democratic alternative to austerity?
By Robert Sweeny
Other places have experimented with austerity, so we don’t have to. Here’s how Newfoundland and Labrador can avoid known mistakes and put itself on a path to a brighter, more equitable, future.

Austerity an easy out for elites
By Joshua Keep
Sneering elites believe the public is ignorant and in search of easy answers, but we see the broad strokes of immorality and unfairness.

As the wave breaks: NL budget 2016
By Jon Parsons
Solidarity is our only weapon against austerity.

Something very different is happening in Newfoundland and Labrador
By Hans Rollmann
For all the negative things it will do to our province, the Liberals’ austerity budget is bringing people together in a very meaningful way.

Letters

Budget 2016 “an attack on families”
By Natasha Blackwood
“We both work full-time. We both have ‘good’ jobs, and we don’t spend. But on this current budget, we simply will not be able to make ends meet. It is impossible.”

Dear people of Newfoundland and Labrador…
By Ashley Byrne
“I’ve seen many blue and red governments come and go, taking turns at the reins, going around in the same cycles of boom and bust, hope and loss.”

Open letter to the People of Newfoundland and Labrador
By Adam Pitcher
“Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.’ Every act of resistance counts against this province-killing budget and this government’s destructive policies and ignorant behaviour.”

An Open Letter to Cathy Bennett Concerning Anxiety
By Iain McCurdy
“Respectfully, Minister Bennett, the anxiety that you are currently witnessing pre-exists this budget. Your budget has inflamed it.”

Open letter to Paul Lane
By Rick Stanley
“Your decisions Wednesday have stoked the flames and given the movement courage and hope.”

All of our stories in 2016 were made possible by our readers, who afforded us the opportunity during Budget 2016 and the Muskrat Falls protests to offer a glimpse at the kind of impact independent journalism can have in our province. This can only happen if our media outlet is adequately supported, so please consider joining the grassroots effort to make The Independent sustainable.

Facebook photo.

“We should all be fighting together and standing together”: Mark Gruchy

Last week the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission presented the 2016 Human Rights Award to St. John’s lawyer, mental health advocate and former Independent columnist Mark Gruchy.

Gruchy is a former president of the Newfoundland and Labrador chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association, co-founder of the Community Coalition for Mental Health, an appointed member of the Provincial Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Council to advise government on key mental health matters.

In 2014 and 2015 his Independent column It Takes All Kinds captured the attention of readers across Newfoundland and Labrador and helped spark a public conversation around mental illness and the state of the province’s mental health care system.

Last year Gruchy ran in the provincial election for the NDP in his home riding of Cape St. Francis. Though he didn’t win he has since been elected as the party’s president.

“Mr. Gruchy’s resolute commitment to promoting increased attention to and action on mental health supports in Newfoundland and Labrador is exemplary. He has frequently shared personal experiences of his own challenges in order to mobilize action on mental health in our province,” N.L. Human Rights Commission Chair Remzi Cej said in a statement Dec. 8, the day Gruchy was given the award during a ceremony at Government House in St. John’s.

“In very personal and meaningful ways, Mr. Gruchy’s determination to make life better for individuals facing mental health challenges in Newfoundland and Labrador has inspired a province-wide conversation on mental health and mobilization to increase the level of workplace, community and health care supports. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Mr. Gruchy’s advocacy has been a growing movement of people discussing mental health more openly.”

The Independent spoke with Gruchy about the award, the state of mental health services in Newfoundland and Labrador, his foray into politics, neoliberalism, Muskrat Falls, his lived experience as a person with bipolar disorder, and the need for greater societal dialogue around important issues.

Interview with Mark Gruchy — December 2016

What does being named the recipient of the 2016 N.L. Human Rights Award mean to you?

It’s obviously an extremely high honour. The one thing that really differentiated it from previous recognition that I received is it was…a very personally oriented recognition of myself as opposed to my activity within a particular institution or structure or something of that nature.

I was very moved by it [and] did not expect anything like that to happen at all. It means a lot to know that you can do whatever little thing you can do and people actually care about what you have done, to a sufficient degree to feel that it warrants provincial recognition.

I’m very glad that the Human Rights Commission feels that the mental health issues that I’ve been helping, I hope, advance in this province warrant that level of recognition. Sometimes those issues get forgotten.

Of all the work you’ve done around mental health, as the President of the N.L. chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association and during the two years since you stepped down from that role, what is it that you’re most proud of?

Mark Gruchy speaks at the launch of the Community Coalition For Mental Health in St. Johns in 2014. Photo by Jenne Nolan.

Mark Gruchy speaks at the launch of the Community Coalition For Mental Health in St. Johns in 2014. Photo by Jenne Nolan.

I have honest difficulty with the concept of pride and taking pride to the point that I sort of have to force myself to acknowledge that I’ve done something which is worthwhile. I’m more the sort of person whom feels comfort when I know that I’ve done something which was effective and within the bounds of expected competence, as opposed to [feeling] an actual sense of pride or achievement.

If I was to plot the whole thing out, what it has been is a gradual escalation of the issues, as I communicate them publicly, to try to bring them to places where people are looking at the concept of mental health beyond a mere illness or thing to be corrected and more in to something which is actually part of who people are and needs to be regarded as an integrated part of the self. And that’s where I think we need to go with this subject to maximize recovery and to maximize the issue in a social sense.

So I think the thing that I’m most pleased with is the fact that I’ve managed to raise the discussion around the conditions to a degree that people are actually reaching out to me now and thanking me for doing that. I mean people who are living with these conditions, as opposed to just the general community. And at the same time it was nice to be able to leave the CMHA in a position where they expanded all around the province and had grown in profile substantially and had achieved stability. Stability in organizations is really difficult to achieve sometimes due to the dynamics of board mechanics and that sort of thing.

So having both changed the subject to that personal level, coupled with bringing some stability to the CMHA and groups like that — that’s probably the best thing that I’ve done. But it’s hard to say because I don’t think of it that way.

What do you think, at this point in time, is the most pressing mental health issue, and what can be done to address it?

Speaking very generally, our percentage of funding of health care dollars to mental health is still lower than the national average, and is markedly lower than what is being recommended by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. I believe we are currently at about 7.5 percent. A lot of provinces in this country are at 7 percent. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has advocated for going to at least 10 percent. The percentage of allocated health care funds needs to change, to both reflect both broader Canadian standards as well as recommendations of the Mental Health Commission, if only because we need those resources to be able to properly implement mental health services.

But the other thing that needs to continue to change, I think, is the way we conceive of these problems. It’s not, in my view, wise for people to think: “If I engage with the mental health system I will be provided a solution to whatever problem I’m dealing with.” … What we need to see the mental health system as is a system which supports people to develop and facilitate their own lived life solutions to these issues that they deal with.

What we need to see the mental health system as is a system which supports people to develop and facilitate their own lived life solutions to these issues that they deal with.

With respect to the Waterford Hospital and primary care facilities like it, my primary concern is that they tend to disproportionately impact the percentage of people with mental health concerns who are very seriously ill — and that will always happen to some extent.

We can’t see the Waterford as a housing solution, because it’s not. But we need to be aware that there are a very large number of people in this province with conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, severe depression [who have been] driven to the point of persistent suicidal behaviour, and that sort of thing, who need to avail of places like the Waterford Hospital from time to time, at least to get grounded. And we need to ensure that when people need those high end services that those services are not doing more harm than good — which I think currently they are doing more harm than good; I don’t see how they’re helping anybody.

So really I’m talking about attitudinal change, both on the side of the people who are receiving the services, and on the side of the people who are delivering them, and down the middle the service structure itself ought to be developed and structured by the people who receive the services. We need to have engagement with people who receive these services to know what they want and need.

It’s complicated, but we can’t just let things kind of wither on the vine and not be dealt with, which is what I fear happens. And that’s why we have institutions made in 1855 still in existence. They just sit there and collect dust and get talked about a lot, but no one deals with them.

So we need to overcome that systemic inertia, in my view.

Last year you decided to enter politics. You ran for the NDP in the provincial election. You didn’t win your seat but have since become president of the party. Why did you decide to enter the political arena and what do you hope to accomplish as the president of the NL NDP?

Having spent a good number of years as the president of the CMHA, and with a board-based entity, a not-for-profit, at the end of the day being a political activity in the human sense, you are dealing with people on a board, making sure people’s voices are heard, you’re building consensus, you’re generating stability, you’re trying to make your organization effective internally and externally. Having done that, and having succeeded at that relatively well, I thought that when the time had come when I was leaving the CMHA it would simply make sense to continue with that sort of activity that I had gained experience in, in another form.

I  think what’s happening is we’re seeing things done which are in line with an increasingly outmoded ideology and approach to politics and economics which is being challenged all over the world.

As it turned out, as a consequence of how advocacy develops in the province, I was requested to take part in politics; particularly, I was requested by a prominent member of the NDP. I contemplated it, and I thought to myself that, at the end of the day, the real nuts and bolts of the activity are not meaningfully different from successfully running a not-for-profit. You’re contributing to an organization with the intent of bringing stability, building consensus within it, and then transmitting the message to the outside world. And really that’s nine-tenths of the battle — getting that stability in place and getting that coherence in place, and consistently communicating the message.

So if I can bring anything to the NDP, it would be that. I believe that I have demonstrated a capacity to enhance stability and to make organizations more operationally effective through things as simple as chairing boards, which is what I’m doing now. We have been having a lot of—all, actually—consensus-based decision-making ever since I got there, which is great. And you do that long enough and stability grows, health grows, the structure gets stronger, and it can do things more effectively. It takes time of course, but I’d like to contribute that.

In terms of my own personal view, one of the things about this is from my perspective the chair of any organization isn’t really there to insert their personal views on the organization. They’re there to regulate the organization in such a way that it functions, and that’s how I tend to approach it.

But in terms of the personal contribution I would like to make to politics as a whole is I would simply like to see rational, humane, contemporary approaches to governance implemented and applied to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. I don’t think that’s happening. I don’t think it’s been happening for some time. I think what’s happening is we’re seeing things done which are in line with an increasingly outmoded ideology and approach to politics and economics which is being challenged all over the world.

What is it?

Neoliberalism, right? If you’re talking about neoliberalism, we’re talking about a system that fundamentally says, if we somehow solve the economic problems—if those figures on paper look good and are consistent with our ideological vision of the world—well then society’s social problems should somehow magically resolve because that’s all that matters, those figures on the paper. And at the end of the day that’s not true, and it has been proved time and time again all over the world — and people have woken up to that. I think that the majority view right now on planet Earth is that [neoliberalism] is not solving the problems. It might have been a good idea at the time, to some people, but it’s not playing out the way it was promised to play out. So if that is the case, we need to intelligently reposition to go through this transition.

[Among the] countries that are going through this right now, we’re seeing some of the potential negative consequences of unintelligently positioning to go through that transition [away from neoliberalism]. You’re seeing that in the rise of nationalism in Europe. That’s what’s happening — they weren’t ready for this, so now they’re getting negativity coming into their politics that never had to be there. So you have to be intelligent.

How is neoliberalism manifesting in our province? Can you talk about that, and maybe the way that this approach to economics and politics might relate to human rights in terms of keeping certain segments of society down and not enabling people to live happy, healthy lifestyles or recover from particular life circumstances that they’ve [found themselves in]?

My personal view of how neoliberalism has affected this province in that regard is we’ve just come out of a period where there has been, frankly, a radical imbalance in how our resources were being distributed during a time of plenty. We saw an awful lot of money get put into one relatively small area of development in this province, which was then presented as the holy grail, the solution to all Newfoundland and Labrador’s problems. Specifically, I’m talking about Muskrat Falls. This is my personal view, and I think it’s the view of a lot of people.

"[Neoliberalism is], if we walk this one path that does not vary, it’ll all work out as if by magic because all of us have convinced ourselves collectively that that’s the way the world is --- and it’s not," says Mark Gruchy. Photo by Jo Dee Photography.

“[Neoliberalism is], if we walk this one path that does not vary, it’ll all work out as if by magic because all of us have convinced ourselves collectively that that’s the way the world is — and it’s not,” says Mark Gruchy. Photo by Jo Dee Photography.

[Muskrat Falls] was rammed through, circumventing the Public Utilities Board (PUB). And at the same time, literally, we had people being promised that aging and decaying social infrastructure that was needed to address major social problems would be seen to. There were all kinds of promises made, and of course that didn’t happen because all of the resources were being pushed into one part of the province’s developments and there was very little consideration being given to the province as a whole.

We’re talking about the story of the ant and the grasshopper, really. We’re talking about people who manage their resources more intelligently in a more balanced fashion, versus people who burn through things because they have a myth that if they burn through all these things somehow it’ll all work out in the end.

