The motto for Monday’s National Indigenous Day of Action, “Deeds, not Words”, was aimed at the Trudeau Government, but in the growing movement against the Muskrat Falls hydro project it’s becoming clear that same sentiment is being directed at Indigenous leaders in Labrador.
Protests at the dam’s construction site continued Monday as more than 70 people walked from the Trans Labrador Highway to the North Spur and Spirit Mountain to hold a prayer ceremony for the river and those living downstream who will be affected once flooding of the dam’s reservoir begins, which Nalcor has said could be as early as next Saturday.
In tandem with the national day of action to oppose extractive industry practices that negatively impact Indigenous Peoples and to call on the federal government to respect Indigenous rights and sovereignty, land and water protectors and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous protesters walked by security on the dirt road leading to the construction site on the north side of the Grand River.
On Oct. 7 land protectors announced they “do not recognize” Nalcor’s authority at Muskrat Falls, “which is on our traditional lands,” and further that they are “guardians of our ancestors and defenders of the next generations of Labradorians. You are here in violation of our ancient ways and destroying our mighty Grand River and sacred lands of Labrador with this mega-dam project.”
In acts of solidarity on Monday ceremonies were also held at Long Pond in St. John’s and on the shore of Lake Melville in Rigolet, the Inuit community whose people are projected to be impacted the most by expected increases in methylmercury from the dam’s reservoir once it’s flooded.
As in recent days, on Monday more and more people were calling out political and Indigenous leaders for not joining the protests and standing with the people whose health and lives are at risk.
Following a prayer led by NunatuKavut Elder Ken Mesher on a plateau above the waters on the north side of the dam, Nunatsiavut Ordinary Member for Upper Lake Melville Roy Blake told the crowd, which included elders, families and children, that “it’s a sad day, really. I don’t see no presence from NG (Nunatsiavut Government), no presence from [NunatuKavut]…no presence from our provincial or federally-elected officials.
“I’m very disappointed in our leaders, and I think that goes for NG, because I think that today Minister [of Lands and Natural Resources Darryl] Shiwak, President [Johannes] Lampe, Minister [of Health and Social Development Greg] Flowers — you should be here today,” he continued.
“There’s people in your constituency within Nunatsiavut that this is going to be having a big effect on. It’s not only to do with methylmercury — as we all know with the North Spur, with the little stability it has, this is a very serious matter for people in all walks of life in Upper Lake Melville.”
On Monday morning, after he took to Facebook to address his constituents and others in Labrador who’ve been critical of his recent silence on Muskrat Falls, Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds told The Independent that while he shares concerns around methylmercury and the North Spur and would prefer to see the project stopped to address those concerns, “there’s a reality…that the project isn’t going to be stopped.”
Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Marjorie Flowers has been opposing the dam for years. A Nunatsiavut beneficiary originally from Rigolet, she was one of seven people arrested in 2013 during a peaceful protest alongside NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) President Todd Russell and other NCC members.
During Monday’s walk she told The Independent that if flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir goes ahead as planned, without fully clearing the reservoir, it will “devastate a way of life, and that’s putting it mildly.”
She said Muskrat Falls is the latest in a long series of large industrial projects planned and executed by decision-makers in St. John’s that are having a devastating impact on Labrador and the people who live there.
“They moved in here on this land, our land, without so much as consulting every Aboriginal group in the beginning, totally leaving out groups of people that had a stake in it,” she said, explaining the Innu, Inuit of Nunatsiavut and Inuit of NunatuKavut will all be affected.
Like a growing number of people, Flowers is calling for construction on the dam to be shut down altogether, but said people can no longer afford to wait for elected officials to take action.
“Being realistic about it I don’t think we’re going to change the mindset of the provincial government…I think that’s just too far gone,” she said. “It’s obvious that the government don’t care about the people here in Labrador. They’ve been doing this for decades, centuries almost. Walking in here and doing what they want, taking what they want, developing what they want, walking out and leaving holes in the ground and the people frustrated with no benefits at all.”
Steve Tooktoshina called the continuation of the project in light of the known risks associated with methylmercury and the North Spur “madness”.
“I think this should be shut down ’til it’s done right. They say they can’t afford it but that’s our life they’re talking about,” he said. “They’re putting a dollar figure on our lives and that’s not right. So far as I’m concerned Labrador gotta stop and think, what do we got to do here? Stay with Newfoundland, which is trying to poison us all, or move on? I think we should move on.”
Before leading the group in prayer on the North Spur, Mesher announced it was “a very sad day for me today, to see the devastation to the land,” and that he “would like to see the land respected.
“It hits me really deep in the heart. I’m very emotional today,” he continued. “It’s ok to be emotional…because when you think from the heart it has meaning. Sometimes we see our politicians speaking, but they’re speaking just from the lips — it don’t mean nothing. When you speak from deep within it has meaning.”
Mesher explained he is of both Mi’kmaq and Inuit ancestry, and that the eagle feather he held represented his First Nation culture, as he offered tobacco to the river.
He then read a passage from an issue of Them Days that recounted some history of the Grand River, where people, including members of his family, hunted and trapped, and even drowned, their bodies never to be found.
“I believe in miracles,” he said, alluding to the hope some still hold that the river can be saved and the minds of people living downstream can be put at ease.
