Tanya Tagaq didn’t realize that when she visits Newfoundland next weekend to speak at an Inuit Studies conference in St. John’s and give performances in the capital city and Corner Brook, that Indigenous communities in Labrador would be on the front lines in an 11th-hour fight to protect their water, traditional foods and health from potentially devastating methylmercury contamination.
On the heels of her 2014 album Animism and the awards, accolades and stardom it brought the Inuit throat singer, the Iqaluktuuttiaq, Nunavut native is set to release Retribution, a concept album she recently told the CBC addresses “rape of women, rape of the land, rape of children, despoiling of traditional lands without consent.”
Tagaq told the CBC she gave the album its title because “enough is enough,” she said.
“Enough of hurting the planet. Enough of the judicial system that has allowed this and enough of the government taking, taking, taking and not giving out the education it owes to Canadian citizens. Canadian citizens deserve to be taught our history and why things are the way they are.”
A vocal advocate for Inuit and Indigenous rights, Tagaq was alarmed to hear the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and Crown energy corporation Nalcor are preparing to undertake the first phase of flooding of the Muskrat Falls hydro dam despite being presented with credible scientific evidence that flooding without fully clearing the reservoir puts Indigenous health and lives at risk.
Lake Melville: Avativut, Kanuittailinnivut (Our Environment, Our Health), a study led by researchers from Harvard University released earlier this year, found that methylmercury levels in the 3,000-square kilometre estuary downstream from Muskrat Falls will rise much higher than Nalcor had previously claimed.
Politicians and project leaders with Nalcor have continually downplayed the Harvard study, offering only to extend monitoring of methylmercury levels out into Lake Melville once the reservoir is flooded, issue advisory warnings to those who harvest food from the estuary when methylmercury rises to unsafe levels, and “compensate” individuals whose ability to consume country foods is inhibited.
What the developers or the polluters don’t understand is they’re not just polluting the land, they’re poisoning all the inhabitants. — Tanya Tagaq
On Thursday provincial Environment and Conservation Minister Perry Trimper, who is also the MHA for Lake Melville, announced the government will proceed with the first phase of flooding this fall (on Friday Nalcor warned locals not to go on the river above or below the dam, or stand too close to the riverbanks beginning on Oct. 15) without clearing that part of the reservoir, and will consider in future discussions Nunatsiavut’s request for full clearing regarding the remaining 75 percent of the reservoir, which is slated to occur in 2019.
In an interview with The Independent Nunatsiavut Minister of Lands and Natural Resources Darryl Shiwak fired back, saying the Inuit government is “extremely disappointed” by Nalcor and the government’s refusal to fully clear the reservoir and is considering other options in light of the urgency of the situation.
“What the developers or the polluters don’t understand is they’re not just polluting the land, they’re poisoning all the inhabitants,” Tagaq said, speaking to the wider problem of dangerous industrial development on or near Indigenous lands and communities. “And this detachment from nature and detachment from the sense of self, and detachment from true life and living on the land, and knowing how the land works, is what caused all this strife in our culture — just being away from natural ways.
“They are literally going to be poisoning people, because pollutants go up the food chain” to polar bears and humans at the top, she said.
Inuit in Labrador and across the Arctic depend on wild meat as the staple of their diet. In the Lake Melville region, thousands of locals, including Innu and Inuit, eat fish, seals and seabirds harvested from the estuary, Joseph Townley, a 33-year-old Inuk from North West River and conservation officer for Nunatsiavut Government, recently told The Independent.
- Muskrat Falls threatens locals’ food, way of life (Feature, Part 1)
- Muskrat Falls: Reconciliation, or Assimiliation? (Feature, Part 2)
- Fear, anger, desperation, plans dominate Muskrat Falls rally
Looking at the potential impacts of methylmercury on Nunatsiavut beneficiaries, the Harvard study projects a reservoir that is only partially cleared of vegetation and topsoil could push hundreds of Inuit living in the area above thresholds for safe methylmercury levels in humans set by Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“And Inuit women, we end up having high concentrations of toxins in breast milk and stuff. So it’s dreadfully important that they don’t [flood the reservoir],” Tagaq explained, citing one of the major physical and psychological impacts other large industrial projects have had on women and families in the north.
According to a recent study evaluating the transmission of methylmercury (MeHG) from nursing mothers to their infants, it was found that “breast milk contained substantial amounts of MeHg, which was strongly associated with the internal accumulation of MeHg and the lipid content of the milk.”
While studies are ongoing related to the impacts of methylmercury transmitted to infants through breast milk, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that “foetuses are most susceptible to developmental effects due to mercury.
“Methylmercury exposure in the womb can result from a mother’s consumption of fish and shellfish. It can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system. The primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Therefore, cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills may be affected in children who were exposed to methylmercury as foetuses,” reads a WHO info sheet on mercury and health.
Everyone should get out there. Everyone should be protesting. Everyone should help. — Tanya Tagaq
“I don’t know how [Muskrat Falls] is not national news — I don’t know how,” Tagaq said.
Tagaq said people in Labrador who will be affected by the dam, and their allies province-wide, “shouldn’t give up,” even though first flooding could begin in two weeks.
“Everyone should get out there. Everyone should be protesting. Everyone should help,” she said.
Being an Indigenous person in Canada means facing forms of colonialism every day, but people should continue resisting, she said.
“Even if [flooding] does happen, at least you know you’ve done your best,” she said.
At a rally against Muskrat Falls Friday in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, it was announced that a group of people who want to stop the dam will carry out an act of civil disobedience on Monday by walking to the North Spur, also known as ‘Spirit Mountain’ to the Innu, on the construction site. The group will meet at 12:30 p.m. at the Muskrat Falls turn on the Trans Labrador Highway West, and they will begin their walk at 1 p.m.
Another protest is planned for Oct. 7 in St. John’s, where people will picket and blockade Nalcor’s office at 8 a.m. and then rally outside Confederation Building at noon. The Facebook event page states protestors are trying to raise awareness of Muskrat Fall’s “long-term environmental, cultural, and economic damage, worker health and safety, Indigenous rights, methylmercury poisoning,” and the “potential for collapse of the North Spur.
“As shareholders, we are demanding full and complete disclosure of all Nalcor’s contractual agreements and financial statements, including a complete and detailed list of subcontractors and investors,” the event description reads.
“As dutiful citizens of NL, we are demanding that a full investigation be conducted by the Auditor General of Canada.
“The time has come for direct action.”
Tagaq will deliver a keynote speech at ‘Inuit PiusituKangit‘, the Inuit Studies conference in St. John’s, on Oct. 9. She performs at the St. John’s Arts & Culture Centre on Oct. 10, and at the Corner Brook Arts & Culture Centre on Oct. 12.