Saturday saw the biggest protest yet against Muskrat Falls, with around 200 people gathering alongside the Trans Labrador Highway and then about 100 to 150 people marching along the highway and to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain on the dam’s construction site.
The potential first day of flooding also drew a few prominent figures from the Indigenous communities, prompting many to note the people of Labrador were uniting against a project that will affect Innu, Inuit and settlers alike, all of whom live in the communities that surround Lake Melville and harvest fish and other country food from the estuary.
Before he joined a 45-minute march along the Trans Labrador Highway that slowed traffic in one lane, Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe told The Independent he wants the government to “halt the construction of Muskrat Falls until full clearing is done,” and that if Nalcor and the government proceed with flooding without fully clearing the reservoir they will be complicit in creating dependency and a new wave of intergenerational trauma among Indigenous communities.
“In Labrador people have suffered over many hundreds of years since colonization,” he said, naming relocation of Indigenous communities and residential schools as past tools of colonialism. “And now this, the flooding of the reservoir of Muskrat Falls. The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has made a major mistake, so we have to make a strong statement.
The Independent on Saturday, October 15, 2016
“Once that food chain is contaminated, what else can we do?” Lampe continued. “It seems that the Government of Canada and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador do not care about our traditional way of life and our traditional foods. They want to dictate to us what we can eat, and as Labrador people we don’t want processed food — we want food that we traditionally hunt and harvest and trap, including within the area of the Muskrat Falls.”
Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue also made an appearance despite having recently undergone eye surgery that she is still recovering from. She told the crowd before the march that she has cried many times thinking about the destruction at Muskrat Falls, and what the dam will do to the land, water and wildlife in the area.
Penashue also shared stories of spending time as a child with her parents on the land around Muskrat Falls and along the Grand River—Mistashipu in Innu-aimun—when they would hunt and fish.
The river belongs to the people of Labrador. — Elizabeth Penashue
She alluded to a comment she says Joey Smallwood once made regarding the Upper Churchill hydro dam — that he said, ’This is our river.’
“No, it’s not true. The river belongs to the people of Labrador,” she said to applause. “And when they flood Muskrat Falls, the government knows [there are] animals everywhere,” she said, adding it won’t only be the fish who die — but also “caribou, black bear, porcupine, beaver, muskrat, otter, all kinds of animals. Like us — we don’t want to drink dirty water with mercury. Same [with] animals — [they] want to drink clean water.”
North West River resident and Inuit stone carver Billy Gauthier also attended the event. The 38-year-old father was on day two of a hunger strike and reiterated his commitment to abstain from eating until Nalcor promises to fully clear the reservoir of all organic materials, including trees, shrubs and topsoil, which a recent peer-reviewed scientific study led by researchers at Harvard University argued should be done to minimize the output of methylmercury from the dam’s reservoir. The dangerous neurotoxin, the study projected, would enter the food chain in Lake Melville downstream from the dam, and push some who eat country food above what Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say are safe levels of exposure.
Gauthier told The Independent he spoke with provincial Environment Minister Perry Trimper and Nalcor Vice-President Gilbert Bennett on Saturday, and that neither of them agreed to his demand. He said Bennett claimed he didn’t doubt the findings of the Harvard study but questioned whether methylmercury levels in the wild foods would be unsafe.
Following the study’s release Nalcor said it would expand its monitoring out into Lake Melville, and the province all along has maintained if methylmercury levels rise to the point they pose a significant risk to human health consumption advisories will be issued.
I’m sure up there right now [our ancestors are] all looking down and are incredibly proud of what we’re doing. — Billy Gauthier
Trimper has also said the government will compensate those affected by the inability to harvest country food from the lake, though Nunatsiavut officials and many others have said they don’t want compensation, and that a price tag can’t be put on loss of traditional cultural practices.
“We are bearing witness to what happens when local people are not included, and we’re bearing witness to what happens when Indigenous rights are ignored,” Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Jamie Snook said to the crowd on the highway.
Gauthier spoke last at the event before the march.
“Our ancestors would want exactly this here to happen,” he said. “I’m sure up there right now they’re all looking down and are incredibly proud of what we’re doing. Who cares that we didn’t make all the right decisions in the beginning — we’re making them right now and continue to make them now,” he said addressing critics who have asked why the resistance to Muskrat Falls wasn’t bigger during the earlier stages of the project.
The Harvard study on methylmercury was only released earlier this year, and since that time concern and anxiety have grown among locals.
“I really do hope that this is a speedy process, but I don’t expect so. I expect it’s going to take the government and Nalcor a while to figure it out,” Guathier said.
“We’ll see how much time I can give, and I hope to God that they do it before my time’s up because I got a beautiful daughter at home,” he continued, struggling as he broke down for a moment. “And I want to make it through this, but I can’t back down. And she asked me when I first called her, she said, Dad, aren’t you scared? And I said, yes. But I told her, that is what bravery is — when you are scared and you still do it anyway!” he shouted, as people cheered.
About 150 people then marched up the Trans Labrador Highway, stalling west-bound traffic for about 45-minutes, before heading down an access road toward the North Spur and Spirit Mountain.
Youth led the march, followed closely by Lampe, elders, and members of Labrador’s three Indigenous groups.
Charlotte Wolfrey, who travelled with a dozen others from Rigolet to attend the protest, said if Nalcor floods the reservoir “there’s no turning back, and our lives are going to change; we’re not going to be able to eat with confidence our fish and our seals, and the stuff that we normally eat and hunt. It’s not only about eating and hunting — it’s about our connection to our ancestors, it’s about who we are,” she said.