That’s really what neoliberalism is. It’s if we walk this one path that does not vary, it’ll all work out as if by magic because all of us have convinced ourselves collectively that that’s the way the world is — and it’s not.

So the solution to this problem, frankly, is intelligence, and to be at least somewhat more balanced than what we have been seeing. And that’s going to require a conscious effort on the part of the people who are making these decisions, and on the part of the people who are working together with the non-governmental entities involved in these decisions. And we haven’t seen that — we’ve seen a really horrible lack of balance.

I’m not talking about mere centrist thinking, either. I’m talking about what I see as common sense, which has somehow been painted as radical, when in fact it is simply common sense. It is common sense that you need to have healthcare. It is common sense that you can’t put people in a prison that is from the 1830s and expect anything to improve. This is all common sense. But yet it is depicted as very far out there, and what is actually far out there is taking the proceeds of an entire province’s oil boom and putting them into one project. That’s far out. But we need to restore that balance in how people think, in my view.

In light of the human rights issues involved with building [Muskrat Falls]—and the ones that will continue, like methylmercury and the dispossession of Indigenous people from their traditional lands—is this the right thing to be doing still, at this point and with this much money spent? What would you do if you were in a position to call the shots on Muskrat Falls?

Again, this is just my personal view. The real challenge from a province-wide point of view on that whole mess, right now—and I’m speaking now from my perspective of knowledge as a lawyer—is that entire structure, inevitably, is going to be composed of many contracts with many different structures with many different issues associated with breach of contract in the form of penalties, clauses, and so on. At this point, in order to understand I guess in a cost-benefit sense just how bad it would be to pull away from that particular project, one would have to understand all of the fine prints with respect to those penalties and the legalese of it. And then one would have to ask themselves, how devastating would that be balanced off against what we’re dealing with?

Land protectors occupied the Muskrat Falls main site on Saturday, bringing the project to a halt. Photo by Justin Brake.

“The law very explicitly states that [Indigenous] people are supposed to be meaningfully consulted with, and clearly whatever passed for consultation did not reach many of these people,” says Mark Gruchy. Photo by Justin Brake.

I feel like that’s the only intelligent way to assess this, and it seems to be—at least based on what appears in the media and what is routinely released—that it’s very hard for the average person to be able to understand that side of it. 

People like [economist and former PUB Chair] Dave Vardy are warning [that] continuing with the project will bankrupt the province. I take Dave Vardy very seriously.

That of course, from a moral and ethical point of view, does not answer the question about what is happening with Indigenous people in northern Newfoundland and Labrador around this project. But I will say that the law very explicitly states that these people are supposed to be meaningfully consulted with, and clearly whatever passed for consultation did not reach many of these people, and that really is a problem when the law says there is a fiduciary obligation between the Crown, insofar as its relations with Indigenous Peoples are concerned.

We all have to be asking the question: why are these people so upset? What went wrong there? Obviously the [process] didn’t work right, and it shouldn’t be unfolding the way that it is. It’s a very, very troubling situation, and it bothers me deeply that this has happened. And we’re seeing these sorts of things happening all over North America right now. So obviously business as usual in terms of ramming these things through is not working anymore.

It is infuriatingly frustrating that whatever passed as consultation here was obviously insufficient as we saw the groundswell of serious protest amongst Innu and Inuit people. That is a huge red flag and should not have happened. I personally do not support projects or economic activity which hurts people physically or destroys an environment they require.

I feel that so much of this, in terms of the supposed benefits of Muskrat versus the negatives, has been so oversimplified by primary actors in this process to the point that the average Newfoundlander and Labradorian can barely process what’s going on anymore. And frankly I feel like an awful lot of this amounts to people being treated as if they’re stupid and they can’t understand this, and they’re constantly being told, “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK.”

Can you give an example of what you mean by that?

It simply feels this way. We saw the whole thing get rammed through by the PCs years ago. We saw that any question that was asked was pooh-poohed and washed away. And it just moves on like a train and people keep raising questions, such as the issue with methylmercury and the report that came out of Harvard. Everything keeps getting pushed aside like it’s no big deal, and every time something gets pushed aside people get angrier.

Obviously you can’t just push these things aside forever. When people have these concerns, those concerns need to be met. Things need to be communicated to people sufficiently in advance [so] that you don’t have these explosions of upset, which are likely justified. It’s just a horrible breakdown of communication that appears to be predicated on a fundamental understanding of human beings as incapable of understanding complex issues, which is really frustrating for me.

The actual physical award you received is a carving by [Inuit artist] Wilson Semigak. Remzi Cej, the Chair of the Human Rights Commission, described in a tweet that that carving was made in memory of victims of residential schools. So what does it mean to you to receive that particular carving as an award?

That was extremely poignant because I have had some exposure to these carvings in positions where people have been disadvantaged before in the course of my work. All I can say is when an Inuit man is making that carving about that subject, from prison, to be given to someone like me as a human rights award recipient — there aren’t really very many words you can use to describe the poignancy of that.

And there’s something very sad about the entire thing, while simultaneously hopeful: that here we are having a person who almost literally has no voice because he’s in prison commemorating people who had no voice who went through an unbelievably horrible activity with respect to the residential schools—a genocidal activity; everyone with a brain knows that. And here I am being given this thing, sitting down here in St. John’s, merely for trying to elevate the status of people with mental health concerns. It’s incredibly powerful. I know it wasn’t intended, and I know Mr. Semigak likely didn’t see it that way himself, but a part of me thinks, wow, this is a core component of your culture and it’s being given to me from prison. And it made me wonder about all of that. And I chose to look at it as Mr. Semigak is contributing to this and he’s a part of the same struggle and the same fight for human rights for people. But it’s very sad to think that somebody is producing that from prison for us, and it really resonated with me. I deeply appreciate it, and value it, and it will always have a place in my home.

During your acceptance speech you said, “We can learn a lot when we reach across our differences and boundaries and listen to other people’s perspectives. We can learn ad we need to do this, because if we don’t in fact manage to cross those boundaries and bridge those gaps, we’ll end up with no human rights for anyone. I’ve been saying for a long time, we are all human beings and we all have dignity and worth, and that’s what this is about.” Can you elaborate on that, particularly on…the need to reach across our differences and boundaries and listen to other perspectives?

[We need to] focus on the fundamentals of human rights-based and social justice-based struggles and movements, which [I see] as the fundamental recognition of the essential validity and worth and equality of human beings, and their dignity. If we overcomplicate these issues we can fail to communicate with each other, and we can fail to communicate the basic core of our message to people who don’t necessarily feel they were included in the conversation. And that failure will lower the likelhood of greater inclusivity, and if we don’t have as much inclusivity as we can manage, we will find ourselves in situations where other people who really do not appear to give a damn about human rights—people like Donald Trump—will capitalize on our divisions, and then we will find ourselves in very dangerous places.

We should all be fighting together and standing together and being mutually supportive of each other irrespective of what we individually are dealing with and where we come from. Because at the end of the day this activity is all about humans helping humans, and there is no exclusion from the human race. All people are people, all humans are humans. We all have dignity, we’re all the same, and we need to be backing each other up while acknowledging that there are huge [segments] of society who have been systemically discriminated against and isolated for a long time.

So the push for inclusivity has to bring everybody in, and it’s going to be complicated and hard.

And who does the burden to initiate that push fall on? Does it fall on everybody equally? Obviously certain groups in society are more privileged than others. Even to be reading our interview on The Independent’s website — we know that certain segments of society are more likely to be reading this information and thinking, “I can be a part of that.” So where does the burden fall primarily in initiating that push for inclusivity?

That’s really tough question, and I’m very aware of the rather complex philosophical conversation around that right now in western society generally. And because of the toughness of the question, and particularly because of the toughness of the issue of operationalizing what underlies that question, where I always end up going in my own life is I look at myself and I say, “Well I’m the only person I can control. I can effect what I do, I can control myself, I know I can’t make other people do what I want them to do. So therefore I am going to control myself in such a way that I feel is conducive to the building of this unity. I will communicate in such a way to encourage all groups of people to come into this,” which is a fair forum for pointing out the perils of privilege and how people need to reflect sometimes on where they stand before they make simplistic judgements about what the world is if they’re in a sheltered place.

I’m talking about things like white privilege and so forth right now. People’s perspectives can be skewed and they don’t even realize it because of where they’re coming from. But at the end of the day the person we can really change is ourselves, and we can act, ourselves, in a way that can bring about change. I think we need to focus on that more than hoping someday we will be able to change what other people think. If you are the change you want to see in the world, I think it’s better than hoping that someday other people will change the way you would like them to.

What makes a compassionate and empathic person, and does your lived experience with bipolar play a role in that for you?

It does. And this actually goes to my answer for the last question. When you are a person who is bipolar, when you have that condition, a defining aspect of it really—and it varies so much from person to person—is that you can experience higher levels of emotional energy and potentially emotional sensitivity than other people can. And what this can mean is you can find yourself living in a world where you are watching people emotionally respond to their environment in a fashion that does not make sense to you.

So you’re looking at others thinking, ‘Why aren’t they reacting as I am reacting? Why are they so slow? Why don’t they get it? Why don’t they understand?’ And if you get in a push-back cycle with people you will be driven to one extreme or the other. The world does not change for you. If you throw yourself against it you tend to make yourself—for want of a better way of putting it—sick by driving yourself to such a point that you are now the problem that the world is trying to neutralize because the world doesn’t change for you.

I  realized that the world, so to speak, just wasn’t experiencing life the way I was…

So what happened very slowly—and I don’t claim to have the answers to how all this happened in my individual case—was I realized that the world, so to speak, just wasn’t experiencing life the way I was, and the only way this was going to work is if I kept trying to put myself in the place of that person in the world who was not bipolar, in filtering through what was happening between us. And when I gradually learned how to do that, that is when I got better, that is when I improved, that is when I became more functional. And my life has become a very long story of filtering inputs that come into me, as well as feelings that I have myself, and then consciously engaging with the world in such a way that is generative as opposed to confrontational.

I learned, basically, somehow, how to get along in such a way as to maximize the odds of both myself remaining well and people I’m speaking with getting where I’m coming from. And frankly, it’s a catch-22 to ask somebody with a serious mental health concern like bipolar disorder to do that, but I know in my case it was absolutely vital to me surviving being bipolar, particularly in my young days. You can go through a period where you can judge people for not getting it…and at the end of the day if you get angry with them the only person the anger hurts is the person who holds the anger. If you’re holding the anger it’s going to hurt you, it’s going to eat you up. At some point you’ve got to find a way to let the anger go and to try to communicate with these people who simply do not appear to get it, until such time as you are living in relative peace and actually reaching across and communicating with people.

As a person with bipolar disorder I still feel a great gulf of distance between myself and many other people because of these inherent distinctions, but the key is realizing that I have a valid place to occupy in the world — so do they. And another thing I learned is those people by and large do not mean any harm. They just don’t know what I’m experiencing. So because they don’t know what I’m experiencing I feel that if you give them enough time they eventually realize you don’t mean any harm either and that everyone can live peacefully. That really is central to how I see the world right now. If I simply fought every time I felt wronged or maligned or misunderstood, I would probably be very, very ill right now, maybe even permanently hospitalized.

Not only did you figure it out but you figured it out and lived it in such a way that got you recognized in a major way by the rest of society. So congratulations again on that.

Thank you so much. But one thing I’ll say to be totally fair is everybody with bipolar disorder is different. We have different levels of stability, different levels of severity of our condition, different genders, different backgrounds, different everything, right? I just feel very, very, very lucky that I had the right mixture of attributes to make this possible. Because it’s not hard for me to visualize how if you change the formula a little bit for an individual person in their life, things would go very differently.

I’ve represented men in jail who have bipolar disorder, and bipolar disorder is not why they are in jail, but I am watching them struggle with the same condition from the perspective of being a prisoner. And it’s not pretty. I’ve represented women who have it, too. You see all of these different issues manifesting in different ways in different people’s lives. We are all bipolar, but these other attributes matter a great deal. I say that because I would never claim to have the holy grail solution to this problem. It is an intensely complicated medical condition and personal status. I’m just fortunate enough to have been, I guess, provided with the necessary attributes to deal with it as I have. And of course life is long, so I’m going to have to keep trying to stay on the level, but I don’t claim that everything is easy — things can happen.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity.

Photo by Janet Cooper.

Justin Brake nominated for human rights award

Justin Brake, reporter and editor with The Independent, has been cited by the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission for his coverage of the Indigenous-led protests against Muskrat Falls.

On Tuesday the Commission announced that Brake, along with seven others from across the province, had been nominated for the 2016 Human Rights Awards.

