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.
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.
“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.”
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.”