Muskrat Falls ‘process’ catalyst for democracy in the streets

Against intensifying discontent over what many are calling “undemocratic” governance, the Dunderdale-led PCs are pressing to sanction the Muskrat Falls megaproject. As a result, more people are going outside, meeting others and finding new ways to make their voices heard.

Residents in Labrador and St. John’s held demonstrations last weekend to protest the government’s handling of Muskrat Falls, just 24 hours before the controversial hydro-electric megaproject would again become the dramatic centerpiece of question period in the House of Assembly.

In Labrador small groups gathered in Port Hope Simpson, Happy Valley-Goose Bay and St. Lewis to call for an end to what they say is a blatant disregard for Labrador’s people, environment and natural resources. In St. John’s about 150 people marched through the downtown core from Harbourside Park to the Colonial Building calling on the governing Tories to restore democracy to Newfoundland and Labrador by repealing Bill 29, sending Muskrat Falls back to the Public Utilities Board (PUB) for a conclusive review and holding a province-wide referendum.

Taking to the streets

“Wear pink, wear green! Be heard, be seen!” people chanted as they marched along Water Street as part of the St. John’s event, organized by the People’s Assembly Newfoundland and Labrador, a grassroots mobilization of civil society that grew out of discontent with provincial governance.

“I really don’t like the fact that our government is taking money away from their budget, running a deficit budget, and putting it towards Muskrat Falls, a project which may or may not be extremely beneficial and needed. There should be a plebiscite on it and it should be in the hands of the (people),” said John Reid, a resident of St. John’s who braved the hilly streets and sub-zero temperature despite suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “I really think that a referendum is really important, simply on Muskrat Falls,” he said, stopping to catch his breath. “Kathy Dunderdale’s been saying the last election gives her the mandate to push this through — I’m saying ‘no’. There’s too much at stake.”

About 100 to 150 people marched through the streets of St. John’s Nov. 18 as part of the People’s Assembly day of action to call for the restoration of democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo by Justin Brake.

Others were motivated by the government’s decision not to let the PUB fulfill its mandate. The NDP circulated a petition at the rally, calling for the Tories to send Muskrat Falls back to the PUB for a full review; they presented it in the House of Assembly on Wednesday.

“My main objection to this is the way the government has railroaded this through. They’ve squashed the PUB and thrown millions of dollars of advertising at us — I just don’t like it,” said St. John’s resident Colin Smith, who was also suspicious of the government’s advertising campaign to solicit public support.

“I kind of think there’s maybe a hidden agenda in there somewhere,” he continued. “That’s just a feeling from the way it’s being handled by the Dunderdale government.”

Paula Graham, a graduate student at Memorial University, said she would like to see the province facilitate a more inclusive decision-making process. “I’m marching today because I feel like if Muskrat Falls is really going to be a public project then we need to have a public discussion,” she said. “Along the same lines, if it’s going to impact many people, then I think many people should have a say and take part in the conversation about it.”

In the absence of democratic process

Newfoundland actor and author Greg Malone emceed the event, introducing speakers and addressing what he sees as the principal issue of the debacle.

“It is essentially the democratic process that we lack in this country (and) that’s the only thing that’s going to save it,” he told the crowd, standing at the bottom of the Colonial Building steps. “You can have dictators, you can have premiers, you can have premier-dictators and dictator-premiers, but once they’ve left what do you have? All you’ve got left is the process. And if they’ve destroyed the process, if they’ve degraded the process, then we’ve got nothing to fight with. So the democratic process is what it’s all about.

“Unless [the PUB] can have proper access to that information and do a review, unless we have a peer review by an independent regulator, I don’t see what we’re talking about here. There is no rush. Slow down! That river is not going anywhere,” he said, prompting applause from the crowd.

When I look at evidence I want the ability to question the people that produce [it]. –MHA Andrew Parsons

Liberal MHA Andrew Parsons offered an account of his first year in government. “The night I got elected was the same night that the premier said ‘we’re not gonna open the House of Assembly,’” he told the crowd, referring to the government’s decision to close the House of Assembly for the fall session. “They locked ‘er up and forgot the keys and that’s all there was to it. So that was the first start to democracy.

“(Then) we stood there day and night and argued against Bill 29, the most regressive piece of legislation that has ever been entered in the House of Assembly in this province,” he continued, alluding to the week-long filibuster against the new legislation last June that limited the public and media’s access to information.

“To have a democracy where the actual free flow of information is reduced … is absolutely shameful, and I’m proud to say we stood united and fought against that until the government invoked closure and shut down the debate on that.

About 50 people turned out in Happy Valley-Goose Bay for a boil-up and demonstration on Nov. 18. Photo by Denise Cole.