Brake’s coverage of Muskrat Falls, which began in 2012 and culminated with on-the-spot reporting from an occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp by Indigenous land defenders in October, was cited as having raised awareness of Indigenous concerns and perspectives and having brought their voices to the province’s public.

“The committee was inspired by your courage to conduct journalism and tell the stories of the people affected by the Muskrat Falls project, despite the risks involved,” wrote Remzi Cej, Chair of the N.L. Human Rights Commission in a letter informing Brake of the nomination.

“Committee members commented on the importance of the Indigenous voices heard in your stories, as well as the voices of all other Labrador residents. Furthermore, your nomination has drawn further attention to your work, and it has been noted that your commitment to human rights is reflected in much of your writing.”

The committee was inspired by your courage to conduct journalism and tell the stories of the people affected by the Muskrat Falls project, despite the risks involved. — Letter from Remzi Cej, NL Human Rights Commission Chair

The Independent is a non-profit online publication covering provincial news and current affairs. While its predecessor was a print newspaper that operated from 2003-2008, in 2011 The Independent transitioned, under new management and editorial direction, to the online platform. In 2014 Brake took over ownership of the publication and turned it into a non-profit media outlet that now operates without corporate financial backing or government funding.

Robin Whitaker, a member of The Independent’s board of directors, said Brake’s work is a “testimony to the vital role of independent journalism in exposing the way power works, who it works for and who it hurts.

“His reporting in Labrador, when no other journalist was present, has raised fundamental questions for all of us in this province—about democracy, human rights, environmental justice and the nature of the relationship between Newfoundland and Labrador,” she continued.

“It shows why a truly independent media is crucial for this province, now more than ever.”

Brake said he was honoured by the nomination as it affirms the societal need for greater understanding and action on human rights, but that it also speaks to the state of journalism in the province and country.

“The fact that the Human Rights Commission is recognizing the journalism that we did may be a testament to our commitment to covering human rights issues—and we’re thankful for that and honoured to be acknowledged for our work as a news outlet—but it’s also a testament to the fact that what should be a standard in journalism is now rare,” he said.

“There’s enormous potential for journalism to be a catalyst for long term positive change in our province, and I think that if journalists have the ability to work without impediment, and if we’re true to our jobs and the nature of our profession, then we should be covering stories like [the Muskrat Falls resistance] everyday,” he said.

On Oct. 24, in the midst of Brake’s on-the-ground coverage of the land protectors’ occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp, crown energy corporation Nalcor Energy sought an injunction from the Supreme Court of N.L. that specifically named Brake as one of several individuals breaking a previous injunction that was aimed at those protesting the project.

Nalcor later admitted to media it lumped Brake in with the land protectors. The corporation did not identify the reporter as a journalist to Supreme Court Justice George Murphy in its affidavit and other evidence provided to the judge when seeking the Oct. 24 injunction.

The court order effectively interfered with exclusive coverage of a story of significant public interest, prompting national and international journalism organizations like Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Canadian Association of Journalists to speak out against what they perceive as an attack on press freedom in Canada.

More than 20 Labrador land protectors walking toward the North Spur from the occupied Muskrat Falls camp. Photo by Justin Brake.

“It turns out that when Indigenous people actually have a voice, a less colonially-biased voice, and aren’t just regarded as ‘protestors’ but people with specific concerns and rights, that others sympathize with them and understand what they’re fighting for,” says Justin Brake. Photo by Justin Brake.

“We are concerned that a journalist is being threatened with trespassing and contempt of court for merely doing his job covering an environmental protest of interest to the Canadian people,” said Delphine Halgand, Director of RSF’s Washington, D.C. bureau. “It seems these legal proceedings are being used to intimidate journalists and prevent them from covering such events, which is a serious violation of press freedom and access to information in Canada.”

The Independent recently launched a fundraiser to build a legal defense fund as well as continue its reporting of Muskrat Falls and other important issues in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“This award nomination speaks to the fact that there is not only a dire need for fiercely independent journalism in our province, but also it’s a testament to the kind of impact that good journalism can have,” said Brake.

“Journalism by definition and by its nature should have a positive impact on society. And in the case of the Muskrat Falls reporting, Indigenous people in our province who have been routinely dispossessed and actively oppressed—especially when they try to stand up for their rights and protect their food, their water, their communities and their way of life—were merely given a voice to a large audience for a few days,” he continued.

“That’s all The Independent did. And it turns out that when Indigenous people actually have a voice, a less colonially-biased voice, and aren’t just regarded as ‘protestors’ but people with specific concerns and rights, that others sympathize with them and understand what they’re fighting for. That’s all we did, and that’s why we’re being recognized. But this should be the norm in how journalism is done.”

Brake’s coverage of Muskrat Falls is ongoing, and he will return to Labrador for a court appearance on Jan. 25.

Visit FundTheIndy.com to become a sustaining member of The Independent and help foster independent journalism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Fireworks over one of the resistance camps at Standing Rock, North Dakota. Photo by Ruth Hopkins / Flickr.

Claiming victory at Standing Rock and Muskrat Falls

An announcement yesterday by the US Army Corps of Engineers that it would not allow further work on the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) near the Sioux reservation at Standing Rock has been hailed by many as a victory.

Following the announcement by the Corps, made at the direction of the Obama administration, jubilant images of celebrating water protectors circulated in news media and online. Such imagery was accompanied by prayers and statements of thanks from Sioux elders and from activists at the sprawling Standing Rock camp.

However, a press release by the companies constructing DAPL, responding to the Obama administration and the Corps, cannot but temper the mood. They suggest stalling construction is merely political maneuvering by the Obama administration, which prefers the incoming Trump administration to take any flak for the project. Trump’s transition team recently expressed its support for the project, and further claimed that the president-elect’s ownership of shares in one of the companies building DAPL has nothing to do with this support.

And while many Indigenous groups and allied organizations opposed to DAPL have taken the halt in construction as a victory, other resistance groups have been less jubilant. The Unist’ot’en Clan, for one, expressed support and admiration for the bravery and persistence of the Standing Rock camp, but also warned that “a reroute is not a victory,” since expanding oil infrastructure, no matter where that infrastructure expands, means more environmental degradation.

The Unist’ot’en have recently achieved something of a victory themselves, when the Trudeau government announced it will not allow the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline, a project that the Clan have opposed through an active and ongoing resistance camp in their traditional territory.

When Trudeau made the announcement that the Northern Gateway project would not proceed, the Unist’ot’en responded that the project had already essentially been stopped, by them and by other forces of resistance, and so the announcement from the Canadian government was merely the coup de grace.

In the same breath, the Trudeau government sanctioned the equally controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline extension, so it seems more correct overall to say it was less a victory for those opposed to an expanding oil infrastructure and more a case of one step forward, two steps back.

Lessons from Muskrat Falls

Resistance movements to megaprojects might also learn a lesson from the supposed victory that was claimed by land protectors opposed to a hydro project at Muskrat Falls in Labrador. Following a meeting between the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador, whose crown corporation Nalcor is building the hydro dam, and the three Labrador Indigenous governments (Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut, and NunatuKavut), significant figures within the resistance movement claimed an outright victory had been achieved. However, as the details of the deal between the province and Indigenous governments were examined in greater detail, many felt that in fact there was little to celebrate.

Indeed, in the weeks after the deal and the initial claim of victory, construction of the Muskrat Falls hydro project continued apace, and Labrador land protectors again began to engage in acts of civil disobedience. However, after the initial claim of victory, the intense focus on Muskrat Falls and the popular support for the resistance by the rest of the country dissipated.

Part of the reason a broad audience stopped paying close attention is simply because other issues captured the headlines, but it must also be said that for many supporters and outside observers the supposed victory was where the story ended, and so any continuation of struggle beyond that point did not easily fit within the narrative of winners and losers.

This simplistic narrative of winners and losers, victors and vanquished, is something resistance movements need to be wary of. It is a functional tool for governments, corporations, and really any sort of power and authority that intends to subvert resistance.

In fact, resistance movements may find it helpful to develop a more nuanced understanding of why power and authority feels compelled to use this tool, which is often only used as a last resort.

Power seldom wants to give up anything approximating a victory to resistance movements, because this is a sign of weakness.

In the case of Muskrat Falls, the provincial government made conciliatory gestures, including the meeting with Indigenous governments, in desperation when the security forces in Labrador had been stretched to the limit and overwhelmed: the police and the provincial government had simply lost control of the situation. Land protectors had occupied the construction site and had a well-supplied base camp at the main gate, while numerous arrests and other tactics by the police were having little effect other than to spur on the resistance.

It was in this situation, facing total defeat, that the provincial government was compelled to concoct a deal that might appear to the resistance as something like a victory.

Unfortunately, it must also be said that the Labrador Indigenous governments played a significant part in presenting this deal as a victory and to subverting the resistance movement (for complex reasons that cannot be explained here).

It was difficult, as someone who has been an ally and supporter of the resistance to Muskrat Falls, to watch this all unfold, especially because the land protectors could have achieved a real and total victory at the moment the government and security apparatus was overwhelmed.

Successes and victory

The question behind much of this, with respect to Standing Rock, to the expanding pipelines in Canada and the U.S., and indeed the question with respect to resistance to megaprojects like hydro dams and other projects generally is this: what does victory actually look like?

The simple fact is that governments and industry can always play the long game – they can always stop a project today and then start it again in a few months (or years) once no one is paying attention; they can wait for the political climate to change; and they can offer up minor concessions or even just what appear to be concessions to mitigate resistance.

It is important for activists to celebrate their successes – actually, since activists are very often humble, selfless people, celebrating success is something that doesn’t come naturally, even as it is important for morale and recruitment.

However, I think it is also possible to celebrate success without making claims of outright victory. It is a matter of taking a similar line as the Unist’ot’en Clan, saying yes, we have achieved something, but the struggle is nowhere near won.

In whatever manner resistance movements understand success, there is good reason to be skeptical of claiming outright victories without asking the question of what victory really looks like and means.

Jon Parsons is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on cultures of resistance. Catch up with him on Twitter @jwpnfld

Dave Mundy and his four-year-old son offered flowers to people at an RBC branch in St. John's who would listen to their concerns over the bank's role in financing a controversial oil pipeline in the United States. Submitted photo.

Protests against U.S. pipeline reach Newfoundland

A growing protest movement against a controversial oil pipeline in the United States has reached Newfoundland.

On Saturday a small group visited a Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) branch in St. John’s to protest the bank’s ties to the Dakota Access Pipeline currently under construction in the midwestern United States.

If constructed the $3.8 billion pipeline will carry nearly a half million barrels of fracked crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota more than 1,800 kilometres through multiples states and across rivers and Indigenous lands to Illinois.

In recent months the pipeline has become a ground zero in North America for Indigenous Nations’ fight against colonialism and for the broader struggle against corporate power that prioritizes profits over human health and the environment.

Thousands of Indigenous people and allies from across the United States, Canada and the world have descended on two camps near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to join local Sioux tribes’ fight against Dakota Access LLC, the company building the pipeline, which intends to run the pipeline across the Missouri River and sacred Indigenous burial grounds.

St. John’s resident Dave Mundy told The Independent he and his family a few others entered the RBC branch on Freshwater Road in St. John’s Saturday morning to “raise awareness” by standing in the bank’s lobby with a sign that read “Stop funding criminals of human rights abuse” and “No to Dakota Access Pipeline,” while handing out flowers to those who took the time to read their message.

Submitted photo.

Submitted photo.

In September an investigation by Food and Water Watch revealed 17 financial institutions are providing “project-level loans” to Dakota Access LCC to build the pipeline, while 38 in total are “directly supporting the companies” involved  building the pipeline, with approximately $10.25 billion in loans and credit facilities.

Among the banks are three from Canada. TD Securities, a subsidiary of TD Bank Group, was found to be providing project-level loans to Dakota Access LLC, while RBC, Scotiabank and TD are all financing Energy Transfer Family of companies “so it can build out more oil and gas infrastructure,” Jo Miles and Hugh MacMillan of Food and Water Watch wrote on Sept. 6.

“RBC is one of the larger [banks] to invest with $340 million going to three different corporations involved with the development of this pipeline,” said Mundy, who does his personal banking with RBC.

Mundy organized the protest and attended with his partner and their four-year-old son.

“I think this is an important lesson to start [teaching children], especially in these times: how to use your voice, and how to understand that just because a place is big and has thick walls and heavy doors, that doesn’t mean that they can tell you what to do,” he said, explaining those who do business with a bank have a direct financial connection to that bank’s investments.

“You have just as much a right to voice your opinion instead of feeling you just have to follow what they tell you.”

On Nov. 7 several hundred people marched through the streets of Montreal demanding the Canadian banks withdraw their support from companies that are building or will profit from the pipeline.