Dan Michelin, also from Rigolet, said Muskrat Falls “is just the government’s way of telling the Aboriginal people, ‘We don’t care about you, you can die. We want electricity for people in the United States, or the people on the Island of Newfoundland,’” he said. “In the meantime, the people in Labrador is going to be dying, dying of sickness.”
Paul Jararusee, who is from Nain but has been in Rigolet for the past 24 years, told The Independent he has already seen changes out on the land and water since construction began on Muskrat Falls.
It’s not only about eating and hunting — it’s about our connection to our ancestors, it’s about who we are. — Charlotte Wolfrey
“The birds, the fish is disappearing. We see less birds and less fish,” he said. “The groundfish is hardly there the last couple years. The seal we eats is going to be spoiled. In the spring that’s what we eats, especially seals and ducks.
“Government, they can’t hear the people, what they’re saying — and they can do what they want,” he continued. “We’re trying to get our rights for our people, our children, for their future. Muskrat Falls is spoiling everything…and later in the future, our children and grandchildren, they won’t know what’s going on after the wildlife is gone.”
Mud Lake resident Craig Chaulk said the people of his community—which sits across the mouth of the river from Happy Valley, is only accessible by boat or skidoo, and sits in the flood zone should there ever be a breach in the dam—“don’t have any reassurances on how stable the North Spur is, what kind of effect the mitigation measures are going to have, if any.”
Chaulk said Nalcor has been vague in conveying to the residents of his community information around the Spur’s integrity—in light of critiques from locals and engineers who have questioned whether the sand and clay the land structure is comprised of could hold back the water—and precisely what Nalcor is doing to ensure the people’s safety.
“Personally I’m doubtful that they’ll be effective at all because I’m terrified what they’ve got done is wrong and when they raise the levels to maximum, if the North Spur lets go it’s too terrifying to think about what’s going to happen to Mud Lake and a good chunk of Happy Valley as well.
“I’m not at all impressed with how [Nalcor is] handling it,” he continued. “All they say is, we’re prepared to sit down and talk. As far as I’m concerned I would love for our leaders to sit down and talk, but only on the condition that work stops while they’re doing that, because to me all they’re doing is buying time. They’re proceeding with the work, and the more they’re talking the less action is happening, and therefore it just gives them free reign to go ahead and get farther into this so it makes it ever more difficult to stop them.”
About two hours after the walk began around 100 people made it to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain, where individuals and families went in different directions, inspecting the construction underway and the destruction already done to the environment.
The water levels appeared normal, and heavy equipment sat along the shores of what will become the reservoir.
A dozen or so went right down to the upper falls and sat quietly on the rocks overlooking the water.
Land protectors Jacinda Beals, Eldred Davis and John Learning traversed the old trail along the steep slopes of the south side of Spirit Mountain before arriving at an active part of the construction site, where water is already flowing through the spillway.
The Independent on Saturday, October 15, 2016
Davis said he wanted to ask Nalcor to “restore the river,” and that he was willing to risk arrest because “there are people who will suffer a lot more if we don’t stop this.”
Eventually the three were confronted by security, who asked them to leave immediately.
“As much as you’d like us to leave, we would like you to leave,” Beals told one security personnel.
After making their request to have the river restored the three hiked back over Spirit Mountain and to the highway.
Nalcor has not told locals or media precisely when the first phase of flooding will begin, only that it could begin on Saturday or anytime after. The uncertainty as to when the creation of methylmercury could begin has left many anxious, and the prospect of losing a traditional food supply any day has generated a desperation that has been palpable at the recent protests.
On Saturday evening Gauthier and about a dozen others had gathered at a tent alongside the highway at the junction to Southern Labrador. There he told The Independent Bennett assured him flooding had not yet begun, but that it will begin sometime in the next couple of weeks.
Helen Andrew of Sheshatshiu was at the camp with her grand-daughter Rhyanna. Andrew has been one of the few outspoken critics of Muskrat Falls within Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation and was arrested last summer for protesting at the site.
As the sun set on the first possible day of flooding, Andrew told The Independent she wants to see the project stopped, “and then we all get together and we talk about it. As you can see here people are protesting and nobody’s listening.
“This is showing the leadership of Labrador that there are people who don’t agree with this, and it’s time that you listen to the people.”
Andrew said there haven’t been more residents of Sheshatshiu at protests over the past few years because they “were not informed fully by the leadership about the whole project, and that there were other options of energy power,” she explained.
She said there are now “a lot of people in the community who are opposed to this,” but that some may be reluctant to be seen or heard opposing the dam because Innu leadership has not been outspoken against it.
“Just because the Innu leadership stands with the project, it doesn’t mean they have to stand with the project too,” she said, explaining she is mainly concerned about the “health problems that this is going to be having on future generations of Innu people who are dependent on the wildlife, the fish, the land, and also the damaging effects of methylmercury in the food system.”
Andrew said “more people should come and show their support,” and that the more people who protest the more likely Nalcor and government “will see that there are people who want input in this, that they cannot just throw away our input and just do what they want to do.”
On Saturday evening a poster began circulating on social media announcing the next protest would take place at 5 a.m. Sunday morning, when people will blockade the south gate of the Muskrat Falls site. The Independent will continue covering the grassroots resistance to Muskrat Falls and will try to livestream Sunday’s protest on our Facebook page, though cell service in the area may be an issue. Otherwise, reporter Justin Brake will tweet updates (@JustinBrakeNL) and publish a story on TheIndependent.ca as soon as possible.