Lela Evans: From Muskrat Falls Protests to MHA

“I made a commitment to my people and I’m going to live and die with that commitment. I’m going to represent my people.”

Two and a half years ago, freshman Torngat Mountains MHA Lela Evans wasn’t even remotely thinking about running for public office.

In fact, she was worried she was about to be fired.

2016 was the year that the long-simmering protests against the Muskrat Falls hydroproject in Labrador kicked into high gear. Evans was in fact working on the project, employed by Nalcor, but when what she proudly refers to as “the uprising” began, she decided she could no longer stay silent.

Back then, she was using her off-time from Nalcor to teach a wilderness first aid course to Parks Canada staff with Torngat Mountains National Park. It was then that she attended a rally against Muskrat Falls to show her support for the protesters.

“We went to the protest to show our support for the protesters there, and nobody had said what I thought should have been said,” Evans recalled to The Independent.

“They were all talking about compensation for the methylmercury contamination of the food. They were talking about loss of culture, loss of traditional knowledge, and things like that. But… my concern was: why be talking about compensation when really what we were protesting about was stopping the methylmercury contamination of the food chain! Because if you start talking about compensation, you’ve given up on trying to stop the poisoning. You’re starting to accept the poisoning, right?

“So that’s when I got up, I said ‘What we have to be aware of as an Indigenous people, is if we accept compensation from government we’re not accepting compensation for loss of our traditional knowledge, we’re not accepting compensation for loss of our culture, we’re accepting compensation so they can poison us! What you’re agreeing to is you’re gonna accept compensation so they can poison us! They’re going to poison our food source, they’re going to poison our land, and we eat the food so they’re basically going to poison us. That’s basically what compensation was about—accepting compensation for allowing them to poison our food source and allowing them to poison us.”

The protest was well-attended, and picked up by media. Evans realized her strong words might not go over well with her employer. She felt she could not in good conscience keep silent, but worried that her strong words might have cost her her job.

“When I went up to the gate on my first day back, and I buzzed in with my card, and the light on the gate turned green, and the gate went up, I still didn’t know if I was fired or not. I was thinking that I would drive in—I had to drive all the way in to the gate, then I had to drive all the way in to the office—and as I was driving in I was wondering: are they waiting to fire me and escort me off?

“It was crazy, right? It was crazy. You want to talk about stress!”

Government still ignoring Indigenous people in Labrador

Evans is now an MHA, one of two new MHAs who knocked out Liberal incumbents in half of Labrador’s four electoral districts in the May 16 provincial election. Her election in Torngat Mountains—and NDP MHA Jordan Brown’s election in Labrador West (pending results of a June 19 judicial recount)—underscores the deep dissatisfaction many Labradorians feel over how they have been treated by Newfoundland politicians, along a broad range of issues.

Evans’ concerns over her job demonstrate how profoundly the Muskrat Falls project has impacted Labradorians. Some Labradorians have spent two and a half years being dragged through a traumatising court process as a result of civil and criminal charges stemming from their protest. Others have faced the fear of losing desperately needed jobs and future opportunities if they exercised their rights and spoke out; a choice between self-censorship and employment.

The dilemma has been particularly acute for Indigenous Labradorians, whose cultural practices have been jeopardized by the massive hydro-project. In addition to being a proud Labradorian, Evans also proudly identifies as Inuit.

“My grandmother is one of the last speakers of the Rigolet dialect of Inuktitut,” she says. It was the Muskrat Falls protests and the fact the Liberal government so blatantly ignored the concerns of Indigenous peoples that inspired her to start getting politically active. Her frustration at the Liberal policy toward Labrador is palpable.

“When you look at the methylmercury issue, they haven’t done anything. They haven’t done anything to address it. They put the committee in place, and then the final report was out over a year ago, right? We’re approaching the time now with the flooding, and the methylmercury is going to get into the water. Nothing is going to be able to be done about it. And Dwight Ball is not doing anything. He’s letting it come, and he’s going to let it pass. There’s always an excuse, right? ‘Oh we’re waiting on the recommendations from the independent expert advisory committee.’ Well you know something? The environmental assessment was done. There was a panel, there was recommendations from the panel.

