Muskrat resistance enters new phase as flooding begins

Land protectors and other members of Labrador’s grassroots not appeased by leaders’ agreement, revive protests and call for United Nations intervention.

With flooding underway at Muskrat Falls land protectors and others opposed to the damming of Labrador’s largest river have begun another round of protests.

On Saturday around 25 people walked to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the project’s construction site. And on Sunday about 20 land protectors formed a half-hour blockade outside the project’s main gate, while 40 or 50 more gathered for a potluck across the highway where a camp has been set up for several weeks.

The actions follow a series of public meetings last week in Rigolet and the Upper Lake Melville region, which revealed a pervasive dissatisfaction with a deal struck between Premier Dwight Ball and Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders on Oct. 26, which promised the Innu and Inuit some autonomy in a process purportedly aimed at protecting Indigenous communities’ health and respecting to some degree their right to consent.

“Today’s meeting was about one thing — the health of Labradorians,” Ball said after the 11-hour meeting with Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut leadership, announcing a commitment by the province to proceed with science-based decision-making on reservoir flooding and subsequent monitoring in order to minimize human health risks associated with methylmercury exposure.

The deal promised the Indigenous groups an independent assessment of documents from Nalcor’s private contractors that allegedly substantiate the necessity of raising water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir prior to winter freeze-up. It also allows for methylmercury monitoring through the winter, and for water levels to be lowered again in the spring until it is determined if, and how much, vegetation and topsoil will be cleared from the reservoir prior to re-flooding.

While many lauded the agreement and celebrated the end of a hunger strike by at least four people fighting to protect their traditional food source and way of life, reaction on social media revealed a widespread skepticism of the agreement and a lack of trust in elected officials, including the Innu and Inuit leaders.

“People think there’s still a lot of risk involved,” Nunatsiavut Elder Shirley Flowers told The Independent the day following the leaders’ agreement, explaining she has concerns around the North Spur, Muskrat Falls’ ecological footprint, and “the destruction of the culture, even the destruction we can’t see, where I think a lot of Innu and settlers’ traces are just bulldozed away.”

Asked what outcome she favours, Flowers said she would like to see Muskrat Falls “dismantled if possible.”

Amid the series of community meetings—one in Happy Valley-Goose Bay organized by the grassroots, and four others led by Nunatsiavut—the focus on human health impacts shifted from methylmercury, which catalyzed the previous month’s protests, to the North Spur.

But many whose concerns with methylmercury had been at least somewhat appeased by the leaders’ agreement were provoked last Tuesday by Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall, who downplayed the science, and locals’ concerns, around methylmercury production, while indicating the first phase of flooding had to begin by the weekend in order to protect the integrity of the dam. Marshall’s point had already been raised many times but was made secondary in light of government’s promise to await consent from the Innu and Inuit leaders.

It was almost as if Stan Marshall was laughing in their faces saying [Nalcor] is carrying on anyway… — Stanley Oliver

“We are doing the right thing at Muskrat Falls. I commit to that,” Marshall told CBC. “What they mean by making Muskrat Falls right, I don’t know. I think it means different things to different people. All I can say is we will do what’s right.”

After hosting the community-organized discussion in Happy Valley-Goose Bay last Tuesday, Stanley Oliver told The Independent many of the 150 or so in attendance were “very angry” at Marshall’s comments.

“Any gains they feel they may have made during the meetings with the Indigenous leaders, it was almost as if Stan Marshall was laughing in their faces saying [Nalcor] is carrying on anyway, and we’re not going to cut the vegetation because it’s not going to make a difference — and you guys have to prove to us that there’s a difference,” Oliver explained.

Marshall told CBC in his interview that there was not “one documented case that I’m aware of that flooding a reservoir has caused harm due to methylmercury. It’s in the environment. It’s everywhere.”

Elder and former Innu leader Bart Jack, who participated in last month’s occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp, said Marshall’s comments were “insulting to the Innu,” who had their traditional lands, including active hunting and trapping grounds and sacred burial sites, flooded by the Upper Churchill dam almost a half century ago, and ever since have had to limit their harvesting of fish in the area due to consumption advisories that are still in place today.

