A series of protests against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador were carried out in St. John’s Friday, highlighting concerns around the dam’s imminent human health, environmental and cultural impacts ahead of the first possible day of reservoir flooding, Oct. 15, a critical moment for many.
During morning rush hour a group of activists gathered outside the Nalcor head office on Columbus Drive, where they expressed concerns about projections the dam will generate unsafe levels of methylmercury as well as the project’s impacts on the health of communities downstream in the Lake Melville region.
Activists are also worried about the safety of the North Spur and a lack of transparency within Nalcor; some are demanding an investigation from the province’s auditor general. Recently, Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Jamie Snook and others have voiced concern that Nalcor has done insufficient emergency planning for a potential dam breach.
Protesters occasionally blocked or slowed cars attempting to enter the parking lot, but made exceptions for those with children seeking access to the site’s daycare.
Later on, just after 10 a.m., a smaller but overlapping group of activists interrupted a funding announcement Premier Dwight Ball attended at Memorial University. Protesters shouted as the premier and others entered a lecture hall on the first floor of MUN’s Arts and Administration building: “Not on our watch, not on our dime! Poisoning children is a crime!”
There were also boos and calls to “Make Muskrat Right” when Ball left at just after 11 a.m.
In a third event of the day, from noon until 2 p.m., a rally that drew about 50 people was held outside Confederation Building.
Bringing the message to Nalcor
Just before the Nalcor protest began, St. John’s resident Daniel Miller told The Independent he was “outraged at the possibility that, on October 15, the flooding of the reservoir at Muskrat Falls will greatly increase the levels of methylmercury in the waters there and poison an important and traditional food supply for thousands of people.
“My primary concern is ensuring that the voices of the people of Labrador are heard,” he explained. “There’s people in Labrador who are speaking out, who are protesting a number of injustices related to Muskrat Falls. The poisoning of their food, the risk of the collapse of the North Spur and, therefore, severe damage to people’s homes,” Miller continued. “I’m here because it’s important their voices are heard.”
Patricia Kemuksigak, Minister of Education and Economic Development for the Nunatsiavut Government and member for Upper Lake Melleville, was also present at the event.
“Our people depend on country foods for food security. When the levels go too high, we’re not going to be able to eat our fish, our seals. It’s very important to our way of life and our culture”, she told The Independent.
Asked for her thoughts regarding Nalcor’s plans to monitor methylmercury levels and issue warnings after the dam’s reservoir is flooded, Kemuksigak said “warnings aren’t really going to help us because we won’t have anything to eat.
“We’re going to have a lot of food security issues. It’s a part of our lives, going out on the land and fishing and hunting,” she continued. “We want to be able to continue our way of life and our culture, we want to continue eating our food and taking our children and grandchildren out on the land.”
Kemuksigak said she was pleased that Amnesty International Canada has echoed the Nunatsiavut Government’s call for full clearing of vegetation and topsoil from the reservoir.
— CBC Indigenous (@CBCIndigenous) October 7, 2016
Craig Benjamin, a campaigner on Indigenous rights with Amnesty International, spoke with The Independent earlier this week.
“When the dam went through the environmental impact assessment process, there was minimal consideration of the downstream impacts. But independent research has shown that, in fact, the impact of flooding will be to greatly increase the amount of methylmercury into the water. And we know that methylmercury is one of the most dangerous contaminants you can release into the natural environment,” he said.
“What the studies have indicated is that, for at least half the Inuit community of Rigolet, the exposure to methylmercury in seals and other wild food that they depend on will exceed the federal health guidelines if flooding proceeds according to current plans.”
Benjamin also emphasized that Inuit leadership is calling for “fairly simple mitigation measures” in order to reduce methylmercury levels. The Nunatsiavut Government’s Make Muskrat Right campaign demands full clearing of topsail and vegetation, as well as the creation of an expert advisory committee.
Lori Heath of St. John’s said she was also motivated to take action Friday morning in order to support the people of Labrador.
“I’m completely amazed that our government would consider poisoning its own people for a hydroelectric project,” she said.
“I’m not an expert but I have read summaries of the Harvard study that came out recently. And I think that government and Nalcor could, should be doing whatever they possibly can to prevent this from happening. Once they start flooding, there’s no going back.”
Dorothy Vaandering of Pouch Cove voiced similar concerns.
“I can’t believe that the government and Nalcor know that the water and the fish are going to be poisoned [and] they’re telling people, ‘Yeah, we know that this is going to happen and if it happens we’ll compensate you,” she said. “How can we know that people’s lives are going to be impacted, people are going to get sick, and then we say that’s okay?
