On Thursday hundreds of posters with Liberal MHAs’ faces appeared on walls in buildings around the Memorial University St. John’s campus.
Each of the posters featured an edited version of the MHAs’ House of Assembly profile pages. A poster featuring Premier Dwight Ball, who is also the Minister Responsible for Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs, read “Not Fit To Govern”, while Natural Resource Minister Siobhan Coady’s poster read “Strong Representation For the Rich”.
Other Liberal MHAs were also featured on posters, including Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds, who represents the residents of Rigolet, a small Inuit community on the northeastern edge of Lake Melville who the Harvard study identified as being at a higher risk for methylmercury exposure. Edmunds’ poster read “I Support Poisoning People in Labrador by Contaminating their Food Chain with 4 Decades Worth of Methyl Mercury”.
MUN student and activist Adam Pitcher was behind the posters. He told The Independent Thursday afternoon he’s “sick to death about what the government is doing in Labrador,” referring to the threat Muskrat Falls poses to locals’—mostly Indigenous—health in the Lake Melville area, where methylmercury levels are anticipated to rise once the controversial project’s reservoir is flooded.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” he said. “I think it’s no different than an individual committing a terrorist act. If somebody was to go up to Windsor Lake [in St. John’s] and pour mercury into our drinking water, I don’t think we’d be too pleased about that; I’m pretty sure somebody would be up on charges pretty quick. But when a government and a corporation does it then it’s perfectly OK?”
Earlier this year a Harvard-led research study outlined the impacts increased methylmercury levels could have on Inuit health if the Muskrat Falls reservoir isn’t fully cleared of vegetation and topsoil.
Nunatsiavut Government, which represents the Inuit of northern Labrador, launched its Make Muskrat Right campaign, calling on Nalcor and the provincial government to fully clear the reservoir to minimize the risk of negative health effects on Inuit who harvest fish, seals and seabirds from Lake Melville for subsistence.
Presently Nalcor plans to clear only 75 percent of the trees and shrubs from the reservoir, and none of the topsoil — a scenario the Harvard study projects could put hundreds of Inuit at risk of exceeding Health Canada’s mercury level guidelines. Many Innu and settlers in the region also harvest country foods from the 3,000-square-kilometer body of water.
Nalcor, which originally stated methylmercury increases would not be seen beyond the mouth of the Grand (Churchill) River, has promised it will conduct monitoring in Lake Melville after the reservoir is flooded. Meanwhile, provincial Environment and Conservation Minister, and Lake Melville MHA, Perry Trimper has vowed the government will financially “compensate” Inuit if mercury levels in their country foods reach levels unsafe for human consumption.
As the project moves closer to completion a growing number of residents of the five communities that border Lake Melville are resisting Muskrat Falls and growing angry with the Liberal government’s response to their concerns around methylmercury — a neurotoxin linked to cardiovascular problems in adults and neurological impairments in fetuses.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” said Pitcher. “This is human life, this is a traditional way of living. It seems to go against the U.N. Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It just doesn’t make sense what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.”
Russell Williams, an Associate Professor of political science at MUN, said the issue of Muskrat Falls and Indigenous rights “has a particular resonance on campus, not the least of which is because Memorial scientists have done work on the potential health risks [associated] with not better preparing the reservoir site.
“So it wouldn’t surprise me at all that members of the Memorial community are particularly concerned that the government is not responding to that.”
Williams added that in terms of student activism and political engagement on campus, “everyone’s doing what everyone normally does,” and that “maybe the only people not doing what they normally do would be the government, which probably should pay attention to the science surrounding the health risks of Muskrat Falls.”
Trevor Bell, a Research Professor in MUN’s Department of Geography who worked on the methylmercury study, told The Independent Thursday he feels more people are “recognizing that [on Muskrat Falls] the government is out of step with public opinion, and that public opinion will come further and further to the front as we move toward the point where the reservoir is inundated by water.”
Within hours of flooding, he said, “methylmercury production will increase within the reservoir area and be carried downstream into Lake Melville. Once that inundation happens, there is no turning back. And I guess the province feels they can wait and see how large that methylmercury increase will be and how it is going to affect Inuit — but that wait-and-see approach goes against all international standards for applying the precautionary principle. And essentially the provincial government has decided they are not going to apply that principle in the case of the Muskrat Falls project.
“I think the realization that in 2016 a provincial government can decide how much methylmercury an Aboriginal community should consume with their country food before something is done is just not acceptable.”
Bell also said he thinks the resistance to Muskrat Falls over the threat methylmercury poses to people’s health could reach a critical point in the near future.
“I think when you give no other options to an Aboriginal community other than to consume a toxin like methylemercury as they pursue their culture and livelihood, I think you are going to invoke an incredible response,” he said.
“I think for those people who were around decades ago [for] the NATO low-level flying in Labrador, and the response of the Aboriginal community then…I think that sort of response will probably occur this time as well because people are frustrated and they will want to make that change happen.”
Pitcher said he’s “surprised that more Newfoundlanders and Labradorians aren’t pissed off about it.
“I know that a lot of people in Labrador have been feeling that the Newfoundland government doesn’t give a sh-t about them, and I don’t blame them,” he said.
After putting up the posters around campus Pitcher said he approached Minister Coady, who was attending a MUN student event.
“I asked her about risk mitigation, and why they can’t clear the reservoir to minimize the risks, and she said [the project] is too far along and there’s nothing we can do.”
The Independent requested comment from Coady regarding the poster campaign and her exchange with Pitcher but a spokesperson from Natural Resources said the minister declined.
A protest against Nalcor and its handling of Muskrat Falls is scheduled to take place outside the corporation’s office in St. John’s on Oct. 7. See the Facebook event page for more information.