The Muskrat Falls rebellion and Labrador independence

Boondoggle hydro project could see Labrador go its own way from Newfoundland.

The provincial government has a math problem to solve. Which is greater? The $200 million to clear the Muskrat Falls reservoir and associated costs for the delay. Or taking a chance that Labrador becomes an independent territory in the Canadian federation.

The movement taking place in Labrador right now is remarkable. There has arguably never been a movement like this in the Big Land, even compared with the electoral successes of the Labrador Party, or the sovereignty movements of the former Labrador Inuit Association, the Innu Nation, and NunatuKavut Community Council.

The Muskrat Falls hydro project is the catalyst for the current popular movement. But as the movement expands, longstanding grievances are coming to the surface. Some of these grievances include unreliable water and electricity utilities, costs of food and housing, poorly maintained infrastructure and roads, as well as precarious work in industries like mining.

Different regions and communities in Labrador have different problems and concerns. The people of Labrador West, for example, have been going through years of hardship because of the collapse in ore prices. Coastal Labrador communities regularly experience food shortages and are not hooked up to the integrated electricity grid. Innu communities have a history of hardship, which appears to be continuing even as the Innu Nation settled its land claim. And now the Muskrat Falls project and associated environmental damage is set to negatively impact all the various communities in central Labrador.

Along with all the specific issues affecting different regions and communities, there is also the overarching political question of Labrador independence. The people of Labrador ask themselves, looking at the state of affairs, if things would be this way if they had their own territorial government.

Some time ago I wrote a manifesto on Labrador independence. I argued that the N.L. provincial government effectively controls politics in Labrador through a divide and conquer strategy. As long as different groups compete with one another or are pitted against one another, Labrador cannot achieve independence. But if these different groups, Indigenous and settler alike, were to become united, Labrador independence becomes possible. What is happening in Labrador right now, with the popular movement sparked by Muskrat Falls, is just this coming together of the distinct peoples who call Labrador home.

Truthfully, and with all due respect, the main outlier is the Innu Nation, who signed off on Muskrat Falls with the ratification of their land claim, as part of the New Dawn Agreement. But the band councils of Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation and Mushuau Innu First Nation, and the broader Innu Nation government, are certainly not cheerleaders. As the Muskrat Falls project has progressed, there have been numerous protests and a number of Innu arrested. Just to say, even if Innu governing bodies may officially support the project, as I see it the Innu people themselves do not.

More than 70 people defied security and walked onto the Muskrat Falls construction site in an act of peaceful civil disobedience Oct. 10 against the imminent flooding of the dam's reservoir. Photo by Justin Brake.
More than 70 people defied security and risked arrest when they walked onto the Muskrat Falls construction site in an act of peaceful civil disobedience Oct. 10. Photo by Justin Brake.

The underlying context and history, the current popular movement whose catalyst is Muskrat Falls, the coming together of various groups and communities — this is potentially the groundwork of a renewed push for Labrador independence.

Everyone in Newfoundland, and especially the provincial government, needs to look at what is happening in Labrador. There are daily marches and demonstrations in Labrador communities. People are walking past security and police, indifferent to the possibility of arrest, onto the Muskrat Falls site. The community of Cartwright voted unanimously to use direct action to stop Nalcor from transporting equipment through their community. North West River resident Billy Gauthier is even on hunger strike.

This popular movement in Labrador is quickly becoming an open rebellion. If just a few more pieces of the puzzle fall into place, it may open the door for Labrador independence. And all because the provincial government and Nalcor dug in their heels about properly clearing the reservoir of a hydro project that is already years behind schedule and billions over budget.

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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