“We were affected by the Upper Churchill,” Jack said, explaining the Innu attempted to start a commercial fishery at Mishikimau Lake 20 or 30 years ago but couldn’t due to methylmercury contamination.

“How dare he say to us there is no impact!” he continued. “That’s exactly what’s going to happen with Muskrat Falls. The Innu, the Inuit, the Metis are not going to be able to eat our fish for 30 years.”

Calling for United Nations intervention

Even before Marshall’s comments, and after the leaders’ agreement was struck, locals were reluctant to give up control over the future of their country food and their ability and rights to fish and hunt on their traditional lands.

On Oct. 23, the second day of the Muskrat Falls occupation, RCMP Inspector Tony Perry delivered a message to the occupiers by phone, telling them the premier had agreed to meet with the Indigenous leaders on Tuesday.

Responding to the news, Kirk Lethbridge told Perry that while the land protectors “have respect for our leaders, we’re the ones who hold Muskrat Falls,” and that they expected to have representation at the table and to have the meeting sooner, in light of the fact some of the young hunger strikers had gone almost two weeks without food.

None of the Indigenous leaders demanded grassroots representation at the negotiating table in St. John’s.

Memorial University geography research professor Trevor Bell, who was one of the leads on the methylmercury study published earlier this year, helped the three young hunger-strikers—Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jeremias Kohlmeister—develop four demands that were presented to Premier Ball a couple days before the leaders’ meeting took place, as the Labrador land protectors occupied Muskrat Falls.

When the leaders’ agreement effectively conceded to those four demands, Bell heralded the deal as “a win for science knowledge driving decision-making,” as well as for “grassroots democracy”.

In an Oct. 26 interview with The Independent, the professor said he was “fairly confident” that temporary water level increases to protect the dam’s integrity over winter would not pose a significant health risk to those living downstream.

“[Methylmercury levels] will be increased, no doubt about that,” he said. “And we will be able to tell people with near real-time monitoring…but we expect them to be lower than [existing] projections because the inundation is going to be for several months, and the soil that’s being inundated has mostly been inundated in the past. Therefore it’s potential to produce methylmercury is much lower.”

Immediately after the deal was struck the three hunger strikers, who were in Ottawa to bring their message to federal decision-makers, celebrated with Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, who fed them smoked char and the following day took to social media to express her pride in all those whose actions “set the new standard for NL and large scale development in our lands and waters,” she wrote. “My proudest moment was at the 11th hour as all Labrador came together — united is a beautiful vision in Labrador.”

Gauthier and the hunger strikers have supported Bell’s assessment that temporary partial flooding, monitoring, and return to pre-winter water levels in springtime is low-risk for those living downstream of Muskrat Falls.

Some locals, like Tiffany Lambourne, a mother of three young children and a resident of Happy Valley-Goose Bay who participated in most of the protests against Muskrat Falls, said they were skeptical of the leaders’ deal but willing to let the process play out.

“It didn’t matter what we did, whether we did rallies or walks or barricades, or occupy the site — [the leaders] just put their heads down and continued on a path towards impoundment. So hopefully now we’ll see that they are going to respond,” Lambourne told The Independent on Oct. 26, after hearing news of the leaders’ agreement.

“Now the province, and now Nalcor, and now our [Indigenous] leaders know that we’re serious about this, that we care about this, and that we are willing to do everything that we have to do to make this right,” she continued. “So if they’re going to try and tell us some lies to scatter everyone, it’s not going to work. We assembled once, we can assemble again.

“But if they’re serious, we’ll have a little faith in them and give them some time to work it out.”

In the ensuing days and throughout the community meetings last week, however, the lack of trust felt by land protectors and others in Labrador toward the colonial and Indigenous government leaders over their handling of Muskrat Falls became more palpable.

On Saturday the Innu Nation, NunatuKavut Community Council and Nunatsiavut Government released a joint statement informing their members and the public that two independent consultants commissioned to review Nalcor’s documents justifying the necessity of partial reservoir flooding prior to winter—studies conducted by Hatch and SNC-Lavalin—had deemed the argument legitimate.

