The ongoing protests against the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador continued early Sunday morning when more than a dozen land protectors blockaded the main entrance to the dam’s construction site, turning away at least six buses with workers and numerous trucks before sunrise.
“Make Muskrat right!” they shouted, as buses stopped in the middle of the highway before eventually turning around and heading back to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Those forming the blockade let all traffic out of the site but none in, telling security their objective was to shut down operations on the worksite.
Many say they want construction stopped until concerns around methylmercury and the dam’s integrity are addressed. Others want the project halted permanently due to the destruction it will cause to the Grand River and surrounding ecosystems, and because they believe the North Spur, which is made up primarily of sand and clay and will anchor the north side of the dam, will never be stable.
As night shift workers exited the site on busses, many banged on the windows and signalled support for the land protectors. Many at the blockade say they have family or relatives working on site who do not agree with Nalcor and the provincial government’s decision to proceed with flooding without fully clearing the reservoir of vegetation and topsoil, a key recommendation made by a recent peer-reviewed scientific study.
Researchers from Harvard University led an extensive study of Lake Meville and the methylmercury the Muskrat Falls reservoir would create when flooded. They projected that without a fully cleared reservoir many living downstream who consume fish, seals and other country food from the estuary will be pushed above safe levels of methylmercury exposure.
Methylmercury exposure in the womb can negatively impact a baby’s brain and central nervous system, impairing neurological development. Nursing mothers can also transmit the neurotoxin to their infants through breast milk.
Nalcor, the provincial Crown corporation leading the project, and provincial environment minister Perry Trimper have downplayed the Harvard study and repeatedly called for meetings with Nunatsiavut Government, which had to partly commission the study because it didn’t believe Nalcor’s initial claim that there would be “no measurable effects” of methylmercury beyond the mouth of the Grand River and into Lake Melville.
At Saturday’s rally and march on the south side of the river Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe led a crowd of about 200 people on a march down the highway and onto the Muskrat Falls construction site.
If Nalcor and the provincial government proceed with flooding without fully clearing the reservoir of vegetation and topsoil they will be continuing a long history of colonization of the people of Labrador, he told The Independent, adding “reconciliation will not happen with Canada and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador when hurt is caused.”
Land protector Tracy Doherty told The Independent Sunday morning that she was willing to be arrested by participating in the blockade because the consequences of methylmercury will be devastating for the Inuit in many ways.
“It’s not only the food link, it’s the fact that people get out on the land to get the food — and that’s physical health, the oxygen, the beauty of the land visually, and walking the trails of our ancestors,” she said. “Those are cultural connections — that psychological, social, cultural health that directly links to our well-being as people with spirit.”
Bounty of support
Numbers at the blockade grew throughout the day, with dozens more joining the protest, at times relieving those who began protesting early in the morning. At times there were upward of 70 or 80 people on hand.
Across the highway from the Muskrat Falls entrance a small parking lot previously designated for protests was blocked with vehicles, the overflow parking running along both sides of the highway. Land protectors set up three Labrador tents equipped with wood stoves, food, water and spruce boughs in the parking lot. Two portable toilets were delivered to the site, one of them by the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
The town’s mayor, Jamie Snook, spent a couple hours at the camp and blockade. He said he’s been frustrated by Nalcor and the province’s exclusion of the municipality from planning, and that the project has had negative impacts on the community, including increased costs of living, the impact on infrastructure and the environmental impacts like the expected methylmercury increases in the waters the town borders.
“This has been a project that has had a huge impact on Happy Valley-Goose Bay,” and that town council “would have liked to have seen a lot of changes but it just simply never happened, so we’re all too happy to support the protest and frankly if changes were going to be made [they] should have been made long ago, and it just never happened.”
Nunatsiavut Government also had a presence at Sunday’s protest.
