Muskrat Falls: Reconciliation, or Assimilation?

As Nalcor prepares for the first phase of flooding, we take a closer look at the implications Muskrat Falls could have for reconciliation with Indigenous communities in Labrador.

“We will together, jointly, make this happen,” former Premier Paul Davis announced in July 2015 during a news conference in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Davis, who was hosting provincial, territorial and Indigenous leaders as part of the Council of the Federation meetings in Newfoundland and Labrador, issued the joint statement in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report.

The culmination of six years of consultations and hearings with Indigenous leaders, community members and victims and survivors of Canada’s residential schools, the TRC report brought to light the devastating impact Canada’s colonial legacy and ongoing colonial policies had, and are still having, on Indigenous Peoples. For the first time, through the report’s 94 calls to action, a comprehensive path was laid out toward reconciliation between Canada and this land’s First Peoples.

At the time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper largely ignored the report’s calls to action, promising only that his government would study them. The Harper Government also repeatedly refused to call a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and made Canada one of the last countries in the world to sign on to the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), calling in only an “aspirational document”.

As Davis and his peers announced in Goose Bay, however, the provinces and territories would move forward to implement the TRC’s calls to action, which include the implementation of UNDRIP as the “framework for reconciliation,” the report reads.

They’re “important commitments that we need to follow up on,” Davis said of the calls to action.

Led by Senator and former judge Murray Sinclair, the TRC outlined how the residential school system and Canada’s policies amounted to “cultural genocide” against First Peoples. The schools were tools of colonization, a way to remove Indigenous children from their families, communities, language and cultural practices, principles and values, the report highlights through interviews with survivors.

Today, other government policies have the same effect — in Newfoundland and Labrador most imminently with the threat the Muskrat Falls hydro development poses to Indigenous communities surrounding Lake Melville, according to Charlotte Wolfrey, a resident of Rigolet, an Inuit community that stands to lose a lot from the province’s multi-billion dollar energy project.

“Our concern is about methylmercury getting into our food supply and down the road not being able to live our traditional lifestyle. It’s impacting our Inuit way of life,” she told The Independent last week.

“It’s really easy to make a speech and say you’re supportive of what’s in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, but when it comes to action, that’s where it will really show how serious people are,” she added, referring to the provincial and federal government’s commitments to rebuild relationships with Indigenous communities.

According to a recent study led by researchers from Harvard University, once the Muskrat Falls reservoir is flooded those living downstream who consume fish, seals and seabirds from Lake Melville will be at risk of exceeding methylmercury levels above what Health Canada says is safe.

A 3,000-square kilometre estuary, Lake Melville is home to five communities and is situated in both Innu and Inuit land claim areas. The Muskrat Falls project is exclusively on Innu lands, however the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC), representing the Inuit of Southern Labrador, also claim part of the lands affected by the development as their traditional territory. The NCC has not yet negotiated a land claims agreement with Canada. Members of the three Indigenous groups, and settlers, harvest country foods from the lake.

In June leaders of all three Indigenous groups united at a rally in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to support Nunatsiavut Government’s call to fully clear the Muskrat Falls reservoir of vegetation and topsoil in order to minimize the risk to those living downstream from the project.

On Thursday, following a meeting between representatives of Nunatsiavut Government and the premier and Environment Minister Perry Trimper, Trimper announced Nalcor would proceed with the first stage of flooding this fall without clearing that portion of the reservoir — which Nunasiavut said in its own statement amounts to about 25 percent of the entire flooding area.

Trimper also said the government is “open to further examination of the feasibility of clearing the reservoir from the initial flooding of 25 metres to full flooding [at the] 39 metre mark.”

In its statement Nunatsiavut noted the “remaining 75 percent of the reservoir is expected to be flooded sometime in 2019.”

Responding to the recommendations of Nunstsiavut’s Make Muksrat Right campaign, Trimper added the province has agreed to “general terms to a role for the Nunatsiavut Government in monitoring, including the potential for an Independent Expert Advisory Committee on which they would participate, with further discussions on this to occur,” and that the province will continue discussions regarding Nunatsiavut’s request for an Impact Management Agreement “and for joint decision-making authority over downstream environmental monitoring.”

Nunatsiavut Minister of Lands and Natural Resources Darryl Shiwak told The Independent following Thursday’s announcement that Nunatsiavut is “extremely disappointed” the government is allowing Nalcor to proceed with first flooding without full removal of vegetation and topsoil.

The Muskrat Falls construction site as it appeared in September 2016. Photo by Justin Brake.
On Thursday Environment and Conservation Minister Perry Trimper announced the first phase of reservoir flooding will go ahead this fall without full clearing of the flooded area. Above: the Muskrat Falls construction site as it appeared in mid-September, 2016. Photo by Justin Brake.