Hours later Ball announced reservoir flooding had begun at Muskrat Falls.

The parties directly involved in this damming process…are committing actions that violate basic human rights, provisions of free, prior, and informed consent in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the protocols and natural laws of Indigenous nations. — Letter to United Nations

Reaction on social media by land protectors and others in Labrador opposed to the flooding was swift.

Marjorie Flowers, who was one of nine people arrested during a peaceful blockade outside the Muskrat Falls main gate on Oct. 17 and one of the land protectors who occupied the camp, said the leaders’ agreement “does not satisfy land protectors” who aren’t willing to face any increases in methylmercury exposure, or the risk of greater exposure.

“And the instability of the North Spur has not been addressed,” she wrote in a public Facebook post. “How can the imminent flooding of two communities not be addressed? Someone please tell me.

“Still the madness goes on. I went into ‘the drum’ at Main Gate last night. I was there alone for half an hour, watching and listening to cops laughing, feeling like a lost child, ‘knowing’ that God was gone.”

Last week a group of land protectors drafted a letter to United Nations (U.N.) High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein with the hope the U.N. will intervene at Muskrat Falls since the project, they say, infringes on Innu and Inuit rights.

“The parties directly involved in this damming process…are committing actions that violate basic human rights, provisions of free, prior, and informed consent in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UNDRIP], as well as the protocols and natural laws of Indigenous nations,” the letter reads.

“These actions will place the Innu, Inuit, and NunatuKavut nations of this area in direct danger of continued methylmercury poisoning due to the refusal to clear all vegetation before commencing flooding, and the unsafe and unsustainable construction of the dam that poses the risk of breaking. The Indigenous nations of Labrador have not given free, prior, and informed consent, and the [federal and provincial] governments and Nalcor are not negotiating with transparency, clarity, and accountability. Therefore we ask you, Commissioner Hussein, to intervene and stop the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric damming project until these issues are addressed.”

The letter goes on to highlight specific rights outlined in UNDRIP that the authors feel Muskrat Falls contravenes.

One of the letter’s authors, Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Amy Norman, told The Independent she doesn’t feel the people of Labrador are “being heard by our Indigenous leaders [and] by the provincial government. We’re certainly not being heard by the federal government.

“So where do you go from there? In terms of looking further, the United Nations,” she explained. “I think the letter is pretty clear what [the governments] have broken in terms of the articles of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I think we have a pretty solid case.”

Last May the Government of Canada agreed to adopt the principles of UNDRIP in Canada, though the legal framework has not yet been adopted into Canadian law.

Labrador unity, signs of Innu uprising 

Answering questions from the press at Confederation Building on Oct. 26, Ball said the grassroots movement and the land protectors’ occupation of the Muskrat Falls camp were not factors in prompting the leaders’ meeting and subsequent agreement.

Meanwhile, in her speech Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee said nothing of the grassroots movement’s role.

Conversely, the two Inuit leaders, Johannes Lampe and Todd Russell, acknowledged the role the land protectors and others played in the achievement.

“We are thinking about the people who have put their lives on the line to protest the Muskrat Falls project,” Lampe said, naming the three young hunger strikers. “And also to the land protectors, who are within the project site, and also those who are outside on the road or at the gates, and anywhere within the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, across Canada — the work that you have done has made progress.

“And we are very happy to say to Labrador Inuit in Rigolet that your work also has made progress,” he continued. “And most certainly to Labrador Inuit, your push to get us to the table with the premier and the other leaders has made progress. And now we feel that all the work we did today will be done together and as people of Newfoundland and Labrador, to help each other, to look after the health, the well-being, the culture, the way of life of Labrador Inuit and other Aboriginal groups.”

Russell too acknowledged the role of the land protectors and others who protested against the flooding of Muskrat Falls.

“The decisions that will be made going forward will not be at the whim of government — they will be made by science and it will incorporate the traditional knowledge of our people. This is a huge step forward,” he announced, adding elders “can have confidence that the traditions that they have preserved will now be handed from generation to generation.”