A few days prior thousands took to the streets in Toronto in a show of solidarity for Indigenous land and water protectors and others on the frontlines in North Dakota, where riot police have cracked down violently on the peaceful protests, using sound and water canons, rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas in an attempt to disperse those opposing the pipeline.

Last week it was reported that DNB, Norway’s largest bank, sold its assets in the companies associated with the DAP and is considering terminating loans it has made in helping fund the project.

This is the same fight as Muskrat Falls. — Dave Mundy

Mundy said DNB “set a precedent,” and that he’s hoping RBC and the Canadian banks with connections to the project will do the same.

“We’ve seen so many environmental tragedies from pipelines built this year alone,” Mundy explained, adding the DAP would run “through the very beginning of the largest watershed in North America, the Mississippi Basin,” which, in the event of an oil spill could affect up to a third of the U.S. population. “That’s how much fresh water is at stake.”

The battles against oil pipelines in the U.S. and Canada are part of a wider movement that recognizes extractive industries as impediments to climate justice, and Indigenous rights and decolonization as necessary components to a successful global effort to avert catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

Many in the movement also recognize the current global economic system, capitalism, due to its need for constant growth, as the driver of growing social inequality, ecological destruction, and dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from their traditional lands.

“This is the same fight as Muskrat Falls,” said Mundy. “This is the same fight as a lot of the environmental and Native issues in Canada. This is about listening to people over corporate interests.

“I can’t stress enough to the people who live around here and are looking to the future and really hoping that things will change, and that we’ll start making decisions that are pro-people in the sense that our environment will continue to thrive—in order for that to happen this is a battle we have to win.”

Labrador Elder Dorothy Michelin. Mike Hynes Photography.

Land protectors steadfast in face of latest Nalcor injunction

On Tuesday a dramatic scene unfolded at the provincial court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, where land protectors who turned out to support others appearing before a judge were arrested, detained and then put before the judge themselves.

Marjorie Flowers was among the eight people taken into custody, and said the surprise arrests amounted to an “ambush” by Sheriff’s officers and a legal system intent on silencing the mostly Indigenous land protectors attempting to defend their land, water and way of life from the Muskrat Falls hydro project.

The arrests were ordered by a new Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador injunction initiated by Crown energy corporation Nalcor. The injunction also names 15 others who Nalcor alleges broke a previous Oct. 16 injunction, which prohibits people from, among other things, being present inside an injunction zone that extends beyond a fence most commonly referred to as the “main gate”.

Nalcor’s latest injunction—the third since mid-October to largely target members of nearby Inuit and Innu communities who maintain their protests are acts of self-defence and that they have not given free, prior and informed consent on Muskrat Falls—includes a photojournalist and a 96-year-old elder, both of whom were surprised to find themselves at risk of being arrested.

Photographer Mike Hynes and Elder Dorothy Michelin say they never intended to break an existing Nalcor injunction last weekend when they stood outside the Muskrat Falls main gate approximately 30 kilometres outside Goose Bay.

Hynes, who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, says he attended the protest Sunday “with the intentions of photographing and documenting” what was going on and pitching his work to news outlets that couldn’t be there to cover the event.

He says he saw “no signs” that indicated an area outside the project’s main gate was off limits, and that none of the RCMP officers present notified him he was breaking an injunction.

Similarly, Michelin, who was out for a Sunday drive with her daughter and interested in seeing if water levels above Muskrat Falls had flooded her family’s traditional hunting and trapping grounds, says she did not know she was breaking an injunction when she stopped to chat with people outside the main gate.

“I didn’t think I was doing any harm. I didn’t realize that you wasn’t supposed to be on that side of the road at all. Nobody told me that,” Michelin told The Independent Wednesday.

While most land protectors have obeyed a previous injunction granted to the Crown corporation by the provincial Supreme Court, Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill said in a statement Tuesday that Michelin and Hynes are among “certain individuals [who] have continued to create an unsafe situation for themselves and others by preventing free access to and from the project site.”

The previous day, Saturday, one land protector was reportedly hit, and another pushed—but not injured—by a transport truck attempting to enter the Muskrat Falls site through the main gate, where a protest was taking place. After the confrontation between land protectors and the truck driver, land protectors implemented a partial blockade, admitting only one vehicle into, and one out of, the site every 45 minutes.

Yvonne Jones Tweet Dorothy MichelinRCMP say they are investigating the incident involving the truck driver. Despite multiple requests for information Nalcor has not provided The Independent with details on how it is dealing with the situation internally, if at all.

Labrador MP Yvonne Jones was among many who took to social media to criticize Nalcor’s decision to name Michelin on its latest court order.

In an email Wednesday evening O’Neill addressed the criticisms, saying while Nalcor “sympathizes” with Michelin’s situation “the company must do everything it can to protect people at site which is why we seek the assistance of the RCMP and the courts in these matters. After that, it is up to the courts to exercise those powers and functions.”

Nalcor hindering reconciliation

Julie Bull, a NunatuKavut Inuk from Happy Valley-Goose Bay who teaches Indigenous studies at University of Toronto, says Nalcor’s latest injunction and the ongoing consequential arrests of land protectors amounts to Nalcor “passing the buck to RCMP and the legal system without taking any responsibility for the role they play in this.”

Bull, who has been following the Muskrat Falls resistance closely from Ontario and is now home in Goose Bay, says Nalcor’s injunctions and the suppression of the Indigenous-led resistance is hindering reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples in Labrador.

“We’re just back to where we started again,” she explains, referring to the provincial and federal governments’ promises last year to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

O’Neill issued a statement from Nalcor to The Independent Wednesday that claims “Nalcor is committed to productive working relationships with members of the community that are based on peaceful interactions.”

But Bull says Nalcor’s “rhetoric holds no meaning to people here in Labrador because their actions do not match their words.”

She says the Crown corporation needs to be held “accountable for their actions as they have the power and control to be able to stop such injustice to the people who are protecting the land here,” and that “if Nalcor is committed to working relationships with Labradorians that are ‘based on peaceful interactions’ they would not pursue arrests of peaceful Elders who are showing their support to the land protectors.”

Bull says there is also a discrepancy between Nalcor’s words and actions on the issue of safety.

“Land protectors and protesters have been peaceful and have not put themselves or others in danger,” she says.

“Nalcor doesn’t seem too interested in the safety of people living downstream from the river who will be greatly impacted by the contamination of the water. The safety of land protectors and Labradorians who are standing up for their rights are also not being considered.

“[Nalcor’s] rhetoric holds no meaning to people here in Labrador because their actions do not match their words. — Julie Bull

“Safety is defined as ‘being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury’ and I do not think that Nalcor is doing that in any way. Rhetoric is not reconciliation. Reconciliation is relational and we are not seeing any kind of actual effort from Nalcor to build relationships with Labradorians regarding Muskrat Falls.”

Nalcor’s history of injunctions intended to prevent Indigenous people and others defending their land in Labrador from impeding construction predates this fall’s protests.

In 2013 the corporation was granted an injunction by the N.L. Supreme Court that prompted the RCMP to arrest nine people—mostly Inuit, including NunatuKavut leader Todd Russell—outside the Muskrat Falls main gate.

The injunction was later deemed illegal and was thrown out by the courts, but was immediately effective in hampering the efforts of Indigenous people resisting the project.

Flowers, who was among those arrested in 2013 and also last month on Oct. 17, called Tuesday’s surprise arrests a “strategic move” by authorities, “clearly done so that everybody could see it, everyone could see the intimidation tactics.”

She also said the colonial nature of the ongoing suppression of Indigenous rights was on full display Tuesday, when land protectors were put in a “dirty, smelly” room, “shackled…and forced to walk around with no boots on,” and were left feeling “very much afraid,” she said.

“They didn’t let us feel for an instant that this was out of line — they said this was all part of the procedure. But it was just so demeaning and so unbelievable,” Flowers continued.

“When I came home [Tuesday] night I felt so belittled and stripped of my rights. I wrote a status on Facebook that was actually what I believe this colonialist system to be saying to me: ‘Don’t you dare speak. Don’t you dare stand up for your rights. Don’t you dare try to protect the land. Don’t you dare try to protect the people. Or we will punish you.’

“And that is clearly what happened [Tuesday] in the courtroom — because I stood up, I voiced my concerns, because I said I’m a land protector and I don’t want this to happen. Then they came down heavy-handed to say, ‘You shut your mouth and you stay away, and we’re giving you this specific distance — don’t you dare come closer to try to jeopardize this project in any way, shape or form.’”

Flowers and the other land protectors arrested Tuesday signed undertakings that prohibit them from being within one kilometre of the Muskrat Falls worksite boundary.

“I felt like I was stripped of my rights as an Aboriginal person, as a Labradorian,” she said.

“There is no giving up”

In one of his photos Hynes captured what he believes is an important contradiction facing authorities who are being instructed to treat land protectors as criminals.

Ninety-six-year-old Elder Dorothy Michelin shakes hands with an RCMP officer Sunday outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project. Michelin and the photographer who took the photo, Mike Hynes, are among 25 people facing prosecution after being named on Nalcor's latest court injunction. Mike Hynes Photography.

Ninety-six-year-old Elder Dorothy Michelin shakes hands with an RCMP officer Nov. 20 outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project. Michelin and the photographer who took the photo, Mike Hynes, are among 25 people facing prosecution after being named on Nalcor’s latest court injunction. Mike Hynes Photography.

The image depicts Michelin shaking hands with an RCMP officer outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls site. The officer is smiling as he looks down at Michelin in what Hynes at the time interpreted as a “moment of kindness between the police and Dorothy,” he said. “Now it seems to say so much more.”

The police, he said, “at any moment may be called upon to arrest people,” a scenario which calls into question the civil rights of people defending their land, food and way of life, and also the ethical dilemma many police officers must face.

“After all, they are part of the community and are humans,” said Hynes.

Michelin’s conversation with the police officer, because of where it took place, makes the Elder from Happy Valley-Goose Bay one of the “certain individuals” who Nalcor feels “blocked the safe access to and from the Muskrat Falls work sites,” according to O’Neill’s statement on Wednesday.

Michelin, whose children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will likely never again set foot on their family’s trapline, said the destruction of the area “really hurts”.

“That was the path trappers used for many, many years,” she explained. “I’ve been here since the ‘30s and I’ve been over that path, up to the traps and berry picking on the portage path, and I find it very hard that they would tear that down and destroy it. It’s very, very nasty of them to do it.”

Bull says the photo of Michelin and the police officer made her “proud to see law enforcement standing with an Elder,” and that she knows “there are many individuals within the system who support ‘Make Muskrat Right’ and the land protectors who are standing up and speaking out against Nalcor.”

She says the movement to stop Muskrat Falls is “bigger than just a couple of communities here in Labrador,” and that it’s “part of a global movement of Indigenous people standing up and enacting our right to self-determination and self-governance.

I’m going to be an ancestor one of these days, and I don’t want to be an ancestor that never said anything about this project going ahead. — Jennifer Hefler-Elson

“We want to have meaningful relationships with government but that’s not been happening,” she explains.

Until the provincial and federal governments demonstrate an actual commitment to reconciliation as it applies to Muskrat Falls, Bull says she thinks “people will continue to break laws or do whatever they need to do to somehow get our voices heard.”

Likewise, Nalcor needs to “show us, not tell us,” Bull says. “I don’t believe what they say, I believe what they do. And I think that sentiment is being felt by many Labradorians again this week. We are missing transparency, authenticity, integrity — all those fundamental human bits that are so necessary in this kind of work.”

Jennifer Hefler-Elson, one of the land protectors arrested Tuesday, told The Independent she refuses to back down from the fight to stop Muskrat Falls, which she believes won’t be safe at the North Spur once construction is complete and the reservoir is flooded.

“I’m going to be an ancestor one of these days, and I don’t want to be an ancestor that never said anything about this project going ahead,” she said. “I want to be an ancestor who stood up and said, I was against this project from day one. If my grandson ever wants to find out what his ancestor thought about this project he will certainly know.”

Dennis Burden of Port Hope Simpson was one of about a half dozen land protectors who interrupted processions in the provincial legislature in St. John’s Tuesday to read a statement asking the premier and MHAs to take responsibility for a number of problems associated with Muskrat Falls.

The fisherman and long-time critic of the hydro project told The Independent there is “only one way to make Muskrat right” — to stop Muskrat Falls from being completed.

Land protectors cheer through a window at the provincial court house in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in support of others who were arrested moments earlier. Photo by Amy Norman / Twitter.

Land protectors cheer through a window at the provincial court house in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in support of others who were arrested moments earlier. Amy Norman / Twitter.

Kirk Lethbridge, who was among the roughly 50 land protectors who occupied the Muskrat Falls camp in October and was the first to be arrested on Tuesday, told The Independent Wednesday he expects the more Nalcor and authorities clamp down on people defending their land and way of life, the stronger the movement will grow.