“Now … just over a year after we were first elected the government’s saying there won’t be a special debate because we won’t play by their rules. They’re saying they’re taking the ball and they’re goin’ home. I practiced law before I got into this, and they say the evidence is there. Now I say when I look at evidence I want the ability to question the people that produce [it].”

NDP leader Lorraine Michael said a legislative process that permits a majority government to either evade proper debate or change laws for the same outcome is at the root of the NDP’s inability to make a decision on the megaproject.

“We don’t have democracy in the House of Assembly, we don’t have all-party committees … we don’t have agreement on how to run the house — that’s why we don’t have a special debate going on in the house. If the government wanted the special debate in the house we’d have it. It’s as simple as that.”

But Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale continues to reject criticism from the opposition and public, saying the government has released reports substantiating its argument that Muskrat Falls is the best option for meeting the province’s energy needs. On Monday she introduced a private members’ bill to allow for a two hour debate on Muskrat Falls on Dec. 5, possibly after the megaproject will have already been sanctioned, further irking the opposition.

“They’re playing a game with the most expensive project this province has ever taken on, [with] billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money,” Michael told the press Monday. “It’s absolutely outrageous.”

On Tuesday Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy admitted the province made a $45 million transfer to Nalcor on Oct. 1 to fund road work at the Muskrat Falls site, prior to the project’s sanctioning and a loan guarantee from Ottawa.

Too late? “Not a chance…”

Amidst all the uncertainty surrounding Muskrat Falls, some feel a sense of futility regarding efforts to stall the megaproject.

“I think [this] is further confirmation of something we already know: the government is going to press ahead with this project no matter what,” one commenter posted in the People’s Assembly Facebook group in response to news of the government’s $45 million transfer to Nalcor. “In that case, they may as well get started if it is going to save some money down the line. It doesn’t get me any angrier than I already am.”

Angus Andersen of Nain addressed the crowd of demonstrators at the Colonial Building in St. John’s Nov. 18. “I hate the idea of Muskrat Falls – ruining beautiful land, ruining beautiful hunting grounds … It is our land,” he said. Photo by Justin Brake.

Another commenter in the Friends of Grand River/Mistashipu Facebook group expressed a sentiment many seem to share: “‘Tis done boy, ‘tis done! is what they’re saying, who knows, maybe it’s already too late?” to which another replied: “[N]ot a chance..they wouldn’t be trying to ram it right down our throats in such a hurry if they weren’t somewhat concerned public opinion will turn on them…why else have they thrown democratic process right out the window?”

On Tuesday Yvonne Jones, Liberal member for Cartwright-L’Anse au Clair, announced she would support the project under the condition the government provide benefits beyond temporary jobs for residents in her district.

NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) President Todd Russell was unmoved by the comments, saying the Labrador Metis — embroiled in negotiations for recognition and a land claim with the federal government over the NunatuKavut territory, which they say includes the Muskrat Falls area — will settle for nothing less than “a full and fair recognition of our Aboriginal rights and a full and fair accommodation of our Aboriginal rights in the project area,” he told The Independent on Wednesday. “Anything less than that will not be acceptable to us as an aboriginal group.”

The Big Land’s woes

As the NCC continues its battle with the provincial and federal governments, those who gathered in the Labrador communities of Port Hope Simpson, St. Lewis and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and one man from Nain who addressed the rally crowd in St. John’s, spoke to a bigger issue surrounding the hydro-electric megaproject.

“The issue is not just about that river, it’s really about Labrador as a whole and the way Labrador has been treated over the years,” Roberta Benefiel told The Independent Sunday evening after returning from the demonstration in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. “It’s like we’re the stepchild, and they come and take from us because we really don’t have enough people to buck up and fight. But I think that’s changing,” she continued, pausing for a moment. “But you know what? If every single one of us in this territory, all 29,000 of us, babies and all, came out and voted, we could never out-vote you guys out there [on the island]. So politically we’re in a real funny situation.”

At the bottom of the Colonial Building steps in St. John’s, Angus Andersen of Nain didn’t speak long. To him the plight of Labrador’s land, rivers and other natural resources came down to a single question: “When will they stop ruining Labrador for money?”

Watch a video from the Happy Valley-Goose Bay demonstration, which turned into a boil-up with music:

Inspired by the Labradorians, who had boil-ups at their demonstrations last weekend, the People’s Assembly is planning another province-wide day of action on Nov. 27, called The Newfoundland and Labrador Muskrat Falls Boil Up. “We’re going to set up at at least three locations in St. John’s and we’re going to really encourage everyone to contact their friends and family in other communities to come together and talk about (Muskrat Falls), and send us a picture,” said Assembly organizer Jon Parsons.

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