On Tuesday a dramatic scene unfolded at the provincial court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, where land protectors who turned out to support others appearing before a judge were arrested, detained and then put before the judge themselves.
Marjorie Flowers was among the eight people taken into custody, and said the surprise arrests amounted to an “ambush” by Sheriff’s officers and a legal system intent on silencing the mostly Indigenous land protectors attempting to defend their land, water and way of life from the Muskrat Falls hydro project.
The arrests were ordered by a new Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador injunction initiated by Crown energy corporation Nalcor. The injunction also names 15 others who Nalcor alleges broke a previous Oct. 16 injunction, which prohibits people from, among other things, being present inside an injunction zone that extends beyond a fence most commonly referred to as the “main gate”.
Nalcor’s latest injunction—the third since mid-October to largely target members of nearby Inuit and Innu communities who maintain their protests are acts of self-defence and that they have not given free, prior and informed consent on Muskrat Falls—includes a photojournalist and a 96-year-old elder, both of whom were surprised to find themselves at risk of being arrested.
Photographer Mike Hynes and Elder Dorothy Michelin say they never intended to break an existing Nalcor injunction last weekend when they stood outside the Muskrat Falls main gate approximately 30 kilometres outside Goose Bay.
Hynes, who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, says he attended the protest Sunday “with the intentions of photographing and documenting” what was going on and pitching his work to news outlets that couldn’t be there to cover the event.
He says he saw “no signs” that indicated an area outside the project’s main gate was off limits, and that none of the RCMP officers present notified him he was breaking an injunction.
Similarly, Michelin, who was out for a Sunday drive with her daughter and interested in seeing if water levels above Muskrat Falls had flooded her family’s traditional hunting and trapping grounds, says she did not know she was breaking an injunction when she stopped to chat with people outside the main gate.
“I didn’t think I was doing any harm. I didn’t realize that you wasn’t supposed to be on that side of the road at all. Nobody told me that,” Michelin told The Independent Wednesday.
While most land protectors have obeyed a previous injunction granted to the Crown corporation by the provincial Supreme Court, Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill said in a statement Tuesday that Michelin and Hynes are among “certain individuals [who] have continued to create an unsafe situation for themselves and others by preventing free access to and from the project site.”
The previous day, Saturday, one land protector was reportedly hit, and another pushed—but not injured—by a transport truck attempting to enter the Muskrat Falls site through the main gate, where a protest was taking place. After the confrontation between land protectors and the truck driver, land protectors implemented a partial blockade, admitting only one vehicle into, and one out of, the site every 45 minutes.
RCMP say they are investigating the incident involving the truck driver. Despite multiple requests for information Nalcor has not provided The Independent with details on how it is dealing with the situation internally, if at all.
Labrador MP Yvonne Jones was among many who took to social media to criticize Nalcor’s decision to name Michelin on its latest court order.
In an email Wednesday evening O’Neill addressed the criticisms, saying while Nalcor “sympathizes” with Michelin’s situation “the company must do everything it can to protect people at site which is why we seek the assistance of the RCMP and the courts in these matters. After that, it is up to the courts to exercise those powers and functions.”
Nalcor hindering reconciliation
Julie Bull, a NunatuKavut Inuk from Happy Valley-Goose Bay who teaches Indigenous studies at University of Toronto, says Nalcor’s latest injunction and the ongoing consequential arrests of land protectors amounts to Nalcor “passing the buck to RCMP and the legal system without taking any responsibility for the role they play in this.”
Bull, who has been following the Muskrat Falls resistance closely from Ontario and is now home in Goose Bay, says Nalcor’s injunctions and the suppression of the Indigenous-led resistance is hindering reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples in Labrador.
“We’re just back to where we started again,” she explains, referring to the provincial and federal governments’ promises last year to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
O’Neill issued a statement from Nalcor to The Independent Wednesday that claims “Nalcor is committed to productive working relationships with members of the community that are based on peaceful interactions.”