How can we know that people’s lives are going to be impacted, people are going to get sick, and then we say that’s okay? — Dorothy Vaandering, Pouch Cove
“The North Spur situation—the quick clay, we know that this is unstable land—and yet we say, ‘Well, we’re going to do it anyway,'” Vaandering continued. “I just can’t get my head around how we can know these things and still move ahead.”
Ryan Young, from the Northern Peninsula, explained he was protesting because of the imminent health and environmental impacts of the flooding, as well the concerns about safety at North Spur and the transparency of Nalcor itself.
“Just as a human being, I find it really hard to sit at home and watch my government poison its own people and put people’s lives in danger,” he said. “So this is the very least that I can do to come out and show my support for the people of Labrador today.
“Certainly, we’re hoping that the auditor general’s going to step in there. But it would have been nice to see Nalcor step up to the plate and say, ‘here’s the information that people want to see, we’re willing to work towards transparency.'”
Young said Nalcor’s inaction has compelled people to ask for the auditor general’s intervention. He also acknowledged that some people want the federal auditor general to be involved.
James Murphy of Bay Roberts also voiced concern about insufficient transparency from Nalcor.
“We’re so far into this project and so far in debt and there’s been absolutely no transparency of any kind from within Nalcor, despite multiple requests from different sources,” he said.
Murphy was one of a group about four protesters down the road from a larger group, which encountered more vehicle traffic outside the Nalcor headquarters Friday morning.
Just before 9 a.m. a line-up of six cars had formed, stalled by the blockade line. The cars did not jut out onto Captain Whelan Drive but were stalled inside the lot’s roadways. One side of the roadway held seven protestors, the other 14, each separate from the smaller group of four that stood closer to Baie Verte Street. Before letting the cars through the group shouted: “Stand up and fight! To make Muskrat right!”
Protester Matthew Della Valle then addressed the Nalcor building directly with a bullhorn.
“I ask you to consider how many people are you putting in peril by being part of this project — by getting involved in this and supporting it? I ask you consider how many children will be born with birth defects because of methylmercury poisoning,” he announced.
“You know, and we know, what is at stake. Where’s your respect for Indigenous rights?” he said.
Reading a statement from Labrador land protectors, Della Valle continued: “We respectfully ask you to stop your activities here and join us in the protection of the Labrador waters, land, people and our way of life. We are here by the authority of many generations before us and our front lines will continue to many generations after us. We stand in direct opposition to the negative aspects of this hydro project, including the methylmercury poisoning of downstream.”
- Muskrat Falls threatens locals’ food, way of life (Part 1)
- Muskrat Falls: Reconciliation, or Assimilation? (Part 2)
Lindsay Batt of Corner Brook and a representative of MUNSU and CFS-NL, said that public pressure seems to be building and she’s hopeful that national attention will grow.
“We want [the provincial government and Nalcor] to adhere to the four demands of the Make Muskrat Right campaign. We cannot let the flooding proceed on Oct. 15 if it has any risk of poisoning people,” she said.
“Even if we have to go to Justin Trudeau, hopefully he can intervene.”
Nalcor declined an interview with The Independent but in a written statement said the corporation “understand[s] people’s concerns regarding methylmercury levels [and is] committed to working with the aboriginal community and all of our stakeholders in Labrador on this important issue to ensure everyone’s health is protected.”
Provincial Environment Minister Perry Trimper has said Nalcor will proceed with first flooding as early as Oct. 15 without fully clearing the reservoir, a scenario the Harvard study projects will put people living downstream above safe level Health Canada guidelines for methylmercury exposure.
Premier greeted by protest at MUN
Calls of ‘shame’ and ‘resign, Ball!’ were directed at Dwight Ball just after the premier entered a lecture hall at Memorial University at about 10 a.m. to deliver a funding announcement.
“We just started letting him have it — letting him realize what he’s doing to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s not right. Either fix it or resign,” explained Michael Patrick Collins, who said he joined the protest chiefly because of the government’s handling of Muskrat Falls.
“We just don’t think it’s safe. We don’t think it was planned good enough and we think it could be a catastrophe if it does get flooded.”
— Trina Roache (@TrinaRoache) October 7, 2016
Collins has previously proposed the creation of a Newfoundland and Labrador People’s Party in order to address the need for an “open, honest” provincial government.
