Three Inuit elders have been incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s after refusing to promise a Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador judge they would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site in Labrador.
On Friday NunatuKavut Elders and land protectors Jim Learning and Eldred Davis, and Nunatsiavut Elder and land protector Marjorie Flowers appeared in court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay after allegedly breaking a recognizance to stay more than one kilometre away from Muskrat Falls. All three refused to sign a new undertaking and were subsequently arrested and taken into custody.
Learning, who is 79 and living with advanced prostate cancer, was arrested for protesting outside the project’s main gate in 2013 and launched a six-day hunger strike that ended once he was released from custody in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
All three currently in custody allegedly defied a court order and previous recognizances while participating in recent protests at Muskrat Falls.
Flowers is the second Inuk woman to be incarcerated at the notorious mid-19th century men’s maximum security prison this year after refusing to stay away from the Muskrat Falls project site. Last month Beatrice Hunter spent 10 days at HMP, prompting outcry from Indigenous communities and human rights groups across Canada. Provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons has said the province has no choice but to incarcerate women in a separate ward of the men’s prison due to overcrowding at the women’s correctional facility in Clarenville.
Vigils and protests have been held in Goose Bay, Rigolet and St. John’s in response to the latest round of arrests of Indigenous land defenders, who say they are acting in self-defence in trying to stop the controversial $12 billion hydro dam, which experts have projected will contaminate fish and other wild food that members of Indigenous communities downstream rely on.
Land defenders, elders and engineering experts have also said Nalcor Energy, the crown corporation building the dam, has not given sufficient evidence to prove it can adequately stabilize the North Spur, a small peninsula Nalcor is using as a “natural dam” at Muskrat Falls.
In a July 2015 response to a number of concerns highlighted in a letter from lawyer and Muskrat Falls critic Cabot Martin, former provincial Environment and Conservation Minister Dan Crummell estimated a breach of the main Muskrat Falls dam would result in “a potential loss of life” of 136 individuals and an estimated $47 million “for the loss of residential homes plus additional infrastructure losses.”
Last year the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay estimated that the damage to their community alone resulting from a dam breach would be in the range of $60 million.
Residents of Lower Happy Valley, North West River, Mud Lake and Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation have expressed anxiety over living and sleeping downstream. Many have said they have little doubt the dam will fail, and that it’s a question of when a breach will occur.
Injunction “immoral and unfair”
In a prepared statement shared with The Independent after Learning’s incarceration, which was written prior to the elder’s court appearance Friday, Learning said he refused to sign the undertaking “because I believe the injunction is immoral and unfair and it has taken away our rights as people to demand safety for our families and safe food for us to eat!”
Learning also said he believes crown corporation Nalcor Energy and the provincial government “have decided to sacrifice the few of us who will likely be drowned if the North Spur fails,” and that “their greed will bankrupt this province and take away many services that our people desperately need.”
In a video filmed outside the courthouse Friday prior to her court appearance and published on the Labrador Land Protectors’ Facebook page, Flowers said the court injunction “is telling me as an Aboriginal woman that I can’t protect my cultural rights around traditional foods.
“That’s wrong,” she continued. “That is fundamentally wrong, and against my constitutional rights as a Canadian. I feel like I have no choice but to tell the judge no, I’m not listening to you, I’m not abiding by that injunction. Somebody has to stand up.”
In a similar video Davis said the people of the province can “survive” the “financial danger” Nalcor and the government are creating with Muskrat Falls, but that “we will not survive the flooding of Mud Lake 10 times worse that what happened this spring.”
In May water levels rapidly rose downstream of Muskrat Falls, forcing an emergency evacuation of the entire community of Mud Lake. Some residents still have not returned to their homes due to damage.
Nalcor quickly denied responsibility for the flood but later backed off, admitting a possibility the Muskrat Falls facilities may have played a role. A class action lawsuit against the corporation is now underway.
“A lot of the Mud Lake infrastructure and possessions did not survive but the people did. That’s not going to be the case if the North Spur fails and the reservoir is at 39 meters high,” Davis said Friday. “We suspect Nalcor knows the North Spur will fail and they’re determined to press on anyway.”
All three elders pointed the finger at Nalcor and the provincial government, who they say are manipulating the justice system to quash dissent and locals’ Indigenous rights.
Last month Amnesty International Canada’s Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples told The Independent the Muskrat Falls controversy resembles others in Canada where corporations have greater access than Indigenous communities to the courts in protecting their rights.
Craig Benjamin said the 2007 Ipperwash Inquiry revealed a “bias against Indigenous Peoples at the injunction level, where it’s so much easier for corporations or crown corporations to show potential damage in a way the lower court can understand it.”
In the video posted to Facebook Davis said “in this day in age, when people are supposed to be having rights, and yet the Newfoundland government is sending Nalcor, the justice system, and the police system to squash our rights — this should not be accepted, and we will not take it lying down.”
“In [our] view, the Newfoundland Government has declared war on us here in Labrador,” Learning said in his written statement, referring to the recent increased RCMP police presence that coincides with the transportation of transformers from Cartwright to the Muskrat Falls site.
“It really is odd how we in Labrador can stay at home and be invaded by the very police force sworn to protect, us and they claim they have come here to protect us. Protect us from whom?” Learning continued in his letter. “We have never been violent to anyone and up to now, no one has been violent to us. Why should that change? We certainly have no intention of changing how we act and we have said so many times and in many ways.