“We still expect the province to fully clear [the reservoir] and we will still bring that message to the provincial government, and the federal government, that this needs to happen — because the most important part of all this is that the only way to mitigate is to fully clear that reservoir,” Shiwak said. “Everything else is secondary to that, because once you flood even a little bit the methylmercury is going to start to rise and it will go into the ecosystem and into the wild foods and eventually get up into whoever eats those wild foods — and there are a lot of people downstream who do that.”

Also on Thursday National Inuit Leader Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), announced that ITK was joining Nunatsiavut in “calling on the Government of Canada to intervene and use its authority to require changes to the project.

“This is an urgent matter, and I have written to the Prime Minister to ask him to fulfill his public commitment to respect the precautionary approach in regulatory decisions, environmental decision-making based on science and establishing new relationships with Inuit on an Inuit-to-Crown basis – respecting rights and accommodation of those rights,” said Obed.

With the clock ticking before first flooding occurs, concern is growing among locals that any flooding could mean irreversible damage to an important food source and traditional way of life.

Residents of Rigolet recently conducted a survey that revealed “90 percent of the households are concerned about Muskrat Falls, and 54 percent of those 83 completed surveys want the project shut down, want Nunasiavut Government and the people to try to have some impact, to try to go up there and try to shut the project down,” explained Wolfrey, who is a spokesperson for the grassroots group Make Muskrat Right—Rigolet.

On Thursday Nalcor spokesperon Janine McCarthy told The Independent that while Nalcor is authorized to begin raising water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2016, “a decision has not yet been taken regarding the specific date that these activities will begin.”

Asked if Nunatsiavut is considering legal or on-the-ground actions before first flooding, Shiwak said the government has “thoroughly thought through…what options may be available to us,” and that any action it takes “will be the decision of the executive.”

Reservoir clearing “such a reasonable demand”

Peter Kulchyski is head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba and has been studying hydro-affected communities for a number of years.

In a recent interview with The Independent he said all dams in Canada’s north share striking similarities in their impacts on Indigenous communities — and that Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t have far to look for a glimpse of the looming consequences of Muskrat Falls.

“I can’t emphasize enough the kind of destruction these projects will bring to the communities,” he said, adding the money that typically entices Indigenous leaders to relinquish land rights to make way for hydro projects “never seems to translate into community well-being.”

Kulchyski said methylmercury is almost universally a problem following the flooding of reservoirs, and that Nunatsiavut’s request that Nalcor fully clear the reservoir of vegetation and topsoil in order to minimize the risk of mercury poisoning in downstream communities is “such a reasonable demand.”

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada’s website, when mercury, a naturally-occurring element in the environment, “enters fresh water bodies and the oceans, or settles into sediments and soils, [it becomes] involved in biogeochemical cycles [and is] transformed into the highly toxic form of methylmercury, and bioaccumulate[s] in the food chain.”

The same government resource explains that symptoms of methylmercury toxicity—also known as Minamata disease—range from “tingling of the skin, numbness, lack of muscle coordination, tremor, tunnel vision, loss of hearing, slurred speech, skin rashes, abnormal behaviour, intellectual impairment, to cerebral palsy, coma and death, depending on the level of exposure. In addition, methylmercury has been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More recently, additional findings have described adverse cardiovascular and immune system effects at very low exposure levels.”

After attending a conference in Japan last year that focused on methylmermercury poisoning and Minimata disease, Kulchyski said there’s “substantial international debate about what are the harmful levels [of methylmercury],” and whether “mercury will ever disappear from the water.”

In October 2013 the Government of Canada signed the international Minimata Convention on Mercury and has vowed to “reduce the long range transport of mercury, especially to Canada’s Arctic where it adversely impacts the health of Northern people and our fragile ecosystem,” according to a statement on Environment and Climate Change Canada’s website.

The global treaty will come into force once 50 countries have ratified it. So far 32 have, but Canada is not one of them.

In light of the Harvard study’s findings and the concerns of the Nunatsiavut Government, the Trudeau Government is faced with new considerations as it decides how to respond to the province’s recent request for another loan from Canada to complete the project.

Initially pegged at $7.4 billion, cost overruns have brought the project to $11.4 billion, a price tag that is still rising.

In 2012 the Harper Government agreed to lend the province up to $6.4 billion to complete the project as part of a federal loan guarantee that was to be capped at that amount and would not cover cost overruns.

Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, who has previously expressed concerns over Muskrat Falls’ impacts on communities downstream, did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Independent.

