Elder and former Innu leader Bart Jack is speaking out against the Muskrat Falls hydro project and planning to join an act of civil disobedience on Monday as Crown energy corporation Nalcor prepares to begin first flooding of the reservoir as early as Oct. 15.
Jack, a 65-year-old resident of Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation and a former leader of both the Native Association of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Naskapi Montagnais Innu Association—later renamed the Innu Nation—sat down with The Independent on Saturday to explain why he is fighting to stop Muskrat Falls, either indefinitely or permanently.
On Monday he will accompany a group of concerned locals—estimated at between 12-15 people with others potentially joining, a source told The Independent on Sunday—who are walking to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain, a sacred Innu site where tens of thousands of Innu artifacts were discovered during the early stages of the project’s construction, to demand the dam be shut down.
“The time for rallies is over,” Jack said. “We have to now make our voice count. And the only way that our voice is going to count is if we…go to the site and say, look, this is not going to happen — we need more discussion, or we need to stop the project.”
Broken promises and grave concerns
Though he originally supported the dam because it “promised a lot of things for the Innu,” including jobs, business opportunities, and significant revenues, Jack says it’s now clear the project was a bad deal and could devastate Innu families once the dam is flooded and the construction phase wraps up.
“Our agreement stated the Innu were going to get a fair shake of the employment and of the training. That has not happened,” he said.
“That’s part of the reason we protested (last summer), because people said, we’re here, we’re working, but there’s nothing being done to advance us to the next stage,” Jack added, referring the June 10 protest in which he and five other members of the Innu Nation were arrested after blocking the entrance to the Muskrat Falls construction site outside Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
The Innu Elder also cited the threat methylmercury poses to Innu and Inuit who harvest fish from Lake Melville downstream from the dam, and growing concerns that the North Spur cannot withstand flooding due to the river’s high composition levels of sand and clay, as other reasons he says the dam must be stopped before flooding.
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On Friday Nalcor issued a public safety notice advising locals that the first phase of reservoir flooding could begin as early as Oct. 15, and that people shouldn’t go on the river above or below the dam, or near the riverbanks.
While the second phase of flooding isn’t scheduled to begin until 2019, Jack said “Innu people need to understand that in two weeks the flooding takes place, and…there’s no clearcutting, so the mercury contamination will start as soon as the flooding takes over.
“Once the flooding happens, you’re never going to be able to mitigate that…because the trees are going to be underwater.”
Jack said Nalcor hasn’t adequately responded to people’s concerns around the North Spur, and that Innu leaders should be demanding information be made public that gives evidence the lives of people loving downstream are not being put at risk.
“The project will be completed, everybody will leave—Astaldi, the companies, Nalcor—but we have to live here,” he said. “They’re just going to say, we have to leave — if the dam breaks tomorrow that’s not our fault. We’re gone.”
Stories of racism on the construction site have continued to surface in Sheshatshiu, Jack said, explaining one woman who works as a cleaner in the camp reportedly was disrespectfully ordered to clean up after a worker who urinated on the floor.
“Imagine that happening to anybody…telling the Innu person, this is your job, clean it!
“There are lots of atrocities that are happening to Innu people,” he continued. “You could be working there and Nalcor and other companies are treating you like dirt — you’re nobody.
“The more we protested the more aggressive the company became toward the Innu people, and at the end of the day nobody wanted to complain, because the result will be that you’re gonna be out of a job,” he said, addressing a culture of fear he said has been created among the Innu due to workers and their families’ dependency on jobs at the project site.
Long term consequences outweigh short term benefits
Jack said the project will have devastating long term consequences for the Innu Nation, which in 2008 relinquished control over the land where the dam is being built when it signed the Tshash Petapen—or “New Dawn Agreement”—which serves as the terms and conditions for its still unratified land claim.
“We, the Innu, have given over the interests of our land completely, to the government, to Nalcor, and in return we’re not going to get anything out of it — just very minimum amount of jobs, and training opportunities and business opportunities. And that’s sad because that’s not how everybody understood the project to be at the beginning,” he said. “The project was negotiated on the basis that it was going to be Muskrat Falls and Gull Island, and in return for that the Innu were going to get a substantial amount of royalties from the two projects, especially the Gull Island project.
We need to fight for the future for our children, the future of our land. That’s what brought us here, that’s why we’re here.” — Bart Jack
“The Innu are going to be faced with the flooding of the reservoir, and the consequences of mercury contamination, which we already faced in the Upper Churchill,” he continued. “No one is going to be able to eat their fish here in Upper Lake Melville.
“In Lake Melville, the Innu, the Inuit, the Metis — everybody who lives around [here] has their nets out and they eat the fish. Plus the Inuit have their seal meat,” he said, adding no amount of financial compensation can atone for the loss of traditional foods and way of life for Indigenous communities in the area.
