Land protectors facing charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests in Labrador last fall are seeing renewed support for their effort to protect their communities’ water, food and ways of life.
Earlier this week one of Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders spoke out in support of land protectors who face civil and criminal charges for their role in reducing the probability of environmental and human health risks the Muskrat Falls project poses to downstream populations.
Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe sent a letter to Premier Dwight Ball Wednesday requesting that Ball consider asking Nalcor to have the charges dropped. Upward of 60 individuals face charges in relation to the Muskrat Falls protests, including the blockade of the site’s main entrance and the occupation of the workers’ camp.
“Many of these people feel they have done nothing wrong, but were simply taking action to protect their health, culture and way of life, and, as a result, have been branded criminals,” Lampe said in his second such letter to Ball since the occupation last October.
“This is very unfortunate and will, without a doubt, add to the growing discontent people have towards Nalcor and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Lampe said having the charges dropped would “serve as a significant and meaningful gesture of good faith and good intentions going forward, and would help to restore positive and constructive relations among the Indigenous leaders, the people of Labrador, Nalcor Energy and the Province.”
“We need all the support we can get”
Land protectors welcomed Lampe’s letter but said they want to see the Inuit elder and political leader’s words accompanied by actions.
Beatrice Hunter, a Nunatsiavut beneficiary who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, is facing civil and criminal charges, along with her 23-year-old son Scott Dicker.
For the past two weeks Hunter has been sending messages to Lampe via public Facebook videos.
One of dozens who occupied the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp last October, Hunter told The Independent Wednesday she hadn’t been expecting Lampe to advocate for the land protectors, and that she’s grateful because she thought her calls were “going to fall on deaf ears again.”
But Hunter said more support is needed from Nunatsiavut Government, including legal assistance for beneficiaries who face criminal charges and potential jail time, which she said would place enormous financial and emotional strain on their families.
“This is for the future, this is for generations to come,” she said. “We need all the support we can get. Me and my son can’t afford a lawyer, and we feel it was the right thing to do when we went in [to the worksite] in October — because we had no voice.
“Our premier is also our Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs minister; who are we supposed to turn to? We have no one to turn to if we have any concerns; we have no voice,” she continued, claiming land protectors exhausted all efforts to convince elected officials and Nalcor to prevent harm to locals’ food and way of life, but that none of the parties took adequate steps to do so.
Denise Cole, a spokesperson for the Labrador land protectors, told The Independent Thursday that Lampe’s letter “sends a strong message that he’s prepared to stand up again and say that he supports his people.”
But Cole said Lampe and the other Indigenous leaders need to better support those who put their bodies and freedom on the line last fall.
She pointed to the two Inuit leaders, Lampe and NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) President Todd Russell, who she said were encouraging their memberships to “make Muskrat right”.
“When you encourage your membership to support [the cause], you help them get rides to rallies, and you take those opportunities to speak motivational words to your people, they expect that you’re going to stand with them throughout the rest of the cause.”
As protests intensified in the fall in anticipation of the first phase of reservoir flooding, members of all three Indigenous groups in Labrador began calling out their elected leaders, as well as Labrador’s four MHAs, who are all members of the governing Liberal Party.
Land protectors demanded their political representatives join them on the ground to try and stop the imminent flooding and the projected increase of methylmercury in their traditional foods downstream of the dam.
On Oct. 15, the first potential day of flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir, Lampe joined the protests for the first time since he, Russell and Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee stood side by side in Goose Bay four months earlier in an unprecedented symbolic act of unity to demand that Nalcor heed the calls of Nunatsiavut’s Make Muskrat Right campaign.
Our premier is also our Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs minister; who are we supposed to turn to? … We have no voice. — Beatrice Hunter
That day in October, approximately 200 people representing all three Indigenous groups and settler Labradorians gathered alongside the Trans Labrador Highway, where they listened to speeches from Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue, hunger-striking Inuk artist Billy Gauthier, and Lampe himself.
Lampe then led a march up the highway that stalled west-bound traffic for about 45 minutes before the majority of those in attendance entered the Muskrat Falls worksite and walked toward the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the south side of the river.
The next morning about a dozen or so land protectors initiated a blockade of the main entrance to the worksite, stopping the flow of all traffic trying to enter the site. That evening authorities served notice of an injunction granted to Nalcor by the Supreme Court of N.L., and the following morning eight land protectors were arrested for refusing to end the blockade.
The next day, on Oct. 17, NCC President Todd Russell held a press conference in Goose Bay and vowed on the ground action to halt the flooding of Muskrat Falls until methylmercury concerns were addressed. At the announcement Russell was handed a copy of the injunction by land protector and NCC member Kirk Lethbridge. Russell took the injunction and said, “I suppose this is what we can do with injunctions” as he tore it up in front of the media and to the applause of many in attendance.
The following morning Russell and several NCC members went up the river in boat and disembarked on the Muskrat Falls worksite, claiming they were exercising their Aboriginal rights to the land. NunatuKavut has an outstanding land claim which includes much of the land around Muskrat Falls.