“The bottom line is we’re still going to get methylmercury, and we still have the North Spur undealt with. And we will have our day, we will have our justice,” he said. “We will be heard. We are not surrendering. There is no giving up.”

Flowers said while she and others who are prohibited from going within a kilometre of the Muskrat Falls site may keep their distance for now, they will find other roles to play in the movement and hope others will “take initiative [and] do what you need to do, because even though there are 10 people [taken away] from the protest gate, now is the time people have to take our place, step up to the plate.

“I feel that by staying away it’s doing exactly what the colonialists [want] — they’ve forced this on me, on the people. And now is the time, the very time, that we stand up and say, no, you do whatever you want to us — we are not stopping.”

Bull says “colonization is not a thing of the past — it still happens every single day,” and that the colonial nature of the Muskrat Falls conflict is evident to many in Labrador.

She says while she’s unsure how the Muskrat resistance will unfold, she is certain a “united voice” is crucial, “but that united voice can’t just come from leadership — it also has to come from communities and the grassroots people, and elders, and the knowledge keepers, and the land protectors, and the youth — all of the voices.”

Land protectors stand in front of a truck that allegedly kept moving forward until it hit someone. Amy Norman / Twitter.

Muskrat Falls truck driver “had no regard for any of us or our safety”: Land Protector

A gathering across the highway from the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project quickly turned into a partial blockade of the site Saturday when a truck entering the site made contact with two land protectors, according to one of the people involved.

After gathering in the designated protest area across from the main gate a group of land protectors defied Nalcor’s Supreme Court injunction and moved across the street to stand in front of the gate, where multiple blockades took place in October and earlier this month.

Land protector Amy Norman told The Independent the group had not intended to block traffic entering or leaving the site, until one truck driver intentionally hit her with his vehicle.

“We didn’t really have anything planned,” Norman explained. “But then the first truck that tried to pull in was really kind of dangerous and aggressive at us. He turned in and we thought we would just slow him down for a few minutes, but he just kept coming at us, inching closer and closer, [and] he eventually hit me.”

Norman, a university student who recently moved home to Happy Valley-Goose Bay while working on a Master’s Degree in Indigenous community health, said the driver’s actions were intentional.

“I was standing there, standing still, and he just kept inching forward, closer and close and closer…and I yelled out at him, and he kept coming at me, super gently but he still hit me. He still had no regard for any of us or our safety.”

Norman said when the truck made contact with her, another land protector joined and and positioned herself in front of the vehicle.

She said police officers had been watching, and when the second person “got pushed” by the truck police “intervened and got the driver stopped completely.”

Norman said police indicated to her and the other land protector that they will be invited to give statements on the incident and that the driver is “probably going to be charged,” though Norman said the police did not say what the charges could be.

The Independent asked Nalcor to comment on the incident and to explain the corporation’s policy when it comes to such matters, but spokesperson Karen O’Neill responded only by saying, “Given you were told that the RCMP were present you should contact the RCMP to verify your information.”

The Independent followed up with a second request for information on Nalcor’s policies that would be applicable to the incident but O’Neill did not respond by the time of publication.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Trevor O’Keefe told The Independent Sunday morning that “there was an incident involving a truck and demonstrators at the Muskrat Falls main gate yesterday,” and that “there were no injuries.”

Land protectors pose for a selfie outside the main gate at Muskrat Falls Nov. 19. Beatrice Hunter / Facebook.

Land protectors pose for a selfie outside the main gate at Muskrat Falls Nov. 19. Beatrice Hunter / Facebook.

O’Keefe said RCMP in Happy Valley-Goose Bay are “investigating the matter,” and that “no charges have been laid at this time.”

The story will be updated if Nalcor responds to explain how they are handling the situation and whether or not they have policies in place to deal with such incidents.

Norman said the truck driver was turned away and forced to continue southward on the Trans Labrador Highway, before turning around and returning a short time later, then continuing on toward Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

The incident marks the second in as many months when people demonstrating outside the Muskrat Falls main gate reported dangerous behaviour by workers driving trucks to the project site.

In mid-October land protectors reported an incident when a truck driver drove at an allegedly unsafe speed toward the blockaded main gate and allegedly almost struck an individual.

Land protector Beatrice Hunter told The Independent that following Saturday’s incident the group delayed traffic entering the site for several hour, admitting only one vehicle in each direction through the gates every 45 minutes.

“We just wanted to show that we were still fighting and in control,” she said. “We haven’t given up the fight yet.”

Submitted photo.

Muskrat Falls cofferdam leaks could be worse than Nalcor is admitting

Nalcor has begun lowering water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir following a series of leaks in the project’s cofferdam this week that The Independent has learned could be much more significant than the Crown energy corporation has acknowledged.

On Friday morning Nalcor, which is in charge of the controversial hydroelectric megaproject, issued a statement saying there was “increased seepage” in the upstream cofferdam, which prompted the project’s engineering team to recommend that water levels in the reservoir be reduced “to mitigate risk associated with the increased flow and to maintain the integrity of the cofferdam.”

The statement also said that opening the spillway gates “has increased water flows and levels downstream of Muskrat Falls,” but that there is “no risk of flooding in any of the surrounding communities…and water levels and flow rates in the river will be consistent with spring flow conditions.”

At the time of publication Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Wateroffice was reporting that water levels in the river six kilometres below Muskrat Falls had risen almost a full metre. 

The first phase of reservoir flooding began earlier this month, following a series of protests during which hundreds of people province-wide took to the streets, while land protectors in Labrador blockaded the Muskrat Falls site and and eventually occupied the project’s workers’ camp to express concerns that, among others, the Grand River cannot be safely dammed.

In a statement issued to media on Wednesday Nalcor explained “water seeping through the rock cofferdam and collecting between the upstream rock dam and the downstream rock dam…is not uncommon and the cofferdam is operating as designed and as expected.”

But The Independent learned around that same time that another leak in the cofferdam—which was not noted by Nalor—was observed by workers on Tuesday and may indicate the problem is much more serious than the corporation has disclosed.

The cofferdam is a temporary structure comprised of rock, sand and clay to divert the river’s water flow so that the dam’s permanent components can be built.

While most cofferdams experience some water seepage, a photo obtained by The Independent reveals the problem at Muskrat Falls’ cofferdam could be “very serious,” according to an expert who has analyzed the photo.

The image shows brown-coloured water shooting up into the air under pressure from the downstream side of the project’s cofferdam, a scenario that retired hydropower engineer Jim Gordon says could get much worse if the problem isn’t immediately and sufficiently dealt with.

Gordon says the colour of the water indicates that the water in the photo comprising the fountain at the downstream side of the cofferdam “can only come from the upstream water level through what is called a ‘natural pipe’ that is eroded by the water through both cofferdams.”

The image also shows what appears to be a partial washout on the road atop where the water is flowing beneath, or what what Gordon says could be an “erosion channel”.

The Montreal-based former engineer, who has worked on dozens of dams in his lifetime and won a host of awards for his work, says he believes the water has formed a pathway through the cofferdam and is eroding the clay sediment, carrying it out into the river below the structure.

He also said if the problem isn’t immediately dealt with—if the contractor, Barnard Pennecon, isn’t able to successfully seal off the tunnel of water from the upstream side of the upstream cofferdam—the problem could result in a “failure” of the structure.

Independent file photo.

This view of the Muskrat Falls construction site, from a photo taken in October 2016, illustrates the places where the brown-coloured water fountain was reportedly observed, as well as the place where the initial and reportedly continued flow of water from the upstream side of the cofferdam is emerging in the middle of the cofferdam structure. Independent file photo.

“The fact that the water is coming out under pressure, rising above the crest of the downstream cofferdam is very serious,” Gordon explains. “And it indicates that the water flow is eroding more of the upstream clay, which is the waterproof barrier, out from the upstream cofferdam. This means the flow will increase with time and could eventually result in a failure. But how long that process will take, I just don’t know.”

On Wednesday Nalcor issued a press release saying “water was pumped out [from between the upper and lower cofferdams] and water levels are back to normal.” Further, the statement read, “experts inspected the cofferdam and have advised that the structure is safe and stable and operating as expected and designed.”

A worker on site, on condition of anonymity, told The Independent that on Tuesday morning workers from other areas of the project site were asked to help with efforts to pump water out from between the two sides of the cofferdam.

The fact that the water is coming out under pressure, rising above the crest of the downstream cofferdam is very serious. — Jim Gordon

The worker said they were told by a colleague that a steady flow of clear water that has been penetrating the cofferdam as long as the structure has existed—and was being removed with pumps—suddenly turned brown and intensified Monday night.

The worker also said the fountain of brown water on the downstream side of the cofferdam only stopped when that part of the structure collapsed on itself.

The Independent shared the photo with Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill and sent multiple emails seeking comment on Thursday, but received no response by the time of publication on Friday.

On Friday, following Nalcor’s announcement that another leak had penetrated the cofferdam, a source told The Independent that the new water was also brown.

Gordon said there are “two interpretations” of the claim that the water tunnel leading to the fountain of brow water on the downstream side of the cofferdam collapsed on itself.

“If the contractor has dumped sufficient material upstream of the upstream cofferdam to shut off the flow, that’s great — they’ve almost won the battle,” he said.

“If, on the other hand, the downstream cofferdam has collapsed to such an extent [that the fountain has stopped], all it means is that the flow is no longer emerging where it was emerging before, against a rock and shooting up. It’s now emerging further down, perhaps underwater, and you can’t see it.”

Gordon estimated that adequately sealing off the intake on the upstream side of the cofferdam could take time — “not hours or days, but weeks or months,” he said, explaining that the proper equipment and significant amounts of materials will likely be required.

In its statement Friday morning Nalcor said the corporation “followed its Emergency Preparedness Plan prepared for the impoundment process for the project and notified communities and stakeholders in the area of the potential for increased water flows associated with this condition.”

Mud Lake resident Craig Chaulk said those he spoke with in his community, which sits adjacent the mouth of Grand River from Happy Valley-Goose Bay and is accessible only by boat this time of year, weren’t aware of Nalcor’s decision to release water from the reservoir.

Chaulk, whose family commutes by boat to Happy Valley-Goose Bay for work on a daily basis, said there has been noticeably more debris, including trees, floating down river since the first phase of reservoir flooding began earlier this month, and that he has heard reports that there is even more debris present in the water today since the dam’s spillway gates have been opened.

“We often have to go across in the dark at night, so that’s concerning,” he said, explaining lights can illuminate ice in the water ahead of the boat, but that trees, logs and other debris now flowing down from Muskrat Falls are much less visible.

A worker from the Muskrat Falls site who has worked on the cofferdam since last summer said he’s less concerned about workers’ safety on site under the present circumstances than he is about what the cofferdam leaks mean for the project on the whole.

They hurried up to get the cofferdam done to match their projected flood date [and] the quality [of the work] is taking a hit for it. — Muskrat Falls worker

Nalcor and its subcontractors are “doing a rush job” in order to meet deadlines, they said, adding “they hurried up to get the cofferdam done to match their projected flood date,” and that “the quality [of the work] is taking a hit for it.”

The worker said they are not worried the cofferdam will give without first growing noticeably worse, thereby giving workers time to evacuate the area, but that they’re worried what Nalcor and Barnard Pennecon’s management of the cofferdam construction could indicate for other parts of the project, like the North Spur.

“If they’re not being thorough on the pre-work that we’re doing now, how can I be assured of the confidence of Nalcor to start doing the proper work to make sure the job is done right?

“I just don’t believe that the quality control is even close to being accurate or trustworthy,” they continued. “I don’t believe anything they say, and that goes for almost everybody I ever spoke to [on the project].

“We should be able to go home at night and tell our family we did a great job [at work]. We should be able to say, there’s no way this thing is letting go, and this is why. Instead everybody’s like, Jesus b’y.”

On Friday morning, moments after receiving news that the gates had been opened and water levels downstream were on the rise, Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Jamie Snook told The Independent that the Town will be “monitoring today and reiterating our urgent and shared support for a symposium on the North Spur,” saying the cofferdam problems and subsequent last-minute decision to release water from the reservoir reveals a need for “more transparency period.”

More than 50 people gathered outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador on Nov. 15 to hold a vigil for the falls, which were recently submerged underwater, likely for the first time since humans inhabited the area several thousand of years ago.  Photo by Jacinda Beals.

Vigils in Labrador and St. John’s honour now-submerged Muskrat Falls

On Tuesday evening land protectors and others gathered in Labrador and St. John’s to honour the Muskrat Falls, which after featuring prominently in Indigenous life and history for thousands of years have now been submerged underwater as part of the controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric development.