“The other concern I talked about [at the protest in 2016] and the reason I was so adamant about the poisoning of the food sources, is that there’s going to be people out there like my mother, that even if she can buy store-bought food every day, she’s not going to be able to eat store-bought food. She’s going to have to eat our natural food, our traditional food. So therefore people like her will eat the food, even though they know it’s contaminated. Like the seal, and the fish and the smelts and the birds. The thing about it is there’s people out there in our area, like in Rigolet and Upper Lake Melville, they will have to have that food.

“When you look at food security, there’s people in those areas that can’t afford it, and even with the compensation, they will not be able to afford to buy store-bought food every day, especially with the prices. So they basically will supplement their food source from the land. And part of that will be the seals and the fish and the smelts that’s contaminated with methylmercury.

“That was so important for me to say that I risked my job.”

Evans, fired up, quotes verbatim from the environmental assessment report, citing page numbers off by memory. When asked what she would like to see done, she turns the question around, and points out that it’s unfair to ask Indigenous people what they would like to see happen, because the actions of Nalcor and the Liberal government have already deprived them of the options they would truly prefer.

“When you put the question to me and you say, okay what would you like to see happen, I’m now stuck with the Liberal decisions that have been made over the past few years, right? And they go back and they blame the former government of two terms ago. But the thing about it is a lot of those decisions that put us here have been this current government. You got to start taking action, you got to start leading and stop blaming the past government from two elections ago. There’s no leadership there. That’s why we’re in such a big mess. It’s basically inaction, right?

“That protest was in 2016. That hunger strike that brought everyone together, that was in 2016. And just look at that meeting that they had—the emergency meeting. They went all night, around the clock. And you know something? That’s how you interrogate prisoners—going all night! You go at them all night, and a lot of times that’s when people will confess to crimes they didn’t commit, because they were sleep deprived. There’s been a definite lack of leadership, there’s been a lack of genuine concern for the Indigenous peoples.”

From Makkovik to MHA

Growing up in Makkovik shaped Evans’ perspective in deep ways. She didn’t venture outside of Labrador until she went to university at Memorial in St. John’s.

“I remember me and my sister used to go downtown on the weekends because there was an escalator down there,” she recalls with a laugh. “That was the reason why—we’d go down shopping but one thing we’d always do was make a point of going in and going up on the escalator, because that was something I’d never seen before. It was cool.”

She looks back on the time fondly, and appreciates the different outlook which her Labrador upbringing afforded her.

“My generation, we didn’t have the Internet, when I was growing up until I was 14 we didn’t even have TV.”

Evans has worked through a range of careers. After completing a biology degree, for a time she worked as the Native Liaison Officer at Memorial University. She’s also worked in the Arctic, doing environmental assessments. Before this year’s election, she was working at Voisey’s Bay.

An interesting and varied range of work experience, but politics was never in her field of interest. It was only in the last couple of years, she says, that she’s gotten interested in politics.

“I was complaining so much about the way things were done and about the policies and programs, so I think that’s probably why I got involved in politics,” she says.

At first mostly interested in local politics, and in the Nunatsiavut regional government, she also got fed up with what she saw happening at a provincial level. When the Liberal government made changes to marine service to the north coast of Labrador shortly before the election, that was the final straw that convinced her to run.

“It was the way they did it, and what they did, that actually convinced me to run,” she says, a steely anger in her voice. “The way they did it, and what they did.”

The plight of the north coast

Evans wasn’t even sworn in a week before she raised the issue in the House of Assembly, going after the Liberal government over changes to marine service made just before the election.

“What they did is they took away marine freight from the island, which was the most economical way of moving food and goods to the north coast,” she explains. “They took away that dedicated freight boat, and they combined freight and passenger service into one, which is a bit of a logistical nightmare. And they told everyone that that boat was going to come from Goose Bay only, to the north coast. So it was forced on people who had shipping relationships through the island, and for some of the small businesses those relationships go back more than thirty years.

“What they did, they came and told people just before Easter. They went into the community—they called it community consultations but it wasn’t consultations. They basically told the people: this is the ship we’re going to be using. People had a lot of issues and concerns about the ability for that ship to actually dock in the communities, they had concerns about that ship being able to sail in high winds, they had concerns about that ship being able to keep to the schedule because she’s awful slow. And also having freight and passengers tied together, what happens if there was any delays?