In its environmental impact statement Nalcor argued the effects of Muskrat Falls’ methylmercury output would not extend beyond the mouth of the river into Lake Melville.

Even following the release of the Harvard study, Nalcor Vice Preident Gilbert Bennett downplayed the health risks associated with methylmercury but vowed to expand Nalcor’s monitoring into the Lake Melville region. If mercury rises to unsafe levels, he promised, Nalcor will issue advisory warnings to locals and Indigenous communities that there is a new limit on how much country food from Lake Melville they can consume.

Local Inuit communities have relied on Lake Melville’s bounty of fish, seals and seabirds as a source of healthy food for hundreds of years, while the Innu have been harvesting from the estuary for millennia.

Multiple interview requests sent by The Independent to Premier Ball’s Media Relations Manager Michelle Cannizzaro went unanswered this week, but on Thursday Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Director of Communications Kevin Guest said clearing of the part of the reservoir that will be flooded this fall cannot happen due to Nalcor’s “legal and contractual” obligations.

Muskrat Falls, environmental racism, and reconciliation

Kulchyski said the array of problems hydro dams have presented First Nation communities in northern Manitoba have amounted to environmental racism, and that governments imposing hydro development on Indigenous communities are hindering reconciliation.

From the dangers posed by the eroding shorelines of dammed rivers, where people continue to hunt and trap, to destroyed fishing nets in downstream waters due to debris flowing out of reservoirs, to unpredictable ice in the winter months, when people travel over frozen lakes on skidoo — the combined consequences of hydro development inhibit Indigenous communities’ ability to maintain customs and values rooted in their culture, he said.

Traditional hunting families—the “social basis” of Indigenous communities—are typically those most negatively impacted by large hydro dams, Kulchyski explained.

“If there’s substance abuse and alcohol problems” in a community, “it’s often the hunting families where the children can go and know they can get a meal or know they can sleep in a safe bed. And of course when they’re out on the land they’re even stronger as families. And those are the social basis of the community that these dams are then entirely eroding; they become what is in many ways the last hope of these rural communities having a socially healthy environment. When you take away the hunters’ resources…and the ability to live the land-based life is even more reduced, that disappears,” he said.

“These small, rural communities look very poor to our eyes, but if you go out with the hunting families, there is a form of wealth there that surpasses our own notions of wealth. A typical hunter is his own boss, so has more freedom in his or her life than we do in our lives. They’re usually drinking fresh water, they’re eating organic meat, they’re very skilled people. And in most northern remote communities going onto the land is really the best medicine for people,” he continued.

Indigenous people “spend less time in productive labour than other cultures. So there’s time, there’s wealth in the form of the community itself, and there’s wealth in the form of the land that you can go out on and heal by being on.”

Large scale resource projects on Indigenous lands, including hydro development, “eradicate” traditional forms of wealth, he said, and “transform them into wealth in the form of capital” — a process that Kulchyski argues constitutes a form of environmental racism.

When politicians talk about reconciliation they will say they’re giving jobs and money, but that looks more like assimilation than reconciliation. — Peter Kulchyski, University of Manitoba

“Those three forms of wealth are basically being eradicated and transformed into wealth in the form of capital. And then the capital wealth that is generated of course doesn’t go primarily to the community — it goes primarily to southern corporations. So you have a reconfiguration of wealth and a redistribution of wealth along racial lines,” he added, explaining we are seeing, “tangibly, the breaking of some of the last links of land-based cultures going on.”

In the context of reconciliation, Kulchycki said the question can be asked: “In what ways does this project help to reconcile our relations with Indigenous peoples, and in what ways is it hurting? And once you start tallying it up you see that it’s hurting more than it’s helping.

“When politicians talk about reconciliation they will say they’re giving jobs and money, but that looks more like assimilation than reconciliation,” he said.

Among the TRC report’s calls to action is the commission’s call for all levels of government in Canada “fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.”

Article 25 of UNDRIP states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”

Meanwhile, article 29 protects Indigenous Peoples’ “right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.”

And article 32 affirms Indigenous Peoples’ “right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources, and that “states shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

Furthermore, it reads, “states shall provide effective mechanisms for just and fair redress for any such activities, and appropriate measures shall be taken to mitigate adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact.”

Kelly Morrissey, a native of Happy Valley-Goose Bay who now lives in Ottawa after turning down a lucrative job on the Muskrat Falls site due to an “ethical dilemma” she faced when offered the job, says she fears that the project will wreak irreversible damage on Indigenous communities in the Lake Melville region.