In the midst of an ongoing struggle by Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians to protect the falls and surrounding marine ecosystem—and subsequently their traditional food supply and way of life—Crown energy corporation Nalcor began the first phase of reservoir flooding earlier this month.

The flooding began once the leaders of Labrador’s three Indigenous groups gave their approval after two consultants reviewed Nalcor-commissioned reports that outlined the necessity of partial reservoir flooding ahead of winter freezeup to protect the integrity of the hydro infrastructure.

Despite the Indigenous leaders’ consent to first flooding—which Nalcor claims will bring water levels up to 25 metres above sea level, to around or slightly above the Grand River’s springtime high water mark—many in Labrador are not satisfied with the political leadership’s Oct. 26 agreement, which came amid growing protests in Labrador and the occupation by land protectors of Muskrat Falls’ main workers’ camp.

As night fell Tuesday, dozens gathered outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls construction site, in Rigolet and in St. John’s for vigils and prayers.

“We ask God that you…protect us and keep us safe from the mercury poisoning,” Rev. Sarah Baikie of St. Timothy’s Anglican Church said, leading a small group of Rigolet residents in prayer. “We ask that you protect the animals and all the wildlife, everything, from the flood. We thank you for the use of the land that we had for so many years. We never ever dreamt, Lord, that there would come a time when we could not use that land as we always did. We ask that you be with all those who is looking after it and help them to be able to protect it, and just to help us to be good stewards of the lands, and help us to be able to help the [Muskrat Falls] workers to know why it is we wants the flooding stopped and the land clean. Lord, it’s of our life, it’s of our health. It’s just part of who we are as Inuit.”

Rev. Sarah Baikie of St. Timothy's Anglican Church in Rigolet led locals in prayer on Nov. 15. Photo by Charlie Flowers.

Rev. Sarah Baikie of St. Timothy’s Anglican Church in Rigolet led locals in prayer on Nov. 15. Photo by Charlie Flowers.

Outside the gates of the Muskrat Falls worksite, more than 50 people, including Inuit drum dancers and Innu and Inuit elders, gathered in ceremony and prayer.

And in St. John’s, a small group gathered on Confederation Hill for a solidarity vigil, where Labrador land protector Denise Cole said the latest images coming out of Labrador that show Muskrat Falls underwater are “devastating”.

“I have walked on that place and have sat and listened to the falls and felt the spray on my face,” Cole told the crowd gathered at the foot of the steps of Confederation Building. “And to know that generations before me were also able to feel that, and that generations after me may not be able to experience that, is a break in my culture.”

Cole said when she speaks of the Muskrat Falls dam as a form of “cultural genocide”, it’s because she is “watching my culture be dug up and destroyed and completely disrespected in the name of profit and greed, of Nalcor and the provincial government, for this hydro project.”

The Oct. 26 agreement between the premier and the leaders of Nunatsiavut Government, NunatuKavut Community Council and the Innu Nation mandated Nalcor to await approval from the Indigenous leaders before beginning the first stage of flooding.

Though water levels have been raised, the leaders’ agreement compels Nalcor to bring water levels in the reservoir back down in the spring, after which time a newly formed Independent Expert Advisory Committee [IEAC] will “seek an 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,” according to an Oct. 26 government news release.

Despite the agreement, Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall has spoken out in provincial and national media, calling into question the feasibility of complete reservoir clearing, and even questioning whether methylmercury resulting from hydro dams has ever impacted people’s health.

Marshall’s comments are “incredibly uninformed,” says Billy Gauthier, an Inuk artist and resident of North West River who launched a hunger strike in October as Nalcor proceeded toward flooding without following the recommendations of the only peer-reviewed scientific research on how methylmercury resulting from Muskrat Falls would impact local Indigenous food and health.

Gauthier says he doesn’t have “very much confidence” in Marshall and Nalcor more generally, since both had previously been willing to risk the health of Labrador Inuit to save money and time in avoiding reservoir clearing, he says.

“[Marshall] is doing a terrible job right now, and I only hope that he starts listening to what the credible scientists of the world are saying and starts looking into some of the problems that have happened in a number of different areas, including James Bay, where there are a lot of people who have been physically hurt, through sickness, from methylmercury poisoning,” Gauthier says.

Responding to Marshall’s comment, Innu Elder Bart Jack also recently pointed out that methylmercury resulting from the creation of the Upper Churchill Falls’ Smallwood Reservoir on sacred Innu lands has led to consumption advisories that still prevent Innu and Inuit from eating traditional foods today.

Provincial Environment Minister Perry Trimper, who came under heavy fire during the Muskrat Falls protests, locals have said, for not doing enough to protect their health and way of life, told The Independent on Tuesday that he feels the government is now on the right track.

Trimper said the government received the first results from the winter impoundment methylmercury monitoring program on Tuesday, and that it is working with the Indigenous groups to make the information, as well as the program’s design, “as available as possible and as quickly as possible.”

The environment minister, who is the MHA for Lake Melville and represents most of the people who will be impacted by the Muskrat Falls dam, also said with ongoing methylmercury monitoring in the reservoir over the winter months there will be a “two to three week” delay between the time data is collected in the field and when government receives those results.

Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill told The Independent on Tuesday that a second round of sampling collection took place on Nov. 5, and that “additional sampling is conducted regularly.”

O’Neill said the sampling is being completed by Amec Foster Wheeler, which is using Flett Research Ltd., an accredited lab in Winnipeg, to test the samples.

While it’s unclear what Nalcor would have to do in the event monitoring results show methylmercury levels in the reservoir threaten the local food chain, and despite Marshall’s recent comments which upset many in Labrador, Trimper says the government is “very concerned about human health, and if additional mitigation measures are required, I will order that through my authority.

Labrador land protectors Jacinda Beals (left), Billy Gauthier (back), Erin Saunders (right) and Beatrice Hunter (front) in a tent outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project on Nov. 14. Photo by Beatrice Hunter.

Labrador land protectors Jacinda Beals (left), Billy Gauthier (rear), Erin Saunders (right) and Beatrice Hunter (front) in a tent outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project on Nov. 14. Photo by Beatrice Hunter.

“I feel I’ve been stepping up very much in terms of additional mitigation measures, responding to concerns, moving the direction of a multi-billion dollar project that was going down one road of ignoring concerns and issues that have been ignored for years,” he said. “And I guess over the last 10 months what I’ve been doing is in a very deliberate fashion changing the direction of this project and how it will proceed.

Trimper also said the IEAC is presently being established, and that it will eventually issue a recommendation to him, “and I will be acting on those recommendations.”

In the meantime, Gauthier and others have resumed camping out in tents across from the main gate at Muskrat Falls.

He says while the turnouts at the recently revived protests may be lower than those which took place in October, numbers swelled quickly last month in response to government and Nalcor’s handling of the situation and could do the same this time.

“Once we bring our thoughts and ideas together and we’re all on the same page…you’ll see bigger numbers coming out,” Gauthier told The Independent on Monday. “And I’m positive that with those bigger numbers you’ll see satisfaction in the end, by the public, by the people of Labrador, because we’re not going away. We’re in it until this is done right and people don’t have to worry about their health and safety.”

Photo by Justin Brake.

Press freedom a prerequisite for the just and democratic rule of law

In a recent column for The Telegram TC Media’s Russell Wangersky came out swinging against, surprisingly, freedom of the press.

His target was the editor of this publication, Justin Brake, and Brake’s decision to cover the occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp last month by reporting at the scene of the event, as opposed to staying behind the line where a court order obtained by Nalcor told people to stay.

Brake faced a classic reporter’s challenge: follow a breaking story of vital public interest and concern, or follow the instructions of authorities who were acting in such a way that would have deprived the public of obtaining crucial information.

There is no doubt the storming and occupation of the Muskrat Falls camp was a historic occasion in this province. There is also no doubt that the broader public would have known very little about it—perhaps nothing—had a journalist not been there broadcasting from the scene and sharing information with other media outlets too.

The right to know is sometimes treated, in this day and age, as a voyeuristic pleasure. It is far more important than that. If we do not know what is happening around us—why Labradorians and Indigenous Peoples are marching outside Nalcor’s gate, what reasons compel them to occupy the workers’ camp and how they conduct themselves when they are there—our democratic society cannot function properly.

We must be able to judge the actions of our political and business leadership, and the actions of our neighbours as well. We must not sit silently on the sidelines and grumble to our co-workers about the way our society functions; we must speak up and make ourselves part of that public discussion which helps shape the way our society functions.

Freedom of information and the public’s right to know—which are the product of freedom of the press—lies at the core of our democratic system and all the civil rights on which it is based. It is that freedom to know and freedom to report that produces good governance, and that produces a healthy and democratic society.

Brake acted on his instincts as a journalist, followed the story and broadcast live from the site of the spontaneous occupation. As a result he was named in a court order and is now facing financial, and potentially legal, consequences.

The fact Brake was named in the court order has been denounced by media outlets and journalists’ rights organizations across the country as an attack on freedom of the press—on the right to free expression and the public’s right to know.

But it has not been denounced by most media establishments in this province.

Instead, Wangersky devoted a column to arguing that Brake—and by extension, any journalist—should second-guess themselves, and when the public right to know comes up against other rights, the journalist should back down and let those other rights take precedent.

It’s sad to hear a journalist so quick to encourage other journalists to back down when they’re told to stay away from a story, and not report first-hand on events that the public has a right to know about.

Yes, the events occurred on Nalcor land, but Nalcor’s land is also Indigenous land, and land that is also part of a democratic country that respects civil liberties, including freedom of the press and the public’s right to know, especially when it comes to serious issues that shape and define our very existence as a democratic province.

Wangersky offers two analogies in his column, and they are disingenuous ones.

First, he compares Brake to Fraser March, the union leader who refused to obey a court injunction on picketing. The analogy is surprisingly far-fetched and flimsy for Wangersky’s normally sharp mind. March was a union leader pursuing a political agenda; Brake is a reporter upholding the public’s right to know about what is happening in their own backyard. And if you believe the public does not have a right to know what happens in our province, then you ought to question why it is you choose to live in a democratic country.

There are other places you can go where civil rights do not come first, and where enough money can indeed buy you impunity and silence. Russia, for instance, or perhaps China. But Canada is supposed to be a democracy, and democracy relies on the public’s right to know, which is guaranteed by the freedom of the press to report on all matters of public interest. All matters of public interest, mind you—not just those that Crown corporations invite them to.

Wangersky employs another irrelevant analogy. He asks if a journalist rushing to cover a story should go over the speed limit. The answer, generally speaking, is no, because doing so would endanger lives. But Brake did not endanger any lives by following Labradorians through the Nalcor gate. If anything, his presence enhanced public safety by allowing everyone on the outside—including the RCMP and families of land protectors and workers—to know what was happening on the inside.

The analogies are ridiculous, but so is the sorry sight of a journalist defending restrictions on journalism.

Yes, there are limits to freedom of the press. But let those limits be established by intelligent discussion and ethical debate on the part of an informed public, not by the government-backed dollars of an energy corporation which has so far excelled only at keeping people in the dark.

Wangersky is an excellent writer who is normally not afraid to challenge power and the possible abuse thereof. We must hope his commentary comes from some sentiment other than sincerely held opinions.

The Telegram has some excellent journalists on staff, and if one of them happened to be cited in a court order for following a story of critical importance, we would hope Wangersky would fight tooth and nail to defend his writers, not lecture them on why they should have turned their back on the story in the first place.

Reporting doesn’t make you exempt from the rules of our society—it means you are using the rules of our society in the public interest.

The fact is, a journalist cannot second-guess themselves in a situation like the Muskrat Falls occupation. If you don’t act on the moment to catch the story, you miss it; and it’s possible the public will never know. A journalist needs to know that the democratic rule of law will uphold their decision to cover a story and inform the public.

It’s deeply troubling to hear a journalist defend restrictions on the practice of journalism, because there are plenty of other people out there willing to do the dirty job for him: greedy corporations, crooked politicians, rich folks with more dollars than sense who would prefer to buy public silence than face accountability for their misdeeds.

Yes, there are plenty of other people willing to attack freedom of the press; the press shouldn’t be among them.

Last year I interviewed Joel Simon, Executive Director of the US-based international organization Committee to Protect Journalists. Simon had just published a book on press freedoms, and he declared that “the battle for freedom of expression is the defining struggle of this moment.”

“Journalists are increasingly threatened precisely because governments and other powerful institutions are finding it more difficult to manage and manipulate information,” he writes in his book. “They are lashing out as a result.”

Free expression needs to be strengthened, not restricted at the behest of governments and corporations, he says. There ought only to be one restriction that trumps press freedoms, and that’s incitement to violence. There was no incitement to violence in Brake’s reporting from Muskrat Falls; if anything, it dispelled myths that those occupying the site were violent or dangerous, and perhaps increased everyone’s safety as a result.

