Labrador flags are flying at half-mast all across the Big Land to mark the passing of Jim Learning, which is only right for a man who did so much to have those flags flying high in the first place.
To the people of Labrador, Jim was something like a folk hero. To the people of Newfoundland, he was an enigma, calling for the independence of a territory that few imagined could be other than an appendage of the island. To the province’s politicians, he was a subversive, a source of constant irritation, a man of the people calling out injustice with a crystal-clear voice and putting them to shame. To the province’s activists and progressives, he had a stature and “cred” that few can aspire to.
It was as an activist I first knew Jim. He played no small part in activating me. In 2011 and 2012, as the Muskrat Falls project was being hastily pushed through environmental assessment and sanctioning, Jim was among a group of Labrador activists looking to raise awareness of the looming ecological and economic disaster. Some of us helped organize demonstrations and public events in St. John’s, in collaboration with Jim and others from Labrador. We hosted solidarity rallies and boilups, and on the same day similar events were held in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. With activists like Jim, Roberta Benefiel, Denise Cole, and Dennis Burden, we cooked up a movement.
Much of the action was planned through phone calls and emails and social media, and I knew Jim first through his voice, his writing, and pictures of him shared from the events. I remember the anger I felt seeing him arrested over and over again. I remember the twinned feelings of helplessness and fury I felt when he was on hunger strike. I remember the renewed resolve and determination I felt at his triumphs. He was deliberate and strategic, fearless in his actions, and he challenged the rest of us to enact the ideals we proclaimed. He showed us what it meant to resist.
Around that same time I planned a trip to Labrador. I wanted to meet the people and see the places that I’d only seen in pictures. Jim was one of my hosts and took me under his wing. He brought me to Muskrat Falls, to witness this place of power and history before it was ruthlessly dammed. We hiked in over the devastated landscape to the water, through a wasteland of countless acres of uprooted trees. Another day we made our way up the river by boat, past an enormous landslide that had recently careened into the water, and made our way onto the site. He proceeded like it was just a walk in the park.
Visiting the falls was an elemental experience. The place had a spirit, a pull, a force that compelled reflection and reverence. It was the kind of thing that once you experienced, you knew, without any doubt, it was a crime to destroy. I’m sure he knew exactly what he was doing by taking me there. Not that I wasn’t involved with the movement before, but the experience invigorated me. It truly activated me.
When we think of an activist it is often the flashpoints or the grand stand of defiance or the impassioned speech that we think of. But what I learned from Jim is that the biggest part of activism is unseen. It is the small gestures of care. It is the subtle act of allowing someone to approach and experience something profound in their own way. It is inviting someone, just one individual, into the circle, an everyday act of friendship and care. That’s what builds movements and resistance. And that’s how Jim operated.
I know, from messages I’ve received and conversations I’ve had in the last few days, that I speak for activists and progressives throughout the province, and that I speak for the editors and contributors, current and former, of The Independent, when I say that Jim had a profound impact on us all. He was a giant and he will be sorely missed.
Few people have as much ink on them in The Independent as Jim Learning. We invite you to revisit just a few of the many stories he featured in and that were made possible through his actions.
- Labrador: Our People, Our Land, Our Flag
- Hunger striking NunatuKavut elder calls for a unified Labrador
- Elders jailed after refusing to stay away from Muskrat Falls
- Dissidence grows over province’s refusal to fly Labrador flag
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