“Most people on the island will not be able to relate to this when they hear these concerns, because we [in Labrador] are tied to marine shipping. We have no roads. So if you don’t get all your food and materials moved in by ocean, you then have limited access to bring it in by plane. Larger items you won’t be able to move, and the smaller ones will cost even more. I see people saying stuff on Facebook, about how ‘I can’t believe it’s cheaper to put it on the boat from the island when you could truck it in from Quebec, it would be cheaper to truck it in from Quebec.’ But we don’t have those established relationships. And right now it’s not cheaper.

“For a lot of these small business people, it’s family-run businesses. And that’s one of the reasons why they’ve been able to survive, is because they’re family-run and they have a lot of dedication. And it’s not really about the profit of selling materials and selling food, it’s about the fact that this is their business, this is their livelihood, it’s why they are able to stay in business. And you tell somebody who’s been operating a small business for 25, 30 years you now have to establish a new relationship in Quebec? They look at me and say ‘Well how am I going to do that? Who’s going to help me with that? Who am I going to reach out to?’

“And then there’s the way that they did it. They didn’t say we’re going to bring it in over the next two years or the next three years, and we’re going to help you get ready and we’re going to give you time to get ready. It was all done very, very rushed. And I’ll tell you, right now people are losing sleep over this. It’s creating a lot of stress for people, businesses and individuals.

“We’re talking about survival! We’ve already got high prices. We’re not saying we want cheaper prices, we’re saying don’t make our high prices even higher! That’s what we’re saying right now. The Liberal government used to always put down the Progressive Conservative party by saying that they didn’t care about rural Newfoundland. Well who doesn’t care about rural Newfoundland right now? That is not a party of the people. That’s why I ran.”

Running up that hill

For some candidates, making a decision to run is easy. But it wasn’t easy for Evans, who wound up having to quit her job. She was working at Voisey’s Bay and her direct employer was Redpath Mining, building the portals for the underground mine. She says they were very supportive of her decision, and told her they would give her a leave of absence to run.

“It was a wonderful company to work for, great people, and I was having the time of my life, it was probably the best fun I ever had working! So I went to them, they said yes they’d give me a leave of absence… And then a few days later they came back to me and said Lela we’re not allowed to give you a leave of absence. Where it’s a Vale site, Vale has rules in place where you can’t run in a provincial or federal election. So I couldn’t even take a leave of absence. I had to quit my job. Or pull out of the race.”

Evans had a difficult decision to make, and it illustrates the barriers faced by many citizens when it comes to participating in the political process. A democratic system is supposed to be open to everyone, but without financial resources, money and security it’s difficult for many to put themselves forward, especially when an election is called on short notice.

For Evans, giving up the security of a good job was coupled with the fact she felt bad for giving her company so little notice. She knew that if she didn’t get elected, there was a very real chance she wouldn’t get hired back. But on the other hand, she’d already publicly committed to running, and didn’t want to let down the many people who had shown her support.

“Believe me, I had to think about it. I had to look at where I was in terms of my life, finances, things like that… Because this was without any safeguards. I’m single, I’ve got no one to fall back on financially. My family don’t have the means to support me. I also had to look at the reason why I thought about running, and I think the boat issue is what really sold me on running. Because if they’re doing this regarding our marine transportation, what else are they doing to us? So that’s why I decided it was worth it.”

Evans put in her notice, but still felt obligated to work the final days required by her contract, which meant putting her campaign on hold while she fulfilled her obligation to her employer. This put her about a week behind in campaigning, in what was already an extraordinarily short campaign period. In a place like Labrador, where tough geography and even tougher weather conspire against candidates, it wound up forcing her to change her entire campaign plan.

“That really put me behind. And it was a critical time because if I had been able to start campaigning exactly when I wanted to, without having to work my notice, I would have been able to do a lot of my travel on snowmobile. Because I wanted to go on snowmobile to Rigolet. And the thing about it was, I was travelling by myself.”

Evans’ story underscores the difference of politics in Labrador. The image of a candidate traveling alone by snowmobile from town to town is a far cry from that which residents of the island’s larger cities are familiar with—a large campaign bus pulling up to a rally and media cameras, emblazoned with political branding and slick-suited campaign staff emerging.

Evans was a novice candidate running against an incumbent, but she says what drove her was a profound faith in the people of her district.