In closing, Wangersky asks: “Does simply calling yourself a journalist…allow you to bear witness and exempt you from the rules that apply to every other citizen?”

The answer is obviously no — but Wangersky is asking the wrong question.

As a democratic society, freedom of expression, which includes the constitutionally-protected freedom of the press, is one of the most fundamental rules that applies to all of us. Reporting doesn’t make you exempt from the rules of our society—it means you are using the rules of our society in the public interest.

Anyone who wants to judge the calibre of Brake’s journalism is welcome to read his stories and make their own determination. Part of living in a democratic society is the right to make our own judgements about what we believe. But for us to exercise that right, first we need the information to make an informed judgement.

And protecting the rights and freedoms of those who bring us that information ought to be of paramount importance for all of us.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

About 25 land protectors walked to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the Muskrat Falls construction site Nov. 5 in an act of peaceful civil disobedience to protest the flooding of the dam's reservoir. Amy Norman / Twitter.

Muskrat resistance enters new phase as flooding begins

With flooding underway at Muskrat Falls land protectors and others opposed to the damming of Labrador’s largest river have begun another round of protests.

On Saturday around 25 people walked to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the project’s construction site. And on Sunday about 20 land protectors formed a half-hour blockade outside the project’s main gate, while 40 or 50 more gathered for a potluck across the highway where a camp has been set up for several weeks.

The actions follow a series of public meetings last week in Rigolet and the Upper Lake Melville region, which revealed a pervasive dissatisfaction with a deal struck between Premier Dwight Ball and Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders on Oct. 26, which promised the Innu and Inuit some autonomy in a process purportedly aimed at protecting Indigenous communities’ health and respecting to some degree their right to consent.

“Today’s meeting was about one thing — the health of Labradorians,” Ball said after the 11-hour meeting with Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut leadership, announcing a commitment by the province to proceed with science-based decision-making on reservoir flooding and subsequent monitoring in order to minimize human health risks associated with methylmercury exposure.

The deal promised the Indigenous groups an independent assessment of documents from Nalcor’s private contractors that allegedly substantiate the necessity of raising water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir prior to winter freeze-up. It also allows for methylmercury monitoring through the winter, and for water levels to be lowered again in the spring until it is determined if, and how much, vegetation and topsoil will be cleared from the reservoir prior to re-flooding.

While many lauded the agreement and celebrated the end of a hunger strike by at least four people fighting to protect their traditional food source and way of life, reaction on social media revealed a widespread skepticism of the agreement and a lack of trust in elected officials, including the Innu and Inuit leaders.

“People think there’s still a lot of risk involved,” Nunatsiavut Elder Shirley Flowers told The Independent the day following the leaders’ agreement, explaining she has concerns around the North Spur, Muskrat Falls’ ecological footprint, and “the destruction of the culture, even the destruction we can’t see, where I think a lot of Innu and settlers’ traces are just bulldozed away.”

Asked what outcome she favours, Flowers said she would like to see Muskrat Falls “dismantled if possible.”

Amid the series of community meetings—one in Happy Valley-Goose Bay organized by the grassroots, and four others led by Nunatsiavut—the focus on human health impacts shifted from methylmercury, which catalyzed the previous month’s protests, to the North Spur.

But many whose concerns with methylmercury had been at least somewhat appeased by the leaders’ agreement were provoked last Tuesday by Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall, who downplayed the science, and locals’ concerns, around methylmercury production, while indicating the first phase of flooding had to begin by the weekend in order to protect the integrity of the dam. Marshall’s point had already been raised many times but was made secondary in light of government’s promise to await consent from the Innu and Inuit leaders.

It was almost as if Stan Marshall was laughing in their faces saying [Nalcor] is carrying on anyway… — Stanley Oliver

“We are doing the right thing at Muskrat Falls. I commit to that,” Marshall told CBC. “What they mean by making Muskrat Falls right, I don’t know. I think it means different things to different people. All I can say is we will do what’s right.”

After hosting the community-organized discussion in Happy Valley-Goose Bay last Tuesday, Stanley Oliver told The Independent many of the 150 or so in attendance were “very angry” at Marshall’s comments.

“Any gains they feel they may have made during the meetings with the Indigenous leaders, it was almost as if Stan Marshall was laughing in their faces saying [Nalcor] is carrying on anyway, and we’re not going to cut the vegetation because it’s not going to make a difference — and you guys have to prove to us that there’s a difference,” Oliver explained.

Marshall told CBC in his interview that there was not “one documented case that I’m aware of that flooding a reservoir has caused harm due to methylmercury. It’s in the environment. It’s everywhere.”

Elder and former Innu leader Bart Jack, who participated in last month’s occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp, said Marshall’s comments were “insulting to the Innu,” who had their traditional lands, including active hunting and trapping grounds and sacred burial sites, flooded by the Upper Churchill dam almost a half century ago, and ever since have had to limit their harvesting of fish in the area due to consumption advisories that are still in place today.

“We were affected by the Upper Churchill,” Jack said, explaining the Innu attempted to start a commercial fishery at Mishikimau Lake 20 or 30 years ago but couldn’t due to methylmercury contamination.

“How dare he say to us there is no impact!” he continued. “That’s exactly what’s going to happen with Muskrat Falls. The Innu, the Inuit, the Metis are not going to be able to eat our fish for 30 years.”

Calling for United Nations intervention

Even before Marshall’s comments, and after the leaders’ agreement was struck, locals were reluctant to give up control over the future of their country food and their ability and rights to fish and hunt on their traditional lands.

On Oct. 23, the second day of the Muskrat Falls occupation, RCMP Inspector Tony Perry delivered a message to the occupiers by phone, telling them the premier had agreed to meet with the Indigenous leaders on Tuesday.

Responding to the news, Kirk Lethbridge told Perry that while the land protectors “have respect for our leaders, we’re the ones who hold Muskrat Falls,” and that they expected to have representation at the table and to have the meeting sooner, in light of the fact some of the young hunger strikers had gone almost two weeks without food.

None of the Indigenous leaders demanded grassroots representation at the negotiating table in St. John’s.

Memorial University geography research professor Trevor Bell, who was one of the leads on the methylmercury study published earlier this year, helped the three young hunger-strikers—Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jeremias Kohlmeister—develop four demands that were presented to Premier Ball a couple days before the leaders’ meeting took place, as the Labrador land protectors occupied Muskrat Falls.

When the leaders’ agreement effectively conceded to those four demands, Bell heralded the deal as “a win for science knowledge driving decision-making,” as well as for “grassroots democracy”.

In an Oct. 26 interview with The Independent, the professor said he was “fairly confident” that temporary water level increases to protect the dam’s integrity over winter would not pose a significant health risk to those living downstream.

“[Methylmercury levels] will be increased, no doubt about that,” he said. “And we will be able to tell people with near real-time monitoring…but we expect them to be lower than [existing] projections because the inundation is going to be for several months, and the soil that’s being inundated has mostly been inundated in the past. Therefore it’s potential to produce methylmercury is much lower.”

Immediately after the deal was struck the three hunger strikers, who were in Ottawa to bring their message to federal decision-makers, celebrated with Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, who fed them smoked char and the following day took to social media to express her pride in all those whose actions “set the new standard for NL and large scale development in our lands and waters,” she wrote. “My proudest moment was at the 11th hour as all Labrador came together — united is a beautiful vision in Labrador.”

Gauthier and the hunger strikers have supported Bell’s assessment that temporary partial flooding, monitoring, and return to pre-winter water levels in springtime is low-risk for those living downstream of Muskrat Falls.

Some locals, like Tiffany Lambourne, a mother of three young children and a resident of Happy Valley-Goose Bay who participated in most of the protests against Muskrat Falls, said they were skeptical of the leaders’ deal but willing to let the process play out.

“It didn’t matter what we did, whether we did rallies or walks or barricades, or occupy the site — [the leaders] just put their heads down and continued on a path towards impoundment. So hopefully now we’ll see that they are going to respond,” Lambourne told The Independent on Oct. 26, after hearing news of the leaders’ agreement.

“Now the province, and now Nalcor, and now our [Indigenous] leaders know that we’re serious about this, that we care about this, and that we are willing to do everything that we have to do to make this right,” she continued. “So if they’re going to try and tell us some lies to scatter everyone, it’s not going to work. We assembled once, we can assemble again.

“But if they’re serious, we’ll have a little faith in them and give them some time to work it out.”

In the ensuing days and throughout the community meetings last week, however, the lack of trust felt by land protectors and others in Labrador toward the colonial and Indigenous government leaders over their handling of Muskrat Falls became more palpable.

On Saturday the Innu Nation, NunatuKavut Community Council and Nunatsiavut Government released a joint statement informing their members and the public that two independent consultants commissioned to review Nalcor’s documents justifying the necessity of partial reservoir flooding prior to winter—studies conducted by Hatch and SNC-Lavalin—had deemed the argument legitimate.

Hours later Ball announced reservoir flooding had begun at Muskrat Falls.

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, as well as the protocols and natural laws of Indigenous nations. — Letter to United Nations

Reaction on social media by land protectors and others in Labrador opposed to the flooding was swift.

Marjorie Flowers, who was one of nine people arrested during a peaceful blockade outside the Muskrat Falls main gate on Oct. 17 and one of the land protectors who occupied the camp, said the leaders’ agreement “does not satisfy land protectors” who aren’t willing to face any increases in methylmercury exposure, or the risk of greater exposure.

“And the instability of the North Spur has not been addressed,” she wrote in a public Facebook post. “How can the imminent flooding of two communities not be addressed? Someone please tell me.

“Still the madness goes on. I went into ‘the drum’ at Main Gate last night. I was there alone for half an hour, watching and listening to cops laughing, feeling like a lost child, ‘knowing’ that God was gone.”

Last week a group of land protectors drafted a letter to United Nations (U.N.) High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein with the hope the U.N. will intervene at Muskrat Falls since the project, they say, infringes on Innu and Inuit rights.

“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.

“These actions will place the Innu, Inuit, and NunatuKavut nations of this area in direct danger of continued methylmercury poisoning due to the refusal to clear all vegetation before commencing flooding, and the unsafe and unsustainable construction of the dam that poses the risk of breaking. 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.”

The letter goes on to highlight specific rights outlined in UNDRIP that the authors feel Muskrat Falls contravenes.

One of the letter’s authors, Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Amy Norman, told The Independent she doesn’t feel the people of Labrador are “being heard by our Indigenous leaders [and] by the provincial government. We’re certainly not being heard by the federal government.

“So where do you go from there? In terms of looking further, the United Nations,” she explained. “I think the letter is pretty clear what [the governments] have broken in terms of the articles of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I think we have a pretty solid case.”

Last May the Government of Canada agreed to adopt the principles of UNDRIP in Canada, though the legal framework has not yet been adopted into Canadian law.

Labrador unity, signs of Innu uprising 

Answering questions from the press at Confederation Building on Oct. 26, Ball said the grassroots movement and the land protectors’ occupation of the Muskrat Falls camp were not factors in prompting the leaders’ meeting and subsequent agreement.

Meanwhile, in her speech Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee said nothing of the grassroots movement’s role.

Conversely, the two Inuit leaders, Johannes Lampe and Todd Russell, acknowledged the role the land protectors and others played in the achievement.

“We are thinking about the people who have put their lives on the line to protest the Muskrat Falls project,” Lampe said, naming the three young hunger strikers. “And also to the land protectors, who are within the project site, and also those who are outside on the road or at the gates, and anywhere within the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, across Canada — the work that you have done has made progress.

“And we are very happy to say to Labrador Inuit in Rigolet that your work also has made progress,” he continued. “And most certainly to Labrador Inuit, your push to get us to the table with the premier and the other leaders has made progress. And now we feel that all the work we did today will be done together and as people of Newfoundland and Labrador, to help each other, to look after the health, the well-being, the culture, the way of life of Labrador Inuit and other Aboriginal groups.”

Russell too acknowledged the role of the land protectors and others who protested against the flooding of Muskrat Falls.

“The decisions that will be made going forward will not be at the whim of government — they will be made by science and it will incorporate the traditional knowledge of our people. This is a huge step forward,” he announced, adding elders “can have confidence that the traditions that they have preserved will now be handed from generation to generation.”

Cartwright Mayor Dwight Lethbridge, who participated in the Muskrat Falls blockade and had initially driven a truck through the gate on Oct. 22 when dozens stormed the site and eventually occupied the workers’ camp, said he’s not surprised Ball denied the grassroots played a role in forcing the leaders’ meeting.

David Nuke. Photo by Justin Brake.

“If we work together, fight together, we can get somewhere as one group,” says David Nuke. Photo by Justin Brake.

