Subverting Muskrat Falls resistance

Provincial government tries to turn down the heat.

The Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government has totally lost control of the situation with Muskrat Falls, in the face of the unfolding and evolving grassroots resistance movement in Labrador. Predictably, the government now attempts an act of subterfuge to try to regain the initiative and to subvert the movement.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Minister of Natural Resources Siobhan Coady and Minister of Environment Perry Trimper made an announcement that amounted to nothing, but that sounded like they had given in to the demands of the #MakeMuskratRight movement and concerns about methyl mercury levels and damage to the ecosystem.

They announced that government is requiring Nalcor to study ways to conduct additional clearing of the reservoir.

However, they also announced the current process of partially flooding the reservoir will continue apace, and thus that the organic materials in the initial flooding zone will not be cleared, as the movement demands. This is essentially an announcement that commits to nothing. An immediate response to the press conference from organizers affiliated with the movement sums it up:

It is important that we are clear here: nothing is changing. Before this announcement they were planning on flooding 25% of the reservoir without clearing, they just announced that they are still doing that, but they will convene a panel to discuss how they can clear the last 75% at some point later. The flooding, which has started, will continue and the planned completion of flooding “by the end of the month” is still planned. Nothing has changed. This is very predictable. When people raise their voices against injustice, a common tactic to try to reduce pressure is to offer something that does not solve the injustice but somehow sounds good. Now – and this is the most important point – when this happens it is important that we take it as a strong signal that our pressure is working and that IF WE INCREASE THE PRESSURE NOW, WE CAN WIN. Please spread the truth that nothing has changed. Please spread the truth that all of our action, from the petition signature to the blockade and everything else, is working. Now is the perfect time to start raising your voice in solidarity with Labrador. Now is the perfect time to continue the bold action you have already taken.

An announcement like the one made by the provincial government is common in situations where protest and resistance poses a real threat to upend authority. The resistance should see this move by government as, on the one hand, a conciliatory gesture, a small victory, showing the strength of the movement. On the other hand, the movement should be extremely wary of understanding this move by government as wholesale capitulation to demands.

This is a moment of truth for the resistance movement.

Troublesome as well is the way this announcement is framed in media and public discourse. For example, initial reporting is running headlines like “Nalcor ordered to increase clearing at Muskrat Falls.” The headline is true, with respect to the announcement by Coady and Trimper. But it conveys the sense that this increased clearing is to happen now and satisfies the demands of the movement. Overall, even as it is entirely disingenuous this is a deft move by government intending to help them regain initiative on the Muskrat Falls issue.

This is a moment of truth for the resistance movement. If enough people take the bait, it will be all the more difficult for those determined to continue the struggle because they can be cast as “those malcontents who will never be happy.” That is why, right now, the message needs to go out that the movement’s demands have not been met, not even close.

It is a truth of power and resistance that a movement must be strong enough to survive the inevitable attempt at subversion or else collapse. The test for the Muskrat Falls resistance is now.

Jon Parsons is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on cultures of resistance. Catch up with him on Twitter @jwpnfld

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