Cartwright Mayor Dwight Lethbridge, who participated in the Muskrat Falls blockade and had initially driven a truck through the gate on Oct. 22 when dozens stormed the site and eventually occupied the workers’ camp, said he’s not surprised Ball denied the grassroots played a role in forcing the leaders’ meeting.

David Nuke. Photo by Justin Brake.
“If we work together, fight together, we can get somewhere as one group,” says David Nuke. Photo by Justin Brake.

“I think [the grassroots movement] was the deciding factor,” he told The Independent in an Oct. 27 phone interview. “Look at the changes in the language used by the government. They had no intentions on putting our health this far at the forefront if the people didn’t make it happen. I never would expect anybody in the government to acknowledge the fact that they were taken hostage. I mean, they were brought to their knees. It was a $12 billion project stopped by the people.”

David Nuke of Sheshatshiu, who was also among the land protectors who blockaded and occupied the Muskrat Falls site, told The Independent the leaders’ agreement “was based on the action taken by all these groups outside the gate and inside the gate.”

Nuke said the unification of members of all three Indigenous groups in Labrador and settler Labradorians during the protests was the real catalyst for change.

“[If] we work together, fight together, we can get somewhere as one group, as opposed to just one…Aboriginal group,” he said. “We need all bodies from all fronts living in Labrador, including Aboriginal people.”

Nuke said while the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut leadership acknowledged and thanked the grassroots, Qupee’s notable omission is “her choice; it doesn’t bother me,” he said.

However, Nuke explained he sees a shift taking place within Sheshatshiu, where a growing number of people are recognizing a disparity between the decisions of recent and current Innu Nation leaders and their predecessors.

He said in recent years Innu Nation leadership has strayed from traditional Innu values and, in the instance of Muskrat Falls, has been willing to trade long-term health and well-being of their people for short-term jobs and influxes of money.

Nuke said this recognition has created an opportunity for Innu people to “reactivate their mentality” and steer their nation in a direction more aligned with their values, customs and principles, regardless of what current leadership says or does.

“When you’re in politics, when you’re in government in the colonial system, when you speak of agreements…it automatically locks your mind into thinking there’s nowhere else to go: it’s a done deal, a signed deal, you can’t react to it no more,” he said.

“I don’t believe that. People have every right to fight that belief. I got grandchildren. Are my grandchildren going to grow up some day and say, my grandfather locked that deal on my behalf? That should never be the case. They all should have the right to make amends that fits their needs and values as they grow up with their children.”

Sheshatshiu resident Yvette Michel was also among the land protectors who occupied the Muskrat Falls camp. She is the daughter of the late Innu leader Ben Michel, a contemporary of Nuke’s and a cherished figure in recent Innu history.

Money is money but the land is lost forever. — Yvette Michel

Outside the main gate on Oct. 26, after the land protectors emerged from the Muskrat Falls site, Michel told The Independent she too sees a shift happening among the people of her community, and that the act of unity between Innu, Inuit and settlers is something her father advocated for for many years and would be proud to see.

“Being a part [of this] these few days in the protest, sitting in there with two of his friends, David Nuke and Bart Jack — these are my uncles, my late father’s first cousins,” she explained. “And to hear them, it was an honour listening to them. It felt like I was listening to my father speak about how he wanted things. And I could hear him in each of them when they spoke. It made me proud that I was sitting in there with them, and to have this moment coming out of this to the gate with all the unity [of Labrador people]. It doesn’t matter — Metis, Inuit, we all eat the same food, we all respect the environment. That’s what matters.”

Michel said before her father died in 2006 he “knew what was ahead” with respect to Muskrat Falls.

“He was scared because we have never had so much money. He had spoken about it. He said it was going to be so overwhelming for the community. He was scared that we weren’t ready for it,” she said.

“Now looking at it today, he was right, because money is money but the land is lost forever. The animals. Look at it right now. We’re on the verge of [losing] the caribou…and it has come to this stage where we are not allowed [to hunt them],” she added, explaining decision-making processes rooted in community consensus and strongly relying on the wisdom of elders is required if the Innu are to have a brighter future.

