Muskrat Occupation: Government urged to fasttrack meetings

Demands have not changed; RCMP confirms reinforcements arriving; hunger strikes add urgency to meeting with government.

As the occupation of Muskrat Falls continues, land protectors say they will be meeting with Indigenous leaders in advance of the leaders’ meeting with Premier Dwight Ball on Tuesday.

At a rally outside the main gate on Saturday, dozens of land protectors stormed the gate and proceeded to occupy the Muskrat Falls main camp.

The action followed a blockade at the main site the previous week, which prompted Nalcor to obtain an injunction order from the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The injunction was delivered to a small group of protectors at the blockade Sunday evening after dark, and police moved in and arrested eight individuals before dawn, and another later in the day.

News and video of the arrests, one of them violent, sparked outrage across Labrador, and Newfoundland, since land protectors say they are protesting in self-defence in an effort to protect their water, country foods and ability to practice traditional cultural activities integral to their identity as Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians.

Nalcor, the crown corporation responsible for the project, began extracting its workforce from the site Saturday evening shortly after the land protectors occupied the camp.

The protectors immediately stated their intentions to workers and assured them they were carrying out a peaceful, non-violent action to protect their food and way of life.

RCMP blocked highways leading to the site, preventing more supporters and residents from joining those currently occupying the camp. About 30 people remain inside the camp; some had to leave for health reasons and family obligations.

Sometime around 5 p.m. Sunday about 15-20 people walked through the front gate of the worksite as a bus was exiting. The group, a majority of them reportedly members of the Innu Nation, are said to be on foot on the way to the worksite.

A statement from the Premier’s office issued Saturday evening said Dwight Ball would meet with Indigenous leaders and representatives on Tuesday.

The land protectors occupying the site said following the announcement they want grassroots representatives to be part of that meeting. However, the protectors learned Sunday morning in conference calls with the RCMP and Environment Minister Perry Trimper that plans for a meeting between the premier and Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders were going ahead for Tuesday in St. John’s.

National media interview Innu Elder David Nuke by phone, while multiple generations of land protectors look on. Photo by Justin Brake.
National media interview David Nuke of Sheshatshiu by phone, as land protectors look on. Photo by Justin Brake.

“We want it today,” said Kirk Lethbridge, from within the occupied site, referring to the meeting with Premier Ball.

“I’ll pass along your request,” said Trimper. “We’ve decided we’re going to meet with the three Indigenous leaders first.”

“Well buddy you’d better make it quick because there’s people there that are starving to death,” said one of the land protectors.

“We came in here to fight for the culture and the lives of Labrador people because we don’t want to drown or be poisoned,” said Lethbridge, adding his niece is also on a hunger strike.

“The more serious it gets will not break us, it will make us stronger.”

“Thanks for the call, I’ll pass it along,” said Trimper.

“Today!” chanted the land protectors, as Trimper hung up on them.

The group occupying the Muskrat Falls camp contacted Johannes Lampe, President of the Nunatsiavut Government, and Todd Russell, President of NunatuKavut, by phone.

Nuke told land protectors gathered around a table that he had spoken with Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee, and that she shares concerns around methylmercury but that the Impacts and Benefits Agreement the Innu signed with Newfoundland and Canada as part of the Muskrat Falls development component of their comprehensive land claims agreement prohibits Innu leaders from speaking out against the project.

Nuke also said Qupee told him she has written to the premier to express the Innu Nation’s concerns around methylmercury.

Hunger striker Billy Gauthier's mother pleads for support in a Facebook post.
Hunger striker Billy Gauthier’s mother pleads for support in a Facebook post. Facebook.

On Sunday morning land protectors reached Nunatsiavut Government President Johannes Lampe by phone and urged him to travel to Goose Bay as soon as possible to meet with them.

Lampe said Nunatsiavut’s position has not changed and that it’s still calling for full reservoir clearing.

The protectors said repeatedly Sunday, including during their conversation with Lampe, that meetings with the premier cannot wait until Tuesday, with Billy Gauthier now on day 10 of his hunger strike.

On Sunday Gauthier’s mother posted on Facebook that her son has lost 18 pounds so far.

The land protectors want Premier Ball—who is also Minister for Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs, and has an office in Labrador—to meet with them in Labrador prior to Tuesday, though there has been no indication from the premier’s office this will happen.

The first three hunger strikers report they are now meeting with doctors on a daily basis. Gauthier, an Inuk artist and the first to stop taking food, is currently in Ottawa along with hunger strikers Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister to raise awareness of the imminent threats Muskrat Falls poses to locals’ food and way of life.

“We can’t let the Premier dictate to us what time the meeting is going to happen,” said one land protector in the call with Lampe.