“The thing that stuck with me was that overall feeling, that if I could talk to the people, if I could get to their door and talk to them, there was a good chance they would vote for me. That’s the sense I got—if I could discuss the issues, tell them where I stood, what I was offering. I was offering them a voice, that was the thing with me. And I listed it out: from the marine shipping, the Lewisporte ferry, dock infrastructure, better customer service—like from Bell Aliant—to hospitals, to physiotherapy, right down to helping seniors and elders. The thing about it is my campaign was a very, very basic one. But it was stuff that was never ever addressed.”

Pushing for true consultation

One of the reasons Evans felt compelled to run was the lack of consultation she witnessed, particularly around the marine freight service. Consultation has become a contested issue in recent years. Under the Liberals, and particularly through their outsourcing of consultation to firms like EY, consultation has become less about seeking feedback and more about framing feedback through guided questions—which often produce very specific outcomes. Sometimes the method backfires, as in 2016 when an EY-facilitated government consultation on the provincial libraries sparked an angry storm of protest and a walkout.

For Evans, this style of consultation marks a drift away from authentic democratic processes.

“When they came in to the communities, to address the changes to the marine service, what it reminded me of was back in the ’70s when they were coming to the town hall and telling people what services were going to be made available. This is what you’re getting, and this is what it’s going to look like. We were told. There was no consultation. So that style reminds me of back in the ’70s. That style of leadership.

“I think if anybody would look up the word consultation, would look up the definition, what you do is you talk to the people about the ideas which you as a government think would work, you get feedback, you get concerns, criticisms, you get other suggestions too, and then what you do is you take all that back and you integrate it together.

“You need to listen to their concerns, and also you have to be open to take suggestions as well. Because I always find that the end user is the person that knows most. The end user of the service is the person that knows the most about that service.”

Putting the P in PC

Evans makes no bones about it: she ardently positions herself on the ‘progressive’ end of Progressive Conservative. She’s never been afraid to say what she believes, even to the point of putting her job on the line. But how does one translate that independent-mindedness to our party-system in the House of Assembly?

“Every person is different,” she reflects. “I know what I stand for. I know what I can accept and what I can’t accept. And I didn’t run to get elected. I didn’t run for a job. I basically ran to help my district and to help people. And as long as I feel that I’m effective in helping my constituents, and I’m helping the province as a whole, I’m happy.”

“When I talked to Ches Crosbie the first time, he gave me a call because I was stuck in Hopedale and with the weather delay I was starting to get pretty far behind. I was starting to get really uncomfortable, like I was really starting to get nervous about the overall election. And he called me and we talked and he gave me a little pep talk and it was the first time I talked with him. The first thing I said was, I said ‘Mr. Crosbie I hope you stand for the P as well as the C… I said I hope you are progressive. I hope you are a Progressive Conservative. Because that’s something that I need to meet my moral commitments, in terms of being progressive.”

Evans says that she’s pleased with the support she’s received from the PC Party and from Mr. Crosbie, and speaks highly of him. She’s not afraid of the challenges that being an MHA will pose, and looks forward to the work she feels she can do for her district. She’s already been busy, she notes, helping residents with problems as basic as interceding with Bell Aliant.

“There’s been people now been waiting since October for phone installs. Since October! And I’ve been calling up and saying I’m working on behalf of my constituents, at an individual level, and getting their phones hooked up. Just demanding better service.”

Her biggest concern is one faced by other rural district MHA’s—making sure that her legislative work in St. John’s doesn’t keep her away from the communities she represents. One can tell that she truly misses the Big Land that sent her here.

“I guess the biggest concern I have right now is with the budget in the House and the travel—I’m a critic, right, so I can’t afford to be weather delayed in Makkovik. Where I’m not actually back in my district, I guess that’s what I’m uncomfortable with. I don’t want the people to think that I’m not there for them. I got no other concerns, because I am a fighter, and I told the people I would be a voice for them. People kept saying to me, ‘If we put you in there you can’t be silent, you have to stand up for us. If you’re in government or in the opposition.’ And that was my commitment to them, that I wouldn’t be silent.

“I’m not a typical politician, I’m more of an activist. It’s easy to be an armchair politician, right? But I made a commitment to my people and I’m going to live and die with that commitment. I’m going to represent my people.”

Photo by Jenny Gear.

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