Michel said she didn’t understand as a child the things her father fought for, but that today she is consistently reminded of who he was, what he stood for, and that she is trying to “get his legacy going and get his vision going” again.

“This is not the end,” she said, referring to the conclusion of the occupation of Muskrat Falls, “and I hope my children or anyone else will take that privilege to carry on his legacy. Because I know how much he wanted this for our Innu people, to protect our way of life and our lands, and not to leave anybody behind, to always come as one, not separate.”

“I think momentum is building again”

Norman, who recently moved home to Labrador and is working on a Master’s Degree in community health, with a focus on Indigenous health, said she attended three of last week’s community meetings and joined two dozen others in walking to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on Saturday.

“I think a lot more people are against this project than we’re seeing show up,” she said, referring to the latest round of protests and events. “There’s still the threat of arrest. There’s still the threat of court action. When we went there today there’s a massive police presence. So we’re putting ourselves out there against the law, and I suppose a lot of people in the community who, even though they are against the project, might not be comfortable crossing that boundary.”

Video taken by Amy Norman during the land protectors’ walk to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the Muskrat Falls site, Nov. 5, 2016.

But too much is at stake for her not to take a stand and risk being arrested, Norman said, citing anxiety around the North Spur as a major health issue.

“When you go to these community meetings there is a genuine fear,” she noted, explaining that while concerns around methylmercury still exist, the North Spur has dominated recent public discourse.

“People are really afraid of this thing, and it’s stressing everyone out — not just the people who live in the flood zone, but the whole community.”

Norman said Nunatsiavut’s community session in North West River last Wednesday saw so many people express concern around the North Spur that Nunatsiavut leaders decided to officially invite input into the matter the following day at the meeting in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

“People are getting angry, people are afraid, and I think you’re going to see more action on the ground,” Norman said.

People are getting angry, people are afraid, and I think you’re going to see more action on the ground. — Amy Norman

“I think momentum is building again.”

In addition to methylmercury and the North Spur, land protectors, elders and others have recently voiced other concerns.

In October NunatuKavut Elder Ken Mesher told The Independent once flooding has happened traditional hunting and trapping lands will be lost forever. He also fears for the beavers who make their home in the tributaries along the Grand River above Muskrat Falls, saying once their dams are inundated with water they will be stranded, roaming in the cold until they freeze to death.

Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue has expressed similar concerns around Muskrat Falls, saying fish won’t be the only wildlife affected by the damming of the Lower Grand River.

“When they flood Muskrat Falls, the government knows [there are] animals everywhere,” she told around 200 people gathered along the Trans Labrador Highway before a walk to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on Oct. 15.

Penashue said she expects “caribou, black bear, porcupine, beaver, muskrat, otter, [and] all kinds of animals” will be affected.

The Innu have fished, hunted and trapped in the area around Muskrat Falls for thousands of years, while the Inuit and settler Labradorians have dependent on wildlife for subsistence for several hundred years.

A growing number of people in Labrador are saying the resistance to Muskrat Falls is about more than methylmercury contamination in country foods.

“Nalcor’s push for flooding the dam without clear cutting or making it structurally sound has and still is causing much turmoil for the people of Labrador,” reads the letter to the United Nations seeking intervention.

“People are protecting the land and water and because of this we have had hunger strikes, there are people getting arrested for simply being on the land and peacefully protesting, and the freedom of movement for persons has been compromised by the police and governmental authorities. This hurts tremendously. We need to live in safety and security where our families and communities do not to face the threat of mercury poisoning and a dam breaking. We need to be able to practice our traditions such as hunting and fishing. We need the animals and the land to be well and taken care of so they can continue to sustain us through the generations. These are basic and fundamental needs; they are not unreasonable.”

On Sunday, Nov. 6 around 20 land protectors formed a temporary, half-hour blockade in front of the main gate of the Muskrat Falls site. Video by Jacinda Beals.

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