“It’s the government putting Billy in harm’s way…they’re the ones that said they’re not going to clear-cut, they’re the ones that said we could eat the mercury and we could die. Billy said no, we can’t do that. Billy is the one standing up for us,” declared another protector.

Land protectors continue to occupy the Muskrat Falls main camp site. Photo by Justin Brake.
Land protectors continue to occupy the Muskrat Falls main camp site. Photo by Justin Brake.

“Billy…is starving for us. For our rights. For our right to be safe. To eat our safe food. To hunt and fish as we always done…for your children as well as my children and my grandchildren,” a land protector told Lampe, prompting the elder to agreed to travel to Muskrat Falls at the earliest possibility.

The weather in Nain was poor on Sunday and Lampe reportedly did not get out.

In other reactions, St. John’s federal Liberal MP Nick Whelan took to Twitter on Sunday, calling recent comments from provincial NDP leader Earle McCurdy “ridiculous”.

In an NTV interview McCurdy reiterated his position that “If we can’t afford to clear the reservoir, we can’t afford the project.”

“Just measure MeHg [methylmercury] levels, eat less fish while MeHg levels are too high, and compensate,” Whalen tweeted.

Around noon on Sunday, land protectors occupying the site had a conference call with the hunger strikers in Ottawa as well. Gauthier praised the courage and strength of all those taking action in Labrador.

“You’re amazing. We’re going to change everything for us, all of us. We got a voice and our voice can’t be taken away from us anymore. It’s only going to be stronger. It’s amazing,” he said.

Occupation remains peaceful, upbeat and non-violent

The scene at the heart of the Muskrat Falls occupation is a calm and peaceful one, reports Independent editor Justin Brake, who is the only reporter at the scene.

Between meetings to discuss the unfolding situation, those present are resting in the camp’s living quarters, playing ping-pong and speaking with family members by phone.

Land protectors have emphasized they’re occupying the site in order to protect their food source and their right to continue their cultural practices and traditional way of life.

Several cultural ceremonies have taken place at the occupied camp, including drumming and Qulliq-lighting.

“This is a healthy movement,” said Nuke. “This is a movement we needed for a long time.”

Nalcor workers leave the site as occupation of the Muskrat Falls main camp continues. Photo by Justin Brake.
Nalcor workers leave the site as occupation of the Muskrat Falls main camp continues. Photo by Justin Brake.

“[They] will not shut down the Aboriginal peoples’ values and beliefs,” he said, referring to reports of RCMP tactical reinforcements arriving.

“You can’t take our heritage away from us,” said another land protector. “This is modern day colonization.”

Early Sunday evening two RCMP officers visited the protectors, taking individuals’ names and the ages of children and youth with the group.

Asked if the RCMP had intentions to clamp down on the occupation and make arrests, the officers said they don’t know the federal police force’s full strategy in dealing with the protectors, though they did acknowledge that around 15 reinforcement officers had been called in.

Nalcor workers and land protectors have been mingling in a peaceful and friendly fashion ever since the protectors arrived at the site. The atmosphere has been a calm and even cheerful one, with plenty of joking and banter between workers and land protectors.

Workers have brought bags of food to share with the protectors, and one worker said 99 percent of the workers support the demand that Nalcor fully clear the reservoir prior to flooding in order to reduce the risk of methylmercury poisoning.

Another worker from central Newfoundland said he fully supports what the land protectors are doing and that he would do the same if it was his family and community threatened by the dam.

Many of those present expressed concern and uncertainty about what would happen next, especially with confirmed reports of the arrival of RCMP tactical unit reinforcements.

Land protectors relax during a lighter moment as the occupation of the Muskrat Falls site continues. Photo by Justin Brake.
Land protectors relax during a lighter moment as the occupation of the Muskrat Falls site continues. Photo by Justin Brake.

The land protectors emphasized the occupation has been peaceful and non-violent, and that they have been forced to take these steps because of the inaction of government and Nalcor in substantively addressing the risk of methylmercury poisoning to the region’s food and waterways if flooding proceeds without clearing the soil.

That risk has been repeatedly flagged by researchers from Harvard and Memorial University.

“We are proud to be where we are. We are not criminals. We were drove to this point,” said Kirk Lethbridge, one of the land protectors in the initial hours of the occupation.

“We are non-violent. We are peaceful. We pray for peace. We pray for RCMP. We pray for Nalcor workers,” said another. “The most powerful weapon Labradorians have ever had is non-violence.”

More to come. Follow @JustinBrakeNL and @IndependentNL on Twitter for further updates, and follow our Facebook page for Livestream coverage by editor Justin Brake who is at the scene.

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