Fear, anger, desperation, plans dominate Muskrat Falls rally

Gathered in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Friday, residents of communities around Lake Melville cited methylmercury, the North Spur and colonization as main concerns around Muskrat Falls. Many want the project shut down, and some are planning direct action on Monday.

One after another, residents of the Lake Melville region of Labrador aired their grievances over the Muskrat Falls project in front of a crowd of about 40 gathered outside Environment Minister and Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper’s office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Friday afternoon.

In light of news Thursday that the first phase of flooding of the dam’s reservoir could go ahead as early as Saturday, locals expressed grave concern over the impacts methylmercury poisoning—also known as Minimata disease—could have on their traditional food source in Lake Melville and traditional Indigenous ways of life.

Risks associated with the stability of the North Spur—which have been highlighted by retired hydro engineer James Gordon—and the project’s contribution to colonialism on Innu and Inuit territories were also common concerns at the rally.

On Friday Nalcor issued a public safety notice stating first flooding “may begin anytime on or after October 15,” and warning people to stay off the river below and above the dam, and off riverbanks, which “may be slippery or unstable.”

Sandra Flowers of Rigolet, an Inuit community in Nunatsiavut that a study led by researchers from Harvard University revealed was at the greatest risk of exposure to unsafe levels of methylmercury, said she recently drove up toward Muskrat Falls and that the “land looks terrible.

“They’re destroying the environment, the land, the spots where I berry-picked,” she said. “For some people they’re destroying the traditional places where their fathers and grandfathers hunted and took care of the land — and it’s not being done now, it’s being destroyed.

Rigolet resident Sandra Flowers. Photo by Justin Brake.
Rigolet resident Sandra Flowers. Photo by Justin Brake.

“I wonder what we will eat? A way of life gone,” she said, highlighting the impacts increased methylmercury in Lake Melville as a result of the impending flooding of the reservoir will have on communities downstream from the dam.

“It just really hurts in the heart that it has got to this point. I so hoped it would have been stopped by now, but it feels like we’re not getting anywhere. But I still think that with the cost of this project, and all the destruction, hopefully someone higher up than me will see the destruction and what’s happening and they will just shut down the project. Just get rid of it altogether,” she said.

Kirk Lethbridge, a vocal critic of Muskrat Falls since the project’s infancy, said he wants to see media doing more coverage of locals’ concerns around the dam.

“We expect better from media, we expect our stories to be told — we have that right to be able to be heard,” he said. “There is no way that we can allow Mud Lake and half the lower valley washed into the sea because we didn’t say anything. Money doesn’t mean everything, money don’t mean anything. We gotta stop this, and we can,” he said to applause.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Michelle Kinney said the government’s promise to “compensate” those whose ability to harvest country food from Lake Melville will be diminished is “not good enough”.

“We’ve had relocation and compensation. We’ve had residential schools and compensation. And now we’re looking at methylmercury and then compensation. Money doesn’t pay for any of it. In the midst of all of it, we have lives that are devastated. We have social issues, and we’re just contributing more to them. I think it’s time that we just need to put our foot down and say enough is enough and stand up to some of the colonization,” she said.

 I think it’s time that we just need to put our foot down and say enough is enough and stand up to some of the colonization. — Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Michelle Kinney

Dennis Burden, who travelled from Port Hope Simpson for the rally, asked, “How can a government come in and intentionally poison a people, and even kill us? This dam is pretty much guaranteed to fail. People will die. Our food. Where is the justice?”

Debbie Michelin said locals’ pleas during the Muskrat Falls environmental assessment process, and to elected officials, have gone unheard.

“We sat and pleaded our case to the environmental assessment panel to listen to us, to heed our warnings, to listen to the reports, to listen to all the documentation they had, and they listened to absolutely nothing,” she said. “They did nothing when it came to any of the recommendations. None of them have been fulfilled. To me that’s been so disheartening to know that hasn’t happened. And here we are now—it’s been four years—still having this conversation about all that has not happened.

“But what disappoints me most is that we’re standing here and there is not one elected official standing beside us to help us,” she continued, raising her voice. “Where are the elected officials? Where is Perry Trimper? Where is Yvonne Jones? Where is the Liberal Party of Canada? Where is the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador? Where are they? They’re not here. It’s their job to represent us — we elected them to represent us, and they have gone against the Labrador people. And they are too cowardly to come here and face the Labrador people. It’s criminal.”

Many at the rally criticized Trimper, Jones—who is Labrador’s MP—and Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds, all of whom have been silent on the issue of Muskrat Falls as of late despite the concerns coming from members of the communities they represent.

During the environmental assessment consultations, Trimper “was one of the big shields for Nalcor, second only to Gilbert Bennett in my opinion,” said Eldred Davis of Grand Riverkeeper Labrador, who walked on the Muskrat Falls site with NunatuKavut Elder Jim Learning earlier in September to investigate reports of trapped salmon. “He was their right-hand man to Gilbert Bennett, who I’m sure you all know [for his] massive spin and deception.

“[Trimper] is our representative. Unfortunately, he has always been a Nalcor representative. And when it came to the choice between the people of Labrador and his allegiance to Nalcor, he made the choice. He was confronted with verifiable science from Nunatsiavut Government and Harvard, and what did he have to say about it?”

