An elder and land protector incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s after refusing to promise a judge he would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site has not eaten since June 20, The Independent has learned.
During a phone interview from the maximum security men’s prison on Friday 66-year-old Eldred Davis of Happy Valley-Goose Bay told The Independent his decision to stop eating food the evening before his court appearance eight days ago as “a mini protest to the system.”
On July 21 Davis was brought before Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador Judge George Murphy after allegedly breaking an injunction and recognizance to stay more than one kilometre away from the Muskrat Falls site, where he and other land protectors have been protesting against a project they say threatens their traditional food supply, way of life, and the safety of hundreds of people living downstream.
When asked by the judge if he would obey an undertaking to stay away from the project site, Davis refused.
“Here I am, dragged away against my will for doing very little dishonesty and no crime,” Davis said on Friday.
A longtime member of Grand Riverkeeper Labrador, which has opposed Muskrat Falls for years, Davis said he is not on hunger strike.
He said it’s his “own little way of not succumbing to the pressure,” and that by not eating he doesn’t feel “completely owned” by the authorities and Nalcor, who initiated the injunction last fall.
“I’m accepting the fact that this is the way the law works,” he said. “I didn’t come here by choice. It’s not just an incarceration for a hold-over until a trial or another court session. It is punishment.”
Davis said during his first night in custody, while being held at the RCMP detachment in Happy Valley, he told a police officer “this is punishment — it’s basically solitary confinement in a very inhospitable cell.
“And he kind of agreed, and he walked me over to an area where we could open a door and get some fresh air, and it felt pretty good.”
The elder and land protector said he will eat again once he’s “back in Labrador” and can “eat a meal that I prepared, or that I purchased.
“I don’t really want this institutional food, not that it’s terrible. It’s probably a lot better than I cook,” he joked.
During the interview Davis reiterated the reasons he has been protesting Muskrat Falls and has risked being arrested.
“We are in great danger if Nalcor continues [the project] because they seem incompetent, and the design for the North Spur is basically lipstick on a pig,” he said, naming the projected methylmercury increases, the North Spur and downstream flooding as his primary concerns.
On the North Spur he says Nalcor “really doesn’t know for certain that it’s safe, and so many people figure it’s not safe. So if they are that confident, why would they not allow experts in the field of quick clay and different soils to really check it out?”
Davis said the flooding last spring of Mud Lake, a small remote community downstream of the Muskrat Falls facilities, is further evidence of Nalcor’s mismanagement of the dam.
“They didn’t even know they did it, as far as I know,” he said. “I don’t think they did it deliberately, and I don’t think they projected ahead what would happen when the spring freshet came on top of the water.”
- “We are not a bunch of criminals, we’re people trying to protect our land”
- Elders jailed after refusing to stay away from Muskrat Falls
“They were apparently trying to keep a steady level [of water] in the reservoir, but common sense says if you keep a steady level in the reservoir and you have spring freshet coming on top of it you do release a lot of water unhindered by ice flow downstream, because the big ice—a natural dam as they used to call it—wasn’t there after they had the spillway working. The big natural dam didn’t hold anything back — it just let it all go straight on down the river, and subsequently it raised the water levels more than anticipated.”
Immediately following the flooding of Mud Lake on May 17 Nalcor denied it had anything to do with the rapid water level rise, which locals have maintained was unprecedented. But after intense public pressure and refute the crown corporation quickly backtracked, admitting there was a possibility the dam facilities played a role.
A class action lawsuit against Nalcor is currently underway.
“We really don’t think Nalcor is capable of doing a good job of this. The location has always been rejected,” Davis said Friday from prison, referring to government-commissioned studies for a hydro dam on the lower Churchill river dating back decades, “and it hasn’t improved over the years.
“Why they continue throwing money at this knowing how terrible a situation it is, is just beyond me. It begs disbelief.”
Davis’ incarceration, alongside Inuk land protectors Jim Learning and Marjorie Flowers, has gained national media attention and marks the second time in as many months that Indigenous land defenders have been imprisoned after refusing to promise to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.
Last week five Canadian senators, including Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair Justice Murray Sinclair, sent a letter to Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball urging the prisoners’ “immediate release”.
“Our country is struggling with a colonial legacy that continues to disproportionately marginalize, criminalize and deprive Indigenous Peoples of political agency,” the letter said. “This context makes decisions to imprison Indigenous men and women for using protest to assert their right to determine how their traditional lands are used particularly abhorrent. Their incarceration flies in the face of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, which the province has committed to supporting, and the duty of our country as a whole to work toward a nation-to-nation relationship, grounded in respect, between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.
“We call on the province to release these three Land Protectors and to create effective spaces for them to address their concerns, in particular their demands for an immediate forensic audit of all aspects of the Muskrat Falls project. We call on the province to do its part to uphold the Indigenous and constitutional rights of the Labrador Innu and Inuit Peoples by ensuring that protest, with a risk of criminalization, is not the only means available to Indigenous Peoples to make their voices heard in decisions regarding their lands.”
Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut leaders have also called for the release of the land protectors, as has provincial NDP leader Earle McCurdy.
Supporters of Davis, Learning and Flowers are holding a rally outside Colonial Building in St. John’s Sunday to demand their release.
Members of the Labrador Land Protectors group are also asking people in Labrador to show up at the Supreme Court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Monday when the three are scheduled to be back before the judge.