“I think [the grassroots movement] was the deciding factor,” he told The Independent in an Oct. 27 phone interview. “Look at the changes in the language used by the government. They had no intentions on putting our health this far at the forefront if the people didn’t make it happen. I never would expect anybody in the government to acknowledge the fact that they were taken hostage. I mean, they were brought to their knees. It was a $12 billion project stopped by the people.”

David Nuke of Sheshatshiu, who was also among the land protectors who blockaded and occupied the Muskrat Falls site, told The Independent the leaders’ agreement “was based on the action taken by all these groups outside the gate and inside the gate.”

Nuke said the unification of members of all three Indigenous groups in Labrador and settler Labradorians during the protests was the real catalyst for change.

“[If] we work together, fight together, we can get somewhere as one group, as opposed to just one…Aboriginal group,” he said. “We need all bodies from all fronts living in Labrador, including Aboriginal people.”

Nuke said while the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut leadership acknowledged and thanked the grassroots, Qupee’s notable omission is “her choice; it doesn’t bother me,” he said.

However, Nuke explained he sees a shift taking place within Sheshatshiu, where a growing number of people are recognizing a disparity between the decisions of recent and current Innu Nation leaders and their predecessors.

He said in recent years Innu Nation leadership has strayed from traditional Innu values and, in the instance of Muskrat Falls, has been willing to trade long-term health and well-being of their people for short-term jobs and influxes of money.

Nuke said this recognition has created an opportunity for Innu people to “reactivate their mentality” and steer their nation in a direction more aligned with their values, customs and principles, regardless of what current leadership says or does.

“When you’re in politics, when you’re in government in the colonial system, when you speak of agreements…it automatically locks your mind into thinking there’s nowhere else to go: it’s a done deal, a signed deal, you can’t react to it no more,” he said.

“I don’t believe that. People have every right to fight that belief. I got grandchildren. Are my grandchildren going to grow up some day and say, my grandfather locked that deal on my behalf? That should never be the case. They all should have the right to make amends that fits their needs and values as they grow up with their children.”

Sheshatshiu resident Yvette Michel was also among the land protectors who occupied the Muskrat Falls camp. She is the daughter of the late Innu leader Ben Michel, a contemporary of Nuke’s and a cherished figure in recent Innu history.

Money is money but the land is lost forever. — Yvette Michel

Outside the main gate on Oct. 26, after the land protectors emerged from the Muskrat Falls site, Michel told The Independent she too sees a shift happening among the people of her community, and that the act of unity between Innu, Inuit and settlers is something her father advocated for for many years and would be proud to see.

“Being a part [of this] these few days in the protest, sitting in there with two of his friends, David Nuke and Bart Jack — these are my uncles, my late father’s first cousins,” she explained. “And to hear them, it was an honour listening to them. It felt like I was listening to my father speak about how he wanted things. And I could hear him in each of them when they spoke. It made me proud that I was sitting in there with them, and to have this moment coming out of this to the gate with all the unity [of Labrador people]. It doesn’t matter — Metis, Inuit, we all eat the same food, we all respect the environment. That’s what matters.”

Michel said before her father died in 2006 he “knew what was ahead” with respect to Muskrat Falls.

“He was scared because we have never had so much money. He had spoken about it. He said it was going to be so overwhelming for the community. He was scared that we weren’t ready for it,” she said.

“Now looking at it today, he was right, because money is money but the land is lost forever. The animals. Look at it right now. We’re on the verge of [losing] the caribou…and it has come to this stage where we are not allowed [to hunt them],” she added, explaining decision-making processes rooted in community consensus and strongly relying on the wisdom of elders is required if the Innu are to have a brighter future.

Michel said she didn’t understand as a child the things her father fought for, but that today she is consistently reminded of who he was, what he stood for, and that she is trying to “get his legacy going and get his vision going” again.

“This is not the end,” she said, referring to the conclusion of the occupation of Muskrat Falls, “and I hope my children or anyone else will take that privilege to carry on his legacy. Because I know how much he wanted this for our Innu people, to protect our way of life and our lands, and not to leave anybody behind, to always come as one, not separate.”

“I think momentum is building again”

Norman, who recently moved home to Labrador and is working on a Master’s Degree in community health, with a focus on Indigenous health, said she attended three of last week’s community meetings and joined two dozen others in walking to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on Saturday.

“I think a lot more people are against this project than we’re seeing show up,” she said, referring to the latest round of protests and events. “There’s still the threat of arrest. There’s still the threat of court action. When we went there today there’s a massive police presence. So we’re putting ourselves out there against the law, and I suppose a lot of people in the community who, even though they are against the project, might not be comfortable crossing that boundary.”

Video taken by Amy Norman during the land protectors’ walk to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the Muskrat Falls site, Nov. 5, 2016.

But too much is at stake for her not to take a stand and risk being arrested, Norman said, citing anxiety around the North Spur as a major health issue.

“When you go to these community meetings there is a genuine fear,” she noted, explaining that while concerns around methylmercury still exist, the North Spur has dominated recent public discourse.

“People are really afraid of this thing, and it’s stressing everyone out — not just the people who live in the flood zone, but the whole community.”

Norman said Nunatsiavut’s community session in North West River last Wednesday saw so many people express concern around the North Spur that Nunatsiavut leaders decided to officially invite input into the matter the following day at the meeting in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

“People are getting angry, people are afraid, and I think you’re going to see more action on the ground,” Norman said.

People are getting angry, people are afraid, and I think you’re going to see more action on the ground. — Amy Norman

“I think momentum is building again.”

In addition to methylmercury and the North Spur, land protectors, elders and others have recently voiced other concerns.

In October NunatuKavut Elder Ken Mesher told The Independent once flooding has happened traditional hunting and trapping lands will be lost forever. He also fears for the beavers who make their home in the tributaries along the Grand River above Muskrat Falls, saying once their dams are inundated with water they will be stranded, roaming in the cold until they freeze to death.

Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue has expressed similar concerns around Muskrat Falls, saying fish won’t be the only wildlife affected by the damming of the Lower Grand River.

“When they flood Muskrat Falls, the government knows [there are] animals everywhere,” she told around 200 people gathered along the Trans Labrador Highway before a walk to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on Oct. 15.

Penashue said she expects “caribou, black bear, porcupine, beaver, muskrat, otter, [and] all kinds of animals” will be affected.

The Innu have fished, hunted and trapped in the area around Muskrat Falls for thousands of years, while the Inuit and settler Labradorians have dependent on wildlife for subsistence for several hundred years.

A growing number of people in Labrador are saying the resistance to Muskrat Falls is about more than methylmercury contamination in country foods.

“Nalcor’s push for flooding the dam without clear cutting or making it structurally sound has and still is causing much turmoil for the people of Labrador,” reads the letter to the United Nations seeking intervention.

“People are protecting the land and water and because of this we have had hunger strikes, there are people getting arrested for simply being on the land and peacefully protesting, and the freedom of movement for persons has been compromised by the police and governmental authorities. This hurts tremendously. We need to live in safety and security where our families and communities do not to face the threat of mercury poisoning and a dam breaking. We need to be able to practice our traditions such as hunting and fishing. We need the animals and the land to be well and taken care of so they can continue to sustain us through the generations. These are basic and fundamental needs; they are not unreasonable.”

On Sunday, Nov. 6 around 20 land protectors formed a temporary, half-hour blockade in front of the main gate of the Muskrat Falls site. Video by Jacinda Beals.

Photo by Janet Cooper.

Court order issued for arrest of land protectors, journalist

A court order has been issued for the arrest and removal of Indigenous and other Labradorian land protectors currently occupying the Muskrat Falls site. The order, issued by the court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay at the request of Nalcor Energy, names 22 people, including Independent editor Justin Brake.

Among others named in the order are Innu Elder David Nuke and Anglican minister Doreen Davis-Ward.

Brake has been covering Muskrat Falls since 2012, and has been on the ground for the past month in Labrador covering the growing Indigenous-led resistance to the hydro mega project, which is projected to poison traditional sources of food for Innu and Inuit communities living downstream and threaten Indigenous Peoples’ ability to practice cultural customs central to their identity as Indigenous Peoples. He’s the only reporter who has been on-site in the occupied Muskrat Falls camp.

“When the court order was served I was quite shocked to see my name on there,” said Brake when reached by phone at the Muskrat Falls site. “I couldn’t have imagined that in 2016 a crown energy corporation would come down so heavy-handed as to infringe on the constitutionally protected right of freedom of the press.

“On Saturday there was a rally at the main gate for the Muskrat Falls project, and all of the sudden the bolt was cut on the front gate and about 60 people entered. I knew at that moment without hesitation that it was a story that needed to be told, whatever was about to unfold. People in Labrador have been resisting this project increasingly in recent weeks and months and up to that point the Muskrat Falls narrative as presented by media had largely omitted the human rights and Indigenous rights story that was unfolding. With members of all three Indigenous groups as well as settler Labradorians storming through the gates I knew this was a historical moment in Labrador’s history, and regardless of whether or not Nalcor wanted that story to be told I had an obligation as a journalist to follow them and tell that story.

“In the four days that I was embedded with the land protectors at the Muskrat Falls camp I’ve been able to tell a part of the story that is crucial to any full understanding of the impact that Muskrat Falls will have on the people of our province.

“In deciding to go through the gates and stay with the land protectors at the camp—most of them Indigenous people—I was also fulfilling The Independent’s obligation to respond to the Calls to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, which identify a role for media and journalists in reconciliation. That involves telling important stories of Indigenous struggles and providing news coverage and information resources on issues of concern to Indigenous Peoples, as well as all Canadians.”

After consulting lawyers and journalists’ rights organizations, and “hours” of deliberation, Brake decided to leave the Muskrat Falls camp in order to be able to continue covering the story. His final broadcast before beginning the 11 kilometre trek out of the camp was viewed by thousands online.

“Another very important [consideration], perhaps the most, is that I’m able to continue covering this story of the land protectors, and I can do that much better from outside the front gates of Muskrat Falls than I can from a prison cell,” said Brake in his final live-cast.

Prior to becoming editor of The Independent in 2012, Brake’s previous work took him to Haiti, Darfur, and other parts of Canada.

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Are RCMP highway checkpoints infringing on the rights of Labradorians?

In the last few days the RCMP have set up numerous roadblocks on highways in Labrador. These roadblocks have restricted the ability of Labradorians to freely travel and are infringing on the constitutional rights to assembly and expression.

They have also infringed on the rights of reporters and journalists by holding them up at the blockades. Harrowing pictures of people climbing along the outside of bridges show the lengths Labradorians are going to in order to bypass the blockades.

Specifically, RCMP intends to prevent people from reaching and participating in the ongoing land protector camp at the gates of the Muskrat Falls project. They blockade bridges and road junctions, which are strategic chokepoints, and indiscriminately prevent people from moving. The RCMP blockades are at distances far removed from the gates of the Muskrat Falls site. The RCMP have offered no legal justification for their actions, other than saying they are preventing people from entering the area because of “public safety concerns.”

However, this is not a legal justification. A legal justification involves stating specific legislation. At some demonstrations, police may declare an assembly illegal (i.e. the riot act), and this is a legal justification to then make arrests or to restrict some rights.

There is also a court injunction in place, that says it is illegal to be on the side of the road next to the Muskrat Falls gate, but it is still perfectly legal to be on the other side of the road in the so-called “safety zone.” As far as I can tell, RCMP have not declared the assembly illegal, and the injunction only applies to a specific space, and so in my view there is no legal justification whatsoever to restrict movements of people, and most certainly not at distances such as where police currently set up blockades.

Over the last few days when I have raised this point, a number of people have said things along the lines of, “People broke the law when they cut the locks and opened the gate. That’s why the police are blocking the roads.” It is of course quite true that storming the Muskrat Falls site was a transgressive act. But that is still not a justification for the blockades. The actions of people who (bravely) transgressed the law cannot then be used as an excuse to restrict the movement of all Labradorians, because that is attributing intentions to people who have done nothing at all. Since anyone going to the site of protests can just as well be going to the “safety zone,” there is no justification for the blockades.

And in fact, it turns out the blockades really should be called checkpoints, because the RCMP are selectively allowing vehicles through, specifically service vehicles for companies working on the Muskrat Falls project, as Labradorians at the checkpoints have documented.

In the way they are operating, it looks to me as though the RCMP is infringing on the constitutional rights of every person in Labrador. When Labradorians and when the media have encountered the blockades, the RCMP simply repeat the line about “public safety concerns,” but never state the law that allows them to do so.

My one question, and the question I think needs to be answered for all Labradorians: What specific legislation allows the RCMP to set up these checkpoints and restrict the free movement of people on highways?