The Independent documented Russell and the NCC members’ actions that day.
Charges inconsistent and political: Cole
Cole, who is of Inuit descent and a former member of the NCC, said Russell has an obligation to support his people who are facing civil and criminal charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests, and that she thinks there is hypocrisy at play on the NCC’s part, and a double standard on the part of the justice system.
When Russell tore up the injunction on Oct. 17 and then defied it by going on to the site on Oct. 18, “that told [NCC members] that their leader was going to have their back,” she said.
Last month Russell told The Independent he had “not made any decision about providing legal representation for individuals,” and that the NCC is considering challenging the Oct. 16 injunction in the courts.
“We have serious concerns with the injunction itself, and the pervasiveness of the injunction and whether it is legal in and of itself,” the former Labrador MP said.
In a written statement to The Independent Thursday, Russell distinguished between NCC-sanctioned protest actions and those undertaken by land protectors when they blockaded and then occupied the Muskrat Falls site, saying the NCC “is not aware of any of its members being charged in relation to actions that NCC led.”
Cole said if Russell had been charged for defying the injunction, as many NCC members were after going on to the site on Oct. 22, NunatuKavut “would be providing financial assistance to fight this legally.”
Russell “should be no different from his membership,” she continued. “His membership should be just as equally represented. The question begs to be asked, why hasn’t he been charged, and why isn’t he providing legal counsel to his members, who he actively encouraged?”
Russell and other NCC members were arrested in April 2013 for defying a previous Nalcor-initiated injunction by protesting on the Trans Labrador Highway outside the main entrance to the project site.
NunatuKavut Elder Jim Learning, after he was detained and held in custody, launched a five-day hunger strike before being released.
The NCC challenged the injunction in court and was successful in having it thrown out on grounds the court order was unconstitutional.
Russell did not say in his statement Thursday whether the NCC has decided to challenge the Oct. 16, 2016 injunction.
He did say, though, that “while we cannot speak to the decisions that are made by law enforcement agencies, we can attest to the fact that there are sometimes inconsistencies and double standards in their approach.”
In the fall of 2013 the NCC issued a statement that the arrest of Russell and other NCC members made by the RCMP on April 5 of that year were “tainted and biased” because, Russell claimed at the time, “information has come to light that a high-ranking RCMP officer who was directly involved with the arrests and charges…is now employed with the Muskrat Falls hydro-electric project holding a senior position in security.
“Information provided to NCC indicates that the RCMP officer was aware of, and may have been actively pursuing, the position with the Muskrat Falls project on or about the same time as the NCC arrests were made. The RCMP officer in question is currently on a leave of absence from the RCMP,” the Oct. 1, 2013 statement read.
In his statement to The Independent Thursday, Russell said “three and a half years later, we have yet to receive a formal response to that complaint,” and that the NCC “continues to be vocal around the heavy-handed approach and the use of injunctions and the courts related to Muskrat Falls on-the-ground actions.
“NCC has consistently shown leadership in making these views known with Nalcor and the province and have advocated that this latest injunction be thrown out and the charges dropped.”
Cole believes the decision to charge some who defied the injunction and went on to the site, but not others, is “political”.
“I think the reason why [Russell] hasn’t been charged is because Dwight Ball knows he’s going to have to sit to a negotiation table with Todd Russell, and there’s resources in southern Labrador that he’s going to want,” she said, pointing out the NCC has already, prior to finalizing its land claim agreement with Canada, “signed letters of agreements with Alderon [Iron Ore Corp.], who is a big supporter of Muskrat Falls and needing that power for resource extraction,” and with “Search Minerals [Inc.] to look at rare minerals.”
Cole said if land protectors acting in self-defence to protect their water, food and way of life are being charged for breaking the injunction, so too should Russell.
“He broke that injunction before those who went through that gate and was not charged and has not been investigated to our knowledge, even though he made it very public that himself and other council members were breaking the injunction,” she said.
“He tore up that injunction in front of [land protector] Kirk Lethbridge and said, this is what I think of that injunction. Kirk Lethbridge is now facing charges, even though his president made it very clear in a message to him [by] tearing up that injunction that they shouldn’t respect the injunction either.”
Cole said she voluntarily renounced her NCC membership based on the organization’s “lack of clarity about their stance on Muskrat Falls and what I felt was double-messaging and looking to manipulate a situation for the benefit of the NunatuKavut land claim and government,” and “because I felt their values are not in line with my cultural values of being somebody of Inuit descent.”
Being a person of Inuit descent, she said, “makes me a steward of the land [and] means that I stand up for the protection of land and water and life.”
Justice and reconciliation
Though expressions of public support for land protectors dwindled following the leaders’ agreement that effectively brought the Muskat Falls occupation to an end, Cole said there has been a recent resurgence in support.
Last month land protectors received a letter from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) accompanied by a $1,000 donation to their legal defence fund.
“The defense of your territory and Mother Earth is well noted and inspiring. The attempt to extinguish title and destroy even more land and territory is something you have rightfully opposed. We recognize that after generations of destructive and invasive colonialism the Innu and all collective Indigenous spirit on these lands is alive, well, and gathering steam,” reads the letter, signed by CUPW Second National Vice-President Dave Bleakney.