But Bull says Nalcor’s “rhetoric holds no meaning to people here in Labrador because their actions do not match their words.”
She says the Crown corporation needs to be held “accountable for their actions as they have the power and control to be able to stop such injustice to the people who are protecting the land here,” and that “if Nalcor is committed to working relationships with Labradorians that are ‘based on peaceful interactions’ they would not pursue arrests of peaceful Elders who are showing their support to the land protectors.”
Bull says there is also a discrepancy between Nalcor’s words and actions on the issue of safety.
“Land protectors and protesters have been peaceful and have not put themselves or others in danger,” she says.
“Nalcor doesn’t seem too interested in the safety of people living downstream from the river who will be greatly impacted by the contamination of the water. The safety of land protectors and Labradorians who are standing up for their rights are also not being considered.
“[Nalcor’s] rhetoric holds no meaning to people here in Labrador because their actions do not match their words. — Julie Bull
“Safety is defined as ‘being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury’ and I do not think that Nalcor is doing that in any way. Rhetoric is not reconciliation. Reconciliation is relational and we are not seeing any kind of actual effort from Nalcor to build relationships with Labradorians regarding Muskrat Falls.”
Nalcor’s history of injunctions intended to prevent Indigenous people and others defending their land in Labrador from impeding construction predates this fall’s protests.
In 2013 the corporation was granted an injunction by the N.L. Supreme Court that prompted the RCMP to arrest nine people—mostly Inuit, including NunatuKavut leader Todd Russell—outside the Muskrat Falls main gate.
The injunction was later deemed illegal and was thrown out by the courts, but was immediately effective in hampering the efforts of Indigenous people resisting the project.
Flowers, who was among those arrested in 2013 and also last month on Oct. 17, called Tuesday’s surprise arrests a “strategic move” by authorities, “clearly done so that everybody could see it, everyone could see the intimidation tactics.”
She also said the colonial nature of the ongoing suppression of Indigenous rights was on full display Tuesday, when land protectors were put in a “dirty, smelly” room, “shackled…and forced to walk around with no boots on,” and were left feeling “very much afraid,” she said.
“They didn’t let us feel for an instant that this was out of line — they said this was all part of the procedure. But it was just so demeaning and so unbelievable,” Flowers continued.
“When I came home [Tuesday] night I felt so belittled and stripped of my rights. I wrote a status on Facebook that was actually what I believe this colonialist system to be saying to me: ‘Don’t you dare speak. Don’t you dare stand up for your rights. Don’t you dare try to protect the land. Don’t you dare try to protect the people. Or we will punish you.’
“And that is clearly what happened [Tuesday] in the courtroom — because I stood up, I voiced my concerns, because I said I’m a land protector and I don’t want this to happen. Then they came down heavy-handed to say, ‘You shut your mouth and you stay away, and we’re giving you this specific distance — don’t you dare come closer to try to jeopardize this project in any way, shape or form.’”
Flowers and the other land protectors arrested Tuesday signed undertakings that prohibit them from being within one kilometre of the Muskrat Falls worksite boundary.
“I felt like I was stripped of my rights as an Aboriginal person, as a Labradorian,” she said.
“There is no giving up”
In one of his photos Hynes captured what he believes is an important contradiction facing authorities who are being instructed to treat land protectors as criminals.
The image depicts Michelin shaking hands with an RCMP officer outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls site. The officer is smiling as he looks down at Michelin in what Hynes at the time interpreted as a “moment of kindness between the police and Dorothy,” he said. “Now it seems to say so much more.”
The police, he said, “at any moment may be called upon to arrest people,” a scenario which calls into question the civil rights of people defending their land, food and way of life, and also the ethical dilemma many police officers must face.
“After all, they are part of the community and are humans,” said Hynes.
