“How can you lose hope?”: Denise Cole

MP: Before I head out the door and leave you in the editor’s chair, let’s talk about Muskrat Falls. All the stuff that coming out of the Muskrat Falls Inquiry–it’s incredible isn’t it? It’s sometimes hard to keep in mind what Land Protector Denise Cole says in The Sound of Post-Oil (link below): “How do you lose hope when you know at the end of all of this the earth is still stronger than all of us.” I mean, I’m happy it’s all coming out and we’ve known this was the state of things for a while now. But I’m unhappy that this all had to happen this way.

In this moving story, Denise Cole talks about Indigenous resistance, what motivates her activism, and how she became a Land Protector. She recalls the moment in 2016, when the falls went quiet.

DB: Good Lord. We need to invent new words in English for the emotions conjured up by watching the Muskrat Falls Inquiry. This is a drastic oversimplification, but the narrative that has emerged out of Phase 1 seems to me that governing officials of the day trusted Nalcor executives far, far more than they should have. Gilbert Bennett, Nalcor VP, basically admitted during testimony that the company deliberately lowballed the cost and risk estimates in order for Emera to get its partnership in the project approved by regulators in Nova Scotia. Jerome Kennedy lamented that he did everything he could as Natural Resources Minister to ensure the project was on track and on schedule except, apparently, ask any followup questions during his briefings with Nalcor. Kathy Dunderdale is on the stand swearing she never would have pursued Muskrat Falls without the federal loan guarantee, which is literally the opposite argument she was making during sanction. Ed Martin was such an imperious prick on the stand that he drove Commissioner Richard Leblanc to demand an attitude adjustment. Everyone involved is testifying that they did their due diligence, but the evidence amassed suggests another story: that the powers-that-be decided the development was Muskrat Falls or nothing, and everyone worked to ensure that neither hell nor high water nor inconvenient risk/scheduling assessments would derail them from it.

In short, it vindicates a lot of the procedural criticisms levelled against the government during the sanctioning process. People were saying it wasn’t being handled properly, and this does appear to be the case. It’s a fairly cold comfort, I think.

MP: For sure. And to me in some ways it’s all just details. Important details of course, but it’s also just the music blaring from your neighbours party. Really, the Muskrat Falls project shouldn’t have to be justified by reports and budgets and cost estimates. Not before it’s justified based on its impact to the people who live and work there, not when it doesn’t pass muster from a human rights point of view. From the very beginning the people who became the Land Protectors were telling us that this didn’t pass that test. They organized and proved that in all sorts of ways. And yet the decision, apparently, came down to false cost estimates.

DB: The most excruciating part of Muskrat Falls is that it didn’t need to happen this way. Based on testimony at the inquiry so far, it sounds like the project would have been cancelled if cabinet had seen more of the risk and probability assessments. Dunderdale even said she may not have sanctioned the project if she’d seen the estimates that there was only a 1-3% chance it would finished on time and on budget. This is the sort of thing that likely would have come up had the PUB been able to extend its investigation into the project, but we also heard that everyone pushing the project was so allergic to criticism that they basically vetoed the review in order to spite Andy Wells.

To me this is the real revelation of the inquiry: how petty and amateurish our politics are, even at the highest possible levels with the highest possible stakes. Ed Martin assembled his crack team of inexperienced experts over drinks at The Guv’nor and the premier let a personal disagreement derail regulatory oversight of a multi-billion dollar megaproject. It’s foolishness. And unfortunately I don’t think these practices are limited to Muskrat.

MP: You know though, when I think back just a few years, all the news about Muskrat Falls was good. I think back to when things began to change and, in my memory, it’s tied to the actions of the Labrador Land Protectors. And it’s tied to the coverage that appeared in this publication during the first occupation of the Muskrat Falls worksite. Justin Brake’s coverage of the actions of a coalition of land protectors and protestors: that was powerful. People all over the province took notice. That’s when the narrative began to change. When people came together and when someone told their story. That’s powerful.

DB: I think the public mood about was changing over the course of 2016 – between Ed Martin’s botched sacking and Stan Marshall declaring the project was “a boondoggle,” people started to turn – but it was the Land Protectors that really brought the problems with the project to public consciousness. Labradorians in the area had been raising concerns and criticisms about the project for years, but it had mostly fallen on deaf ears because the Big Land is out of sight and out of mind for most Newfoundlanders, let alone the rest of the country. But it became impossible to ignore after the protests and occupations started – especially because Justin was there to capture so much of it on camera. If he hadn’t followed the Land Protectors, I’m not sure what would have happened with the occupation. Their eviction might have been uglier without a journalist there to record it. The Land Protectors and their allies finally forced the province to take their demands seriously, and the Indy’s coverage helped catalyze the ensuing conversation about Indigenous rights and colonialism in this province. It was truly incredible work, and it’s regrettable that they’re still trying to punish Justin for it.