“My ultimate fear is two-fold,” she says. “One is that people aren’t going to be able to live in the Upper Lake Melville region if they’re afraid for their health, or they’re going to continue to consume these things and then develop neurological problems, or developmental problems with their [children]. And conversely, the other side of that is that if they don’t practice their traditional way of life then essentially it’s cultural genocide. I don’t know any other way to say it.”

On Sept. 16 Morrissey and her friends staged a Muskrat Falls protest on Parliament Hill in an attempt to bring locals’ concerns to the attention of Prime Minister Trudeau.

Trudeau “should be aware” of the impact the dam will have on Indigenous communities, she said, “because we’re talking about truth and reconciliation in 2016. And if you’re funding projects that are knowingly poisoning Indigenous people then you’re talking out both sides of your mouth, and you can’t do that. You can’t poison people and say you’re for truth and reconciliation — there’s no grey area there.”

Kelly Morrissey and a group of her friends staged a Muskrat Falls protest on Parliament Hill on Sept. 16. Photo by Michael Alexander Reid.
“You can’t poison people and say you’re for truth and reconciliation — there’s no grey area there,” says Kelly Morrissey, who organized a Muskrat Falls protest on Parliament Hill on Sept. 16. Photo by Michael Alexander Reid.

Morrissey also said Muskrat Falls constitutes environmental racism, “because what it’s doing is completely destroying an environment so you cannot practice your traditions and culture, and it’s so important to Inuit culture and Indigenous culture in Labrador to be tied with the land,” she explained.

“If you’re not able to do that and you’re not able to practice these traditional things, then you’re not able to fully embrace your culture. And this fully exacerbates colonization, which has been going on in Labrador for an extremely long time.”

Morrissey said she would like to see the project stopped, “because I don’t think it’s beneficial to anybody in any sphere of the conversation,” but that she is joining the call to at least fully clear the reservoir.

“The Inuit and the Indigenous people of Upper Lake Melville cannot be 10s and 20s — you cannot pay people to eat poison,” she said. “And the fact that this is a part of political dialogue in 2016 is absolutely absurd.

“The main conversation around Muskrat Falls is how it’s a boondoggle financially, but let’s talk about people. The real currency of Newfoundland and Labrador is people, not money. And the Indigenous people matter. We simply can’t pay people to be poisoned, and we can’t pay people to be colonized continually.”

The Independent was not able to reach Innu Grand Nation Chief Anastasia Qupee by the time of publication.

In an interview last fall NCC President Todd Russell said reconciliation for the Inuit of Southern Labrador must include a “recognition of our rights and interests,” referring to the outstanding land claim that Russell and others in the NunatuKavut communities have been fighting for for two decades.

“I’ve always said that the way this project is proceeding, if it continues down this path, it should be stopped,” he said. “If the project does not move forward in a fashion that is accommodating our rights and interests, or mitigates possible damage and the damage that has been done, yes, obviously it should never proceed on that basis. But I do believe there is a way forward for some of this.

“Will it undo all of the damage? I don’t believe it can. Will it help repair some of the relationship? I think there is a possibility of that. Can it be that some good can come out of this project in terms of informing how we do things differently in the future? Are there ways to more fully involve our people in the project? I believe that can happen.”

Wolfrey said the residents of Rigolet “want our children and our grandchildren to be able to do the things that we’ve done, to practice their Inuit heritage and lifestyle, and that is being taken away from us. To me that is the measure of who we are. That’s who we are — what hunting practices, what skills we pass on. And we are going to have to live without doing the things that we did, so how can the government continue to say that they’re supporting Indigenous rights and wanting to reconcile when they’re doing this to a community of Inuit that aren’t going to be able to practice their way of life?”

She explained that 46 percent of those who answered the community survey in Rigolet said they’re “willing to attend protests inside or outside the community, so I imagine that they’re willing to go up there and do what they gotta do to bring attention to it and hopefully shut it down.”

A grassroots protest is planned for 12 .p.m. Friday outside the provincial government’s Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and discussion of on-the-ground actions at or near the Muskrat Falls site have been circulating on social media. Meanwhile, a protest being organized by Coordinated Approach is slated for Oct. 7 outside Nalcor’s office in St. John’s.

Asked if Nunatsiavut supports the grassroots protests, Shiwak said “the most important message comes from the people,” and that “they are the ones that should rally together and bring their message…to the government. They should tell them how they feel about this and what needs to happen.”

(This is Part 2 of a two-part feature exploring how Muskrat Falls will impact those who live downstream, particularly Indigenous communities. Read Part 1 here.)

The Independent is holding an online auction in support of our continued coverage of the Indigenous-led resistance to Muskrat Falls. You can donate an item to the auction, or place a bid, here. The auction ends at 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 7.

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