Michelin’s conversation with the police officer, because of where it took place, makes the Elder from Happy Valley-Goose Bay one of the “certain individuals” who Nalcor feels “blocked the safe access to and from the Muskrat Falls work sites,” according to O’Neill’s statement on Wednesday.
Michelin, whose children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will likely never again set foot on their family’s trapline, said the destruction of the area “really hurts”.
“That was the path trappers used for many, many years,” she explained. “I’ve been here since the ‘30s and I’ve been over that path, up to the traps and berry picking on the portage path, and I find it very hard that they would tear that down and destroy it. It’s very, very nasty of them to do it.”
Bull says the photo of Michelin and the police officer made her “proud to see law enforcement standing with an Elder,” and that she knows “there are many individuals within the system who support ‘Make Muskrat Right’ and the land protectors who are standing up and speaking out against Nalcor.”
She says the movement to stop Muskrat Falls is “bigger than just a couple of communities here in Labrador,” and that it’s “part of a global movement of Indigenous people standing up and enacting our right to self-determination and self-governance.
I’m going to be an ancestor one of these days, and I don’t want to be an ancestor that never said anything about this project going ahead. — Jennifer Hefler-Elson
“We want to have meaningful relationships with government but that’s not been happening,” she explains.
Until the provincial and federal governments demonstrate an actual commitment to reconciliation as it applies to Muskrat Falls, Bull says she thinks “people will continue to break laws or do whatever they need to do to somehow get our voices heard.”
Likewise, Nalcor needs to “show us, not tell us,” Bull says. “I don’t believe what they say, I believe what they do. And I think that sentiment is being felt by many Labradorians again this week. We are missing transparency, authenticity, integrity — all those fundamental human bits that are so necessary in this kind of work.”
Jennifer Hefler-Elson, one of the land protectors arrested Tuesday, told The Independent she refuses to back down from the fight to stop Muskrat Falls, which she believes won’t be safe at the North Spur once construction is complete and the reservoir is flooded.
“I’m going to be an ancestor one of these days, and I don’t want to be an ancestor that never said anything about this project going ahead,” she said. “I want to be an ancestor who stood up and said, I was against this project from day one. If my grandson ever wants to find out what his ancestor thought about this project he will certainly know.”
Dennis Burden of Port Hope Simpson was one of about a half dozen land protectors who interrupted processions in the provincial legislature in St. John’s Tuesday to read a statement asking the premier and MHAs to take responsibility for a number of problems associated with Muskrat Falls.
The fisherman and long-time critic of the hydro project told The Independent there is “only one way to make Muskrat right” — to stop Muskrat Falls from being completed.
Kirk Lethbridge, who was among the roughly 50 land protectors who occupied the Muskrat Falls camp in October and was the first to be arrested on Tuesday, told The Independent Wednesday he expects the more Nalcor and authorities clamp down on people defending their land and way of life, the stronger the movement will grow.
“The bottom line is we’re still going to get methylmercury, and we still have the North Spur undealt with. And we will have our day, we will have our justice,” he said. “We will be heard. We are not surrendering. There is no giving up.”
Flowers said while she and others who are prohibited from going within a kilometre of the Muskrat Falls site may keep their distance for now, they will find other roles to play in the movement and hope others will “take initiative [and] do what you need to do, because even though there are 10 people [taken away] from the protest gate, now is the time people have to take our place, step up to the plate.
“I feel that by staying away it’s doing exactly what the colonialists [want] — they’ve forced this on me, on the people. And now is the time, the very time, that we stand up and say, no, you do whatever you want to us — we are not stopping.”
Bull says “colonization is not a thing of the past — it still happens every single day,” and that the colonial nature of the Muskrat Falls conflict is evident to many in Labrador.
She says while she’s unsure how the Muskrat resistance will unfold, she is certain a “united voice” is crucial, “but that united voice can’t just come from leadership — it also has to come from communities and the grassroots people, and elders, and the knowledge keepers, and the land protectors, and the youth — all of the voices.”