“The government is saying if there’s a problem, here’s some money, buy some Mary Brown’s — and to me that’s a slap in the face for the Innu people and the Aboriginal people. But no one should be surprised because in the past that’s how they’ve treated Labrador. They’ve treated Labrador as a treasure chest. Governments come in, companies included, to take whatever they want for themselves and forget about the people.”
Jack said after construction on the project ends, many Innu families with members who worked at the site will be “disoriented”.
“Where are they going to get the money to live the lifestyle that they are living now? Tomorrow, I see more problems within the community because we just created a dependency on Muskrat Falls, which is not going to be there tomorrow.
“To me it’s unbelievable what’s happening here. We need to fight for the future for our children, the future of our land. That’s what brought us here, that’s why we’re here.”
“Innu were once a very powerful nation”
Jack said while some Innu leaders have dissented and spoken out within the communities against the dam, those who are still supporting it “have this false notion that this is something that can sustain us. It may in the short term, but in the long term it doesn’t.
“I’ve been trying to convince leaders that this is the time to stand up for our people, this is the time to make sure we are heard,” he continued. “This is the time to say to Nalcor, you have to listen to us. But what I think is happening is most of our people, including our leaders, are being intimidated by companies and governments.”
Jack would not name individual leaders but said some who once supported the project are now “saying that we should step back a little bit and make sure that the Innu that we represent are number one in our endeavour, not [Nalcor]. We shouldn’t be agreeing [with] the company because it’s fashionable to do it. We should be asking the Innu people, what do you want? What do you think is good? What will hold us in the future?”
Innu leaders who support the project “just don’t have any ambition to fight what’s happening,” he continued. “They’re just going to allow it to happen. Why is that the case?
“The Innu were once a very powerful nation. They were able to stop [NATO] low-level flying. The Inuit were also the same way. When we had the uranium development process that was going on about 10 years ago, the Inuit put together a moratorium and said, we want our people to decide — we don’t want companies to decide what’s going to happen. And the moratorium, if anything else, put a halt on the exploration work, development work — that was good.”
Jack attends monthly meetings with other Elders in Sheshatshiu and says other Elders have been sharing concerns over the dam.
“When we had a meeting with the Innu Nation about a month ago, we asked them as Elders, can we protest? And they said yes, you can protest, but not the Innu leaders who signed on the dotted line in the IBA (Impacts and Benefits Agreement),” he said, explaining one reason he suspects leaders are remaining quiet.
“When you protest, as far as I understand the IBA agreement, they’re obligated, when Nalcor takes us to court, to side with Nalcor and not with the Innu. That’s a very strange partnership in my view, because you’ve now committed yourself as an Innu organization, that when your people are going to be thrown in jail or under the bus, you’re actually going to be one of the bus drivers and run your people over. To me there’s something wrong here, and that’s why the leaders need to stand up and say, what did we sign here? Did we sign up to run the bus over our people, to flood the river over our people, and side with Nalcor?
Jack isn’t laying the blame solely on Innu leaders. He said the silence among elected representatives in the provincial and federal governments has been deafening.
“Randy Edmunds stood against it and said no, it’s not going to go ahead,” he said, referring to the Torngat Mountains MHA. “I haven’t heard from Randy now in a number of months. What’s his position on this project?”
The Innu leaders are responsible to ensure that the Innu people are treated with the utmost respect, and the environment they live in. — Bart Jack
Jack also took aim at Lake Melville MHA and environment minister Perry Trimper, who he said was more cautious about Muskrat Falls when was working with the Innu Nation prior to entering politics.
“His position at the time was…he was concerned about the environment, and he said if you’re going to go ahead with this project here’s how it should be done. Now, whatever he believed in has gone out the window.”
But Jack expects more from current Innu leaders, he said.
“I think they have to change, they have to come on side with the Innu people who are the caretakers of the environment. The Innu leaders are responsible to ensure that the Innu people are treated with the utmost respect, and the environment they live in.”
If Innu leadership won’t resist the continued construction of the dam, Jack said he would like to see members of the Innu communities in Labrador and Quebec “form a coalition with the other Aboriginal groups in Labrador, and say to the province we’re going to [resist] these big projects which do not seem to care about the outcome on the environment and also the people who depend on the environment.
“We’ve lived without the hydro project for many years, and we’ve lived without development for many years. We can continue to live without development for many years. We can be self-sufficient if we want to be. There’s enough development that’s happening today that can sustain the Innu people,” he continued, adding there’s nothing inherently wrong with development.
“It has to be responsible in a way that it pays attention to the environment, to the people who live and are supported by the environment. But that’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening here is that Nalcor and the government are saying to hell with your dependency on the environment — our interests are greater than yours [and] we’re going to do whatever the hell we please.”
Jack said the Innu “need our culture much more today than we ever did before, because our culture is being destroyed so rapidly and so fast.”
According to Kirk Lethbridge, who announced at a rally against Muskrat Falls last Friday, those wishing to join Monday’s act of civil disobedience should meet at the Muskrat Falls turn on the Trans Labrador Highway West at 12:30 p.m. They will begin their walk to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain at 1 p.m.