Mark Croft, an organizer with Free NL, was also present at the action and also highlighted the health and environmental impacts of Muskrat Falls, as well as the transparency of Nalcor and legitimacy of the project. Free NL and Coordinated Approach, the latter of which has been cited as the organizer of the noon rally, are grassroots groups that formed in the wake of this year’s anti-budget activism.
“There’s huge amount of waste and mismanagement. There is no transparency. Muskrat’s just been pushed down our throats,” Croft said. “We need to open the books, find out what’s going on.”
To the steps of Confederation Building
Speakers at the rally outside Confederation Building included journalist Drew Brown of Vice, independent MHA Paul Lane, blogger Brad Cabana (known for his court challenge over Muskrat Falls), Coordinated Approach activists James Murphy and Matthew Della Valle, Denise Cole of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NunatuKavut Youth Councillor Regan Burden, Rigolet resident Charlotte Wolfrey, and Nunatsiavut Government President Johannes Lampe.
Provincial NDP leader Earle McCurdy was also present at the rally and circulated in the crowd. On Thursday he released a statement calling for the Oct. 15 reservoir flooding to be halted until the methylmercury concerns are addressed.
Lane’s speech drew applause at times but was also interrupted, sometimes with hostility. Another person interjected, saying “Tell Randy to join you!” — referring to Liberal MHA for Torngat Mountains Randy Edmunds.
Sean Lyall, Minister of Culture, Recreation and Tourism with the Nunatsiavut Government said that a system of monitoring and warnings, without fully clearing topsail, is unacceptable.
“Our position as a government has not changed. We’re asking the province to mitigate and lessen the effects while they still have time to do it,” Lyall told The Independent.
Lampe expressed deep concern about the Labrador Inuit’s future, explaining that they depend on the local wild animals for food security. Asked about the potential political consequences of Labrador MHAs for their silence on the issue, Lampe said “consequences will certainly come, I’m sure.”
One activist in a mock hazmat suit wheeled a prop barrel labelled “toxic” up the steps of the Confederation Building, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Later, the speech of Denise Cole of Happy Valley-Goose Bay stood out in particular for its energy and emotion. She connected the ignoring of Indigenous concerns about methylmercury to larger issues of health inequality.
“They’re telling us in no uncertain times [that] our lives our disposable,” she said, lamenting that the long-term health effects of methylmercury could be passed down to future generations of Indigenous children.”
— Leslie Vryenhoek (@LeslieVryenhoek) October 7, 2016
“The science is clear — Harvard has been doing this a lot longer than Nalcor has, I can guarantee you that!” she said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Cole cast the environmental assessment process as illegitimate and explained how she quit a job in which she had to encourage people to work at Muskrat Falls.
“I’m a proud Labradorian and I won’t be a part of destroying my own people!” she said.
“Apparently, our wisdom enough isn’t enough. We had to get Harvard to prove it you! And even still you say you know better!” she continued, directing her comments at the government and Nalcor.
Cole also regretted the imminent loss of Indigenous cultural heritage due to flooding, and alluded to her own broader sense of injustice and the issue of cultural genocide.
You’re not demonstrating. You’re defending. You are not protesting. You are protecting. — Denise Cole
“They found over 80,000 artifacts, some dating back over 3,000 years of Inuit and Innu cultures, over 60 camp sites, intertwined trail systems—gone, gone!” she said. “They’ll never be able to bring that back. Where is our World Heritage Site?”
Cole went on to condemn MHAs in Labrador, singling out Randy Edmunds in particular, referring to his attendance at the funding announcement today.
“That’s shameful that Randy Edmunds walked past cameras today and didn’t speak up! It’s shameful that we have four strong Labrador MHAs who, all of us Labradorians, know and respect—who we can’t respect anymore, now! I don’t know how we can!”
Cole concluded by praising the crowd and casting their activism in a nontraditional light.
“You’re not demonstrating. You’re defending. You are not protesting. You are protecting.”
Cole later spoke with media and rejected as insufficient Nalcor’s plans to only establish monitoring and warning systems rather than to fully clear all vegetation and topsoil from the Muskrat Falls reservoir. She said activists may consider shutting down Nalcor offices and other actions and, in response to a question from The Independent, expressed that Labrador MHAs must make any opposition clear and vocal.
“We’re watching them very closely,” she said. “They need to stand up, they need to find the voice. They need to know that we’ll have their backs if they have ours—but now is the time. They cannot delay this any longer, they have to stand up and stand with us.”
Disclosure: Daniel Miller is a former board member for The Independent.