Dennis Burden made a conscientious decision when he put an axe to a utility pole connected to the worksite for the controversial hydroelectric megaproject at Muskrat Falls in December 2012.

The Port Hope Simpson resident and father of three had done his research and felt paying the consequences of his actions was worth it if he could draw attention to what he says is a bigger injustice – the continued destruction of the lower Grand River, or “Mistashipu” as the Innu call it.

On Jan. 8 Burden was convicted of mischief over $5,000, ordered to pay Nalcor – the province’s crown energy corporation overseeing the project – $8,000 restitution for the pole, and sentenced to 12 months parole. A small crowd showed up at the courthouse in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to support the fisherman and dogsled tour guide, but not the number that would indicate his sacrifice had the kind of impact he was hoping for.

Still, Burden says he did the right thing and would “go to jail tomorrow if I thought it could stop this project.”

“An inspiration for everyone”

One of his strongest supporters is his 17-year-old daughter Regan, an accomplished high school senior who earned second runner up in the Miss Achievement Newfoundland and Labrador ceremony in St. John’s last November and has travelled to Greenland, Iceland and Norway to take part in youth environmental education programs.

Last week Regan launched an online fundraising campaign to accommodate people who were asking how to help her father pay his fine. It has raised $700 in its first six days.

“I fully support my father for standing up for what he believes in,” she says. “I think not enough people stand up for what they believe in, whether it be because they don’t think that their voice matters, or they don’t have the confidence because they’re afraid of what others may say. But he took a stand for what he believes in, and regardless of what you think about the Muskrat Falls project or my father’s actions or the consequences, I think that’s an inspiration for everyone.”

… not enough people stand up for what they believe in, whether it be because they don’t think that their voice matters, or they don’t have the confidence because they’re afraid of what others may say.  – Regan Burden

Regan speaks of her father with admiration, and with the certitude of a promising young woman. Together they share a keen interest in how the Muskrat Falls project will affect Labrador’s biggest river, the environment and the health of people living downstream from the falls.

“My father’s very well versed in the Muskrat Falls project and the damming of the falls, and he’s actually done his research into it and I’m always learning things about it from him,” she says, “like the beam they want to put across the Strait, or the mercury levels, or the extra couple million dollars they had to spend to rotate the dam a little bit.

“There’s always so much more that’s coming (to light) about this project, and I think a lot of people don’t realize all of the negative effects (it will have) because, of course, you see the government putting all these clean energy commercials on TV and talking about how it will help the future and the youth of our province, and how we’re a ‘have’ province, and how hydroelectricity is the way. But, when I went to Norway, everyone there looks at hydroelectricity as dirty energy. When people over there in Europe – who are much more advanced in green energy than we are – think ‘green energy’, they think solar and wind. So when I compare their advancements to ours I feel like we’re a step behind,” she explains. “And yes, hydroelectricity is a step up from (burning oil), but I think we would have been better off investing in wind or solar energy because we certainly have the wind energy here in our province.”

Burden says he’s disheartened by the silence he says is resulting from having to choose between good wages – a rare opportunity for many in Labrador – and environmental destruction. Ancestral lands inhabited by the Innu, Inuit and Inuit-Metis will be compromised by the dam, as will the quality of the water downstream from the falls, according to the Nunatsiavut government, which has commissioned an independent research program to monitor methyl-mercury levels in the Lake Melville settlement area where Inuit communities have relied on fish, seals and seabirds as a form of sustenance for hundreds of years. Yet, for many the allure of money from short-term jobs has trumped the duty to protect the environment for future generations, says Burden.

“$28.50 an hour, somebody told me the cleaning lady is getting at Muskrat Falls. And this is what’s keeping a lot of people away from (opposing the project). You’re gonna turn your back and take your cheque. Most of the people I talks to workin’ down there hates the fact that they gotta be there.

“The general consensus is, I guess, it’s just as well to stick your finger where the sun don’t shine ‘cause you as an individual don’t have any chance at changing it – this project is going ahead and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s what most people think.”

Take only what’s needed, leave the rest

Next year Regan will attend Memorial University in St. John’s and work toward a Bachelor of Arts degree, double majoring in political science and communication studies, she says. “And then hopefully I’ll go on to pursue law. I’m leaning towards environmental law.

Regan and Dennis Burden at the Miss Achievement Newfoundland and Labrador ceremony in St. John's on Nov. 10. Facebook photo.
Regan and Dennis Burden at the Miss Achievement Newfoundland and Labrador ceremony in St. John’s on Nov. 10, 2013. Facebook photo.

“When me and my friends were younger we used to just roam around in the woods for fun and it was totally fine because we connected with nature, we knew where we were going,” she recalls, explaining how she and her father arrived side by side, members of a small but determined minority in Labrador that fearlessly opposes the damming of Muskrat Falls.

“My dad races dogsleds, and not a lot of people get to do that of course, but it’s the most relaxing, peaceful experience. You can’t hear anything but the dogs running on the snow, and they’re panting, and it’s just you and nature in that moment and it’s totally relaxing and peaceful, and it just makes you so grateful for where you live. I’m excited to move to St. John’s next year and move forward with my life, but Labrador of course has such a special place in my heart and I don’t think anything could ever replace that.”

Neither Regan nor her father oppose responsible development of Labrador’s resources, they say.

“I’m not against any projects or anything like that, but it has to be sustainable,” says Burden. “That’s where the issue comes into it for me – it has to be sustainable. We can’t do this.”

“Of course we want to exploit all the resources we can get,” Regan adds, “but we have to be very careful of the resources we take and how much we take of them.”

Burden says he had “no choice” but to chop halfway through the Nalcor pole, even if it cost him $8,000 and restricted his freedom for a year. “I couldn’t not do it and remain me, who I think I am.”

In the meantime, he says he will keep trying to “spread the message…that there are better ways.

“We don’t need to be destroying our habitat to live here,” he concludes. “‘Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’,’ somebody said one time.”

Justin Brake is an independent journalist from Elmastukwek, Ktaqmkuk (Bay of Islands, Newfoundland) who currently lives and works on unceded Algonquin territory in Ottawa. He is of mixed settler and Mi'kmaq descent and focuses much of his attention on Indigenous rights and liberation, social justice, climate action and decolonization. He has worked in various capacities for CBC, The Telegram, APTN News and The Independent, and is actively exploring new forms and styles of journalistic storytelling through emerging frameworks like movement journalism and systems journalism.