Trimper, who worked for Nalcor during the environmental assessment process, has repeatedly cast doubt over the Harvard study, saying the difference between clearing topsoil and not clearing topsoil from the reservoir would be minimal.

Lake Melville: Avativut, Kanuittailinnivut (Our Environment, Our Health) details the health risks associated with increased methylmercury levels in Lake Melville and states that “under a scenario where carbon-rich surface soil is not removed before flooding…roughly 10 to 20% of Inuit living around Lake Melville are expected to exceed Health Canada’s provisional tolerable daily intake [of methylmercury].”

The study’s low scenario, in which the reservoir is fully cleared of vegetation and topsoil, an estimated 32 Inuit individuals will be pushed above Health Canada’s guidelines for exposure, while the high scenario—which entails partial clearance of trees and brush but no topsoil, and with little decomposition in the river—more than 200 Nunatsiavut beneficiaries could be pushed above safe levels. Under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s methylmercury guidelines, which are more conservative, the number of Nunatsiavut Inuit that could be pushed above safe methylmercury exposure rises to 50 under the low scenario and potentially greater than 400 under the high scenario.

At the moment, the government and Nalcor have stated they will not clear all any topsoil from the reservoir during the first phase of flooding, and have only committed to discussing with Nunatsiavut the possibility of full clearing for the second phase.

“As parents—and many of us here are—we teach our children from a young age to respect the environment, and they take heed to what we say,” said Elizabeth Rice. “For some reason our government is not listening.”

Rice said Trimper is “directly going to be responsible for a lot of things that are going to happen—not may happen, that are going to happen—if we don’t step up and make changes that need to be made right now before it’s too late. There is still some time — not much, obviously. We’re getting close. But he needs to look back to what he was taught at home, what he was taught in his formal education.”

Roy Blake, Nunatsiavut Government’s Ordinary Member for Upper Lake Melville, spoke on his own behalf and questioned the project’s legality in light of the knowledge that methylmercury threatens a traditional food source for the Inuit and Innu communities on Lake Melville.

“Mr. Trimper, Premier Ball, I have to ask — I’m really concerned as a citizen here in Upper Lake Melville: Is this really legal? Do you really think that it’s not going to harm our fish, our habitat, our way of life?” he said.

“Minister Trimper, I am sick to the stomach…with your decision, and you, and your government.”

Shirley Flowers, an Elder from Rigolet who now lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, asked the politicians representing Labradorians who will be affected by Muskrat Falls to “just be human”.

“Muskrat is wrong. It’s beyond wrong, it’s criminal,” she said. “It’s a criminal act, it’s an act against humanity. Our lives are as important as anyone, anywhere. And we have a right to protect it and to walk in and stop it because our lives depend on it. We’re depending on stopping it so that we can survive and live, and our culture can survive and live.”

Lethbridge said in light of the fact first flooding is imminent, he and five or six others will be taking on the ground action.

Kirk Lethbridge says
“I think as the people of Labrador we’re down to the final moment,” says Kirk Lethbridge. Photo by Justin Brake.

Inviting others to join them, Lethbridge said on Monday the group will walk to the North Spur on the construction site.

“We’re going to need every bit of help we can get in any way that we can. We all gotta get on the same team, we all gotta work together,” he said.

“I think as the people of Labrador we’re down to the final moment. Somebody said to me [the resistance] is fading away now — I don’t think so. I think we’re just beginning.”

Despite the urgency of the situation with first flooding as little as two weeks away, while the leaders of all three Indigenous groups in Labrador have spoken out about the methylmercury concerns in recent months none have openly supported actions to stop the dam.

But Michelin, along with several others at the rally, thinks direct action is now “the only solution,” she said.

“We’ve tried the logical approach, we’ve tried the scientific approach. As Inuit people we’re a very passive people, we’re not aggressive. We try to use reason, use logic, to get through to people. But reason and logic is not working. Scientific facts are not working. Nothing else is working.

“It might be something foreign for us to stand up and protest and have boots on the ground, but maybe that’s where we’re at, because what else is there to do at this point?”

Lethbridge urged everyone concerned about the dam, including members of all three Indigenous groups and non-Indigenous residents, to unite on Monday and join him and the others planning to walk to the North Spur.

In a Facebook post following the rally he said the group will meet at 12:30 p.m. at the Muskrat Falls turn at the Trans Labrador Highway West, and they will begin their hike at 1 p.m. Lethbridge encouraged those who can’t walk to show up on the highway side to support those who will be “risking arrest,” he said.

“I’m not afraid to go to prison,” he said. “Lock me up and put me in, because if we’re going to live downstream from that, we’re already in prison. We’re already held back, we’re already held down. For centuries now we’ve been held down, some of us. And if you’re going to be having methylmercury in your food chain, that’s about as held down as you can get.”

North West River resident Kay Adams told The Independent at the rally the provincial government “certainly wouldn’t do this in Newfoundland, but they would do it in Labrador,” she said. “If the Island needs more power, they have falls down there they could dam. We have enough power, we’re not getting nothing from this but poisoning. They’re gonna kill us.

“I want it to stop,” she said. “I want the dam to come down.”

Pamela Knight, a resident of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, said “we have to keep trying to do everything we can from stopping this from happening.”

Labrador songwriter Jacinda Beals performs her song “Don’t Kill the River” at the rally against Muskrat Falls. Sept. 30, 2016.

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