“We simply want reassurance that the lives of people in Mud Lake and the lower Valley are safe and that it will be safe to eat our country food in the future! Why is that so much to ask?”
People close to Learning have told The Independent the elder is contemplating another hunger strike, and that he has said he’s willing to risk his life in the fight to protect people’s safety, food and way of life.
The human cost and spiritual benefit of resistance
Inuk land protector Tracey Doherty was in the courtroom Friday when Learning and Flowers refused to sign an undertaking.
Describing the scene she said Justice George Murphy offered Learning an opportunity to protest at the designated protest area across the Trans Labrador Highway from the project’s main gate, but that neither Learning nor Flowers were interested in being restricted to what has been called “the pad”.
“They were saying we could still be on the protest pad, but as [Flowers] stated to the court, and as she has been communicating on Facebook, it’s just ineffective,” Doherty recalled.
“As Jim and Eldred said, too, the protest pad is this little place where there’s nothing effective about standing there and demonstrating. It’s not protecting anything, and really our goal is to stop the project.”
Land protector Denise Cole, a spokesperson for the Labrador Land Protectors, told The Independent that resisting Muskrat Falls has come at a considerable “human cost” due to the actions of the government, Nalcor, the police and the courts.
“The human cost is [the loss of] our rights and freedoms to be able to mount any kind of resistance to what’s happening on our lands, to our waters and to our people,” she said.
“We’re being treated like terrorists — that’s what it feels like. We’re feeling again this heavy handedness of the court, and we’re being completely ignored by our elected representatives. We feel they have turned their backs to us and we are here on our own at the mercy of the court, and now the RCMP and Nalcor. We feel that Nalcor has the control of both the court, the police services and the government, because it seems to be that what they want goes,” Cole continued.
“The priority here is certainly not people within democracy, it is the completion of this hydro project at all costs. When Dwight Ball says they have to complete this project, that nothing can slow this project, that includes taking the rights and freedoms of the citizens of this province who are in opposition to this project.”
Cole said land protectors feel they’ve been “very reasonable” in their approach. They have joined people across the province in signing petitions, writing elected officials, protesting peacefully, and only taking protests to the next level out of desperation because all diplomatic means have been exhausted without adequate response from government and Nalcor.
“We don’t understand why we’re being treated like terrorists,” she said. “When you have the courts mandate whatever police force is necessary to control [us]…it feels like we’ve had our democracy stripped away from us.
“Some of us are in fear, some of us are just in shock, and all of us are gravely concerned not only about our own health and safety, but now the health and safety of land protectors who are getting arrested and put into maximum security prison cells for not signing an undertaking.
“The province and country needs to seriously look and consider what exactly they’re in a maximum security for. They haven’t been convicted of anything, and yet they’re all sitting thousands of kilometres away from their home communities,” Cole continued.
“There’s something incredibly wrong about what’s happening here, and we need the nation to really understand and help us because we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. We’re watching our constitutionally-protected rights and freedoms being taken away from us and having a police state initiated around us.”
Hunter, who made national headlines when she was incarcerated last month, said she is “very proud” of Learning, Flowers and Davis “for standing up to the judge. But it’s heartbreaking at the same time, seeing your fellow land protectors trying to fight the destruction and save Labrador lives.”
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Doherty said as she has joined the protests in recent months she has been feeling a growing connection to her Inuit ancestors. That connection, she said, has inspired her to speak out for the land and water and future generations who will depend on the outcome of the current resistance to Muskrat Falls and the effort to protect the natural environment and food that Indigenous communities in the area have depended on for thousands of years.
She said she has been inspired by 12-year-old water protector Autumn Peltier of Wikwemikong First Nation.
On Friday she stood up in the courtroom and made a statement to the judge before being escorted out by Sheriff’s officers.
“I just suddenly shouted out, ‘Nalcor should be in court! Nalcor is in contempt of Labrador!’ I said environmental assessments should have teeth. Then the guards were on me and I was hanging on to the bench. I said, ‘You’re not going to shut me up — I’m going to yell across the land [that] this isn’t right and Nalcor is in contempt of Labrador!’
“When I stood up it was just a force, like I have to do this. I’m grateful that I am connecting to these forces and these understandings — it’s an expansion of my awareness,” she explained.
“I can only hope that more people, in their own ways, [will too]. You don’t necessarily have to be Indigenous…we are all from the Earth.”
Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe did not respond to The Independent’s requests for comment by the time of publication.
On Monday afternoon NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell issued a statement calling for the “immediate release” of Learning, Davis and Flowers.
“We also demand that the Attorney General of Newfoundland and Labrador, who is responsible for the administration of justice in this province, do his job,” said Russell. “We expect the administration of justice in this province to respect the nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples and to live up to promises around reconciliation. It can, and must, do better.”
Doherty said “although I know people are impatient with Nunatsiavut and not feeling our leaders are doing enough, it’s in our constitution that we’re reaffirming our relationship to our ancestral territory. Treasure the land, sea, waters, resources, plants, animals. It’s at the heart of our agreement because it’s right at the heart of our identity.”
The three incarcerated land protectors are reportedly due back in court for a follow-up hearing on July 31.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Marjorie Flowers was the second Inuk grandmother to be incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary related to the Muskrat Falls protests. Flowers has two children but is not a grandmother and the story has been amended to reflect this information.