“We realize the implications for future generations,” said Sean Lyall, Nunatsiavut’s minister of culture, recreation and tourism, and ordinary member for Nain. “It’s imperative for the health and well-being of not only Labrador Inuit but everybody who utilizes the area to fully clear Muskrat Falls and make Muskrat right.”
Greg Flowers, Nunatsiavut’s minister of health and social development said if Muskrat Falls proceeds without full clearing of the reservoir “people will be poisoned because people eat country food. That’s what we live on.
“It’s like if you went to a grocery store and they said it’s all methylmercury in your [food],” he said. “Country food means everything…the country foods are so important to people’s way of life.”
Ashlee Cunsolo, director of the Labrador Institute in Goose Bay, also showed up to support the land protectors.
I think that what we’re seeing now is picking and choosing about what evidence we’re going to listen to and what we’re going to act on… — Ashlee Cunsolo, Labrador Institute
As health researcher who has worked in the community of Rigolet she said she feels it’s “important that science be considered, and that the best evidence we have available be considered.”
Cunsolo said she’s “disappointed” at how Nalcor and the provincial government have responded to the Harvard study, and that while “there may be different perspectives…we can’t ignore science.
“I think that what we’re seeing now is picking and choosing about what evidence we’re going to listen to and what we’re going to act on, and I think that that has a potential for damaging costs,” she said. “And it also has a potential to ignore Indigenous rights and cultural rights, which are very important here.
“Often what we see is the people who are choosing to act on certain types of evidence don’t actually live here and aren’t in the local area, so we have people from afar that are choosing what evidence to use when they make decisions here which will affect people who live here,” Cunsolo continued.
“I feel from the science that’s out there, from other places that have been dammed without the removal of the topsoil and the vegetation, that the potential for methylmercury is very high and it is likely to significantly increase, which will obviously impact people’s health through the food chain. So I feel that the precautionary principle kicks in at this point… I think in order to act and take care of health and well-being, if the project is going to go ahead, at the very minimum I support Nunatsiavut Government’s call for the clearing of the topsoil and the clearing of the vegetation before the flooding occurs.”
Land protectors served injunction
On Saturday afternoon seven land protectors claim to have shut down work on the Muskrat Falls site by walking onto a construction area on the south side of the river.
Steve Tooktoshina of Goose Bay told The Independent at around 3 p.m. he and the other land protectors “walked about 30 feet in and they shut ‘er down,” he said, explaining a security officer called in the action and “they told us they were gonna shut down.”
Tooktoshina said the land protectors have “plans to shut it down, not only one side — both sides,” and that they are planning to continue blockading “twenty-four, seven.”
A request to Nalcor for confirmation of the work stoppage and comment was not returned by the time of publication.
As the evening wore on many headed home for the night, while the 20 or so remaining huddled around a rusty oil drum with a wood fire burning inside it.
After many had gone home for the night, land protectors were served papers for an injunction.
With a sworn affidavit from Nalcor Vice-President Gilbert Bennett, who had met with hunger-striking North West River resident Billy Gauthier the day prior, the Crown corporation applied for and was granted an injunction from the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador that orders law enforcement to arrest any land protectors who walk on to the site or block access to the site.
Land protectors say they responded with a request that the papers be served in Innu-aimun and Inuktitut, and that they be provided translators so that any protesters whose mother tongue is one of those two can have an opportunity to understand the order.
Asked for his response to the injunction, NunatuKavut Elder and councillor Jim Learning said, “Bring it on!”
Learning launched a six-day hunger strike in 2013 after he was arrested and detained for breaking a similar injunction against protesters who slowed traffic on the Trans Labrador Highway at the Muskrat Falls main gate. That injunction was later overturned and all charges were dropped.
“Defending your rights is not a crime,” Learning said to his fellow land protectors as they discussed the injunction, “so why are we being treated like criminals?”
Despite the injunction, several land protectors who remained at the site Sunday evening vowed to continue the blockade Monday morning.
Follow Justin Brake on Twitter (@JustinBrakeNL) for on-the-ground updates from #MuskratFalls.