“It gives us comfort and hope that others will follow your example in order that destruction of the Earth cease and human beings will nurture and live in harmony with all living things.”
Cole said receiving the letter from CUPW was “incredibly encouraging,” and that it “tells us that we aren’t alone in this walk at a time when it seems that our Aboriginal leaders and our provincial and federal government leaders have turned their backs on us.”
Last month Mi’kmaq lawyer and Indigenous rights scholar Pamela Palmater told The Independent land and water defenders, or protectors, play the modern day role of Indigenous nations’ warrior societies, and that others should “support them in a wide variety of ways” since they make the largest sacrifices to protect the land and water for everyone.
“That warrior spirit to protect our people — it’s a rare quality,” she said. “People need to realize that these people are defending us in our own territories.”
Cole said in addition to ensuring the terms of the leaders’ agreement around mitigating methylmercury are adequate and respected in a way that will protect people’s health, “there’s still a lot to hold the government accountable for. So we really need people to understand that it’s not done, and Make Muskrat Right is far from being over.
“We had over 600 artists sign on last fall, and there were groups right across the nation who stood up and [supported] the Make Muskrat Right campaign — so they need to get back on the path with us again now.”
Palmater also told The Independent in March that when it comes to the treatment of Indigenous land defenders in Canada the federal and provincial governments are “not respecting Section 35 [of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms] and the right of people to protect their land and territories.
“If law enforcement was enforcing all of the laws in Canada, we wouldn’t have any problems. But they’re not even enforcing their own laws, let alone Indigenous laws, and that’s where we have the problem.”
Palmater also noted that when RCMP arrest Indigenous people in the midst of protecting their rights against government and corporate encroachment, they are effectively “enforcing corporate privileges.”
When the Liberal government came to power both federally and provincially in the fall of 2015, both governments pledged to implement the calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
Among those was a call upon the provincial governments “to commit to the recognition and implementation of Aboriginal justice systems in a manner consistent with the Treaty and Aboriginal rights of Aboriginal peoples, the Constitution Act, 1982, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed by Canada in November 2012.”
Another call to action compelled “the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to ensure that lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency training, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.”
After appointing himself Minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs after the Liberals won the provincial election in November 2015, Ball promised to “lead the implementation of the calls to action set out in the [TRC report] which are applicable to the provincial government.”
On Thursday provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons responded to President Lampe’s letter to Ball, saying the provincial government would not advocate for amnesty of land protectors as “decisions to prosecute, terminate proceedings or launch an appeal are independent decisions made by individual prosecutors in accordance with established legal criteria. These matters must be allowed to take their proper course.”
Asked if the provincial government has made any progress on recognizing and implementing Aboriginal justice systems, and whether the Director of Public Prosecutions and any Crown attorneys who will be involved with the prosecution of land protectors have received the cultural competency training as outlined in the TRC report, Parsons said he cannot release this information because of the charges related to Muskrat Falls.
“I am unable to respond to your questions due to the fact they are related to a matter that is presently before the courts and to which you are a litigant,” he said, referring to the charges placed against this journalist for my role in covering the protests at Muskrat Falls last October (see disclosure below). It is not clear if Parsons means information related to the Department of Justice’s response to the TRC calls to action cannot be disclosed so long as there are Indigenous people in the court system, or whether he means information cannot be disclosed to litigants of the Nalcor and RCMP-initiated charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests.
A follow-up request was sent to Parsons Thursday asking for a general response to the question of implementing Aboriginal justice systems, but a reply had not been received by the time of publication. This story will be updated, or a follow-up story published, once The Independent has more information on this matter.
According to 2014-2015 Statistics Canada data, 27 percent of adults admitted to correctional services in Newfoundland and Labrador were Aboriginal, though the most recent available data indicates Indigenous people comprised only seven percent of the province’s population.
Last month Ball told The Independent he would not advocate for amnesty on the land protectors’ behalf because “the last thing we want is a premier, or any leader, interfering with our law, and interfering in justice.”
Two-thirds of more than 13,000 votes in a VOCM poll conducted on Wednesday supported having the charges against land protectors involved in the Muskrat Falls protests dropped.
The courts in Labrador have struggled to accommodate the number of cases in the region. In February charges against a former RCMP officer in the Inuit community of Hopedale accused of child luring were stayed because the case took too long to go to trial, a provincial court judge ruled.
Land protectors have repeatedly denounced the charges against them as unjust, describing their actions to halt flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir as a last-resort act of self-defence when the political and legal institutions failed to protect them from imminent harm.
Disclosure: The author of this article faces one civil and two criminal charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests in October 2016. As a journalist, I followed the story and documented and reported on the Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp. I left the project site once a Supreme Court of N.L. judge approved a Nalcor-initiated injunction that specifically named me. I am currently fighting these charges in court as they pose a threat to press freedom, which is constitutionally protected under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.