Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball says the federal government could be doing more to subsidize the cost of food for residents of isolated northern communities, but three incarcerated elders and land protectors say the premier is being disingenuous, and that if Ball cared about food security in Inuit communities in Labrador he would do more to help prevent the contamination of their traditional food supply.
At Council of the Federation summit in Edmonton earlier this month Ball joined other provincial leaders in calling on the federal government to “take steps to ensure the Nutrition North Canada subsidy program is as effective as possible in reducing the cost of food for residents of isolated communities,” according to a press release issued by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador on Friday.
“Through close collaboration between our provincial governments, northern communities, and our Federal Government, we can ensure comprehensive supports exist to make healthy foods available to people who need it, and healthier outcomes possible across Canada,” Ball said.
Speaking to The Independent Friday and Saturday Jim Learning, Eldred Davis and Marjorie Flowers, who have been imprisoned over their attempts to protect a traditional food source for Indigenous communities in Labrador, called Ball’s statement “hypocritical,” “deceitful,” and a “slap in the face.”
The land protectors, who have come to be known as the “Labrador Three”, say if Ball wants Inuit communities in Labrador to have access to healthy food he will ensure crown corporation Nalcor Energy clears the entire reservoir of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project prior to the final stage of flooding, or stop the project altogether.
A peer-reviewed scientific study led by researchers at Harvard University projected last year that, once flooded, the Muskrat Falls reservoir would lead to increased levels of methylmercury in the downstream marine environment, bioaccumulate in fish and other animals harvested by local communities, and expose Inuit to unsafe levels of the neurotoxin.
Indigenous-led protests in Labrador came to a head last year when upward of 60 people stormed the Muskrat Falls site, most of them occupying the worker’s camp in an attempt to force the government to address the threat of methylmercury contamination of traditional country foods.
Amid the ongoing occupation Ball met with Inuit and Innu leaders and struck a deal to mitigate methylmercury, but land protectors and others say nine months later the agreement has not led to any binding promises to protect their food, health and way of life.
One of the jailed land protectors, 66-year-old NunatuKavut Elder Eldred Davis, has not eaten since his incarceration on July 21. Davis called Ball’s criticism of the federal government on the issue “pure deceit” and said the premier is creating an image that he cares about food security in Inuit communities.
“He is trying to avoid commentary or criticism from people who know what’s happening here,” Davis said Friday. “He’s trying to probably prevent this condemnation of what he’s doing by suggesting government [cares about food security]. when in fact he’s acting against that kind of policy.”
“Leaving our Aboriginal food sources alone in nature is what we most depend on,” he said. “Our seafood is critical to taking up the slack that our cultivated foods and expensive brought-in foods can’t cover off. It’s really odd that he would say…we will take away one source of food but replace it with another — that’s totally hypocritical.”
Learning, who is 79 and living with advanced prostate cancer, said an increase in methylmercury in wild foods will deter locals from harvesting and eating fish, seals, seabirds and other traditional foods in the region.
Land protector and Nunatsiavut Elder Marjorie Flowers told The Independent Ball’s comments on subsidizing food in the north are a “direct slap in my face, as an Aboriginal person, because [with Muskrat Falls] he is condoning stripping away a food supply that we’ve relied on for hundreds of years, and we still want to keep that in tact.”
Muskrat Falls and food insecurity in Labrador
In May Nunatsiavut Government released the results of a study that revealed more than 60 percent of households in the five Nunatsiavut communities in northern Labrador were food insecure, “experiencing worry about or difficulty in accessing food on a regular basis,” according to a press release issued at the time.
“The prevalence of food insecure households in our communities is over four times the level reported for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2012 and five times the level of food insecurity measured for households in Canada in 2014,” said Nunatsiavut Minister of Health and Social Development Greg Flowers.
The 2016 methylmercury study, Avativut, Kanuittailinnivut, projected that methylmercury exposure levels in some Inuit living downstream of Muskrat Falls who consume greater amounts of country foods could increase by up to 1500 percent.
The Nunatsiavut-led Make Muskrat Right campaign last year asked Nalcor and the provincial government to clear all vegetation and topsoil to minimize harm to people and communities downstream of the dam.
To date the government and crown corporation have not revealed how much organic material they will remove from the reservoir prior to final impoundment.
In its first provincial budget in 2016, the Ball Government slashed the Air Foodlift Subsidy for northern Indigenous communities, which helped grocery retailers lower the cost of food in their stores.
That cut, and others, would “add to the growing economic disparity that exists between Nunatsiavut and the rest of the province,” then Nunatsiavut President Sarah Leo said at the time. “Many of our people are not going to be able to adequately feed their families or have any quality of life.”
The Liberals have maintained since then that their new Labrador Aboriginal Nutritional and Artistic Assistance Program, introduced in Budget 2016, compensates for the elimination of the Air Foodlift Subsidy. It’s a $50,000 investment—$20,000 to each of the two Inuit groups and $10,000 to the Innu Nation—is intended for “nutritional programs, community freezer programs, food banks and promotion of artists and artistic endeavours,” according to the government’s website.
“To be talking about a food subsidy for store bought foods while taking away our traditional food source — how does that make sense to me as an Aboriginal person who depends on salmon, trout, char, seals and migrating birds?” Flowers said from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary Saturday. “How does that makes sense to me? It can’t.
“Our Inuit culture is defined by so many things…and food supply is a huge part of that. We grow up eating the same foods from the same area, we’ve become accustomed to that; our bodies are inclined to want that food. It’s just one part of our culture, but it’s a fundamental part.”
Flowers, Learning and Davis have been imprisoned at the maximum security men’s prison in St. John’s since July 21, when they refused to promise a Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador judge that they would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.
The three elders have been vocal critics of the project since before Muskrat Falls was sanctioned, arguing among other things that it threatens locals’ food supply and way of life.
They and other land protectors have repeatedly argued that if locals cannot eat country foods, people will stop harvesting to feed their families, an outcome they say will lead to further disruption to traditional ways of life and the transmission of traditional cultural practices to younger generations.
Last April the federal government ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a legally binding international treaty to reduce anthropogenic mercury emissions and releases to the environment.
“Exposure to mercury is known to cause negative health effects to those who are most vulnerable, particularly fetuses, infants, and young children. In addition, northern peoples are especially vulnerable to mercury as it tends to accumulate naturally in the Arctic, and it affects local food sources like fish and marine mammals,” said federal Environment Minister Catherin McKenna, announcing Canada’s ratification of the treaty.
Learning said the government and Nalcor have two options to mitigate methylmercury from Muskrat Falls.
“Clean out the reservoir, as was asked,” he said. “And the other of course is to not let the project go ahead.”