MP: Now give us a sense of where you’ll be taking the Indy.

DB: Oh man. I’ve got some big plans for the coming year. As both the breadth and depth of material from legacy media declines, I am hoping that the Independent can step in to fill those gaps with some critical, incisive journalism and commentary on local, provincial, and national affairs. Muskrat Falls remains the biggest single issue facing the province. The Independent has always championed critical coverage of the project, and I want to continue this going forward. I also want to bring more adversarial journalism into the House of Assembly, because to be completely frank the only ‘opposition’ we have in this province is the press. We have two crucial elections coming up in 2019, and I think one of our primary jobs should be helping people navigate them as citizens rather than subjects.

There is a pernicious accepted wisdom in parts of this province that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can’t properly govern themselves. As I see it, part of the Indy’s job is to help bury this lie forever. So I want to amplify more of the stories and voices lost in mainstream reporting: young people, students, Indigenous peoples, rural residents, fish harvesters and other workers. I’m honestly less interested in hearing about NewfoundlandLabrador™ than I am in hearing about Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, and I bet many of you are too.

Beyond politics, I believe very strongly that this province generates the sharpest and funniest writers in the country, so I’m very committed to finding these people and publishing very good humour and satirical content. As much as anything else, I want the Independent to be a place that fosters and encourages new writers and journalists. Plus, this is a critical paper, and my personal experience has taught me that George Bernard Shaw was right when he (allegedly) said that “if you want to tell people the truth, you have to make them laugh, because otherwise they’ll kill you.”

I also want to do more than writing, though. We also have plans in the works to bring subscribers new podcasts and video content. There is so much excellent content being produced here by people working on their own; I’d like to the Independent eventually become a platform for local content creators. Like I said, I want the Indy to be a popular amplifier. I want it to be an open platform: a people’s platform.

There is more, but I don’t want to completely tip my hand right away. But that’s the thrust: the Independent will do more of the critical, adversarial, popular journalism that Newfoundland and Labrador desperately needs. Our reliance on crowdfunding and donations might be written off as a weakness, but I see it as a strength. The Indy is the only media outlet in the province to win a press freedom award. We are beholden to nothing and no one save truth and liberation, which is why we will go where others fear to tread.

If any of this sounds like content you want to support, we would love for you to donate and/or subscribe. Or, even better: contribute!

MP: Well Drew, I feel like something official should happen here, but there isn’t a ceremony yet for a changing-of-the-chairs at The Independent. Perhaps we should invent one? The only thing we need to do now is set up a time for me to teach you how to use our publishing site. I’m off to Guelph and you, my friend, are where you belong. Have fun and take care of this beautiful publication.

MUN Sociology professor Stephen Crocker tells us what’s been going wrong with the province’s determination to build Muskrat Falls.





Read more from the Post-Oil NL project. You can find other fiction and nonfiction stories related to the Post-Oil NL project here.

All this started with a set of discussion papers organized by Memorial University sociology professor Barb Neis in 2016, called Asking the Big Questions: Reflections on a Sustainable Post Oil-dependent Newfoundland and Labrador. We’ve built a bunch of stories around the issues we read about in the papers: audio stories, flash fiction, opinion, and essays. (We’ll keep dropping new content every two weeks.) I’d like to thank Barb Neis and the authors of the sixteen discussion papers for starting this discussion and for talking to us about their visions (or nightmares) for the future.

Your support can help make local, independent media sustainable. Reader donations and voluntary subscriptions are crucial to our success. Please consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly subscriber. For as little as $5, $10, or $20 a month, you can make a difference. We thank you for your support.

ABOUT OUR AUDIO STORYTELLER: Rebecca Nolan has always loved stories. Raised on a strict diet of fairytales and greek myths as a child, she decided to pursue a degree in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Through her degree, Rebecca fell in love with interviewing people from all walks of life. Now she spends most of her time making radio and trying to bring people’s stories to life. 

Over Our Heads / Katie Vautour /
Description: The blurriness of the dam represents the uncertainty and lack of clarity surrounding Muskrat Falls, and the rushing water is a nod toward how we, as a province, may be ‘over our heads,” so to speak, in many ways regarding this project.

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