You got to ask your ancestors for help, but you truly got to believe in it. You got to go to your ancestors and pray, and you got to believe in it. — Nunatukavut Elder Ken Mesher
“I was in Ottawa at meetings one time and met with a spiritual healer…and I was telling this First Nation Elder about the trouble we were having in Labrador, and she said to me, ‘You got to ask your ancestors for help, but you truly got to believe in it. You got to go to your ancestors and pray, and you got to believe in it,’” he said.
The belief that the dam can be stopped must be accompanied by action, Blake and others said Monday, expressing the need for more people to join the protests.
“I think that we need bigger numbers. It’s great today the numbers that we do have out, but we need more,” Blake told the crowd.
“I think it’s time that we get more serious [and] stop walking in here. We’ve got to start doing things, and it’s time to put our foot down and move forth.”
North West River resident Scott Neilsen was one of many new faces at the ongoing protests Monday.
Neilsen, an archeologist, said he hasn’t been involved with the issue since Muskrat Falls’ environmental assessment hearings, when he intervened to express his concern over the historical significance of the project site, where tens of thousands of ancient artifacts, mostly belonging to the Innu and their ancestors, were later uncovered during the early stages of construction.
“Today was an opportunity for me to come out and show some support,” he told The Independent, explaining he is concerned that the dam could have disastrous long-term impacts on local Indigenous communities.
“I think the major concern is…the inability of people to no longer practice [their] culture, and that’s where the colonialism aspect comes into play,” he explained. “People won’t be able to eat fish, which means they won’t be going out in boat, setting nets — so you won’t have children out with their grandparents and parents on the land performing activities that they’ve done for hundreds of years. And those are important points in time for cultural transmission. So people will be cut off from that, and that will make it much more difficult to pass on those cultural traditions.”
Neilsen said in a time and place where suicide is already a major problem, Muskrat Falls could add another obstacle to local Indigenous people’s ability to be who they are and maintain a way of life that contributes to good mental health.
“We already have a huge problem with suicide in Labrador and this project I think has the potential to, because of the stress it’s causing, contribute to that,” he said, alluding to the anxiety many are feeling over being forced to choose between risking their health or giving up a traditional way of life, once the reservoir is flooded.
In Rigolet about 40 people from the community of 300 gathered by the water to pay tribute to Lake Melville, where they made an offering and returned a trout carcass to the water.
“It’s where we’ve got our food, and once flooding starts…it’s a lethal injection for which there is no antitoxin to combat it or reverse it or stop it,” said Jack Shiwak, Rigolet’s representative in Nunatsiavut Government. “So we thought we would pay tribute to the waterway that gave us so much, and our forefathers so much, over the years.”
Shiwak said the mood at the ceremony was “somber,” and that harvesting fish, seals and birds from the estuary is “a way of life that we’ve always been used to, and the possibility of that disappearing and not being able to look to this waterway more for food is sad. Since time immemorial people have depended on that, and all my forefathers for generations lived off that, and there’s a good number of people here who are in the same boat.”
He said Muskrat Falls “should be put on hold until they look at putting all the safeguards in place, and then proceed with it.”
Shiwak also said he thinks Nunatsiavut’s leaders have “done a fairly good job” at opposing the project unless its reservoir is fully cleared. “They have been voicing their opinions and I’m not sure what else they can do. We have to be pretty cognizant of what can happen because our positions could be on the line. If any of our assembly members were arrested then there’s the possibility of being dismissed from the assembly.”
Blake, who has attended all of the recent walks on to the Muskrat Falls construction site, told The Independent Monday that if the leaders of all three Indigenous groups came together in opposition to the dam as they did for last summer’s Rally in the Valley, they could mobilize people to join the resistance and stop flooding before it’s too late.
In June Russell, Lampe and Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee joined forces at the rally in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in what Russell called “a historic event” that “speaks to the seriousness and significance of the methylmercury poisoning which the government and Nalcor is intent on doing to our people.”
Since that day Russell and Qupee have been silent in the public sphere on Muskrat Falls, while Lampe and Nunatsiavut ministers have continuously backed their Make Muskrat Right campaign.
“Everybody was talking about how it was a good thing for us, but since June we haven’t seen them all together since, or heard tell of it. If they have [been talking], there’s been no sharing of information,” Blake said. “I think this problem can be solved if all levels of government get involved here together. Go in with calm, cool heads and look at the facts.”
But with flooding potentially just days away, locals who will be impacted by methylmercury and who are worried about the stability of the North Spur are wondering why their leaders aren’t with them on the front lines to protect their health and way of life.
Tooktoshina echoed Blake’s call for Nunatsiavut leadership to stand with the grassroots.
“They should be here with us,” he said. “To me Roy is the only one standing up for us. There should be more of them here, for leadership. They’re failing us.”
He also encouraged others to join the grassroots movement to stop the dam before it does irreversible damage to the ecosystem and locals’ way of life.
“Come out and join us and shut this down,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal — it’s your children and grandchildren. They gotta live with it. To us we want a path to a bright and clean future; we can’t do that with the mercury poison. To me they got a right to live and prosper, and they can’t do that here. They’re going to kill our culture here.”
Blake said “there’s a lot at stake” with flooding only days away.
“I have grandchildren and children who’s going to live here after me, and they’re going to be very lucky if this dam goes ahead with the North Spur and the weakness of it — we’re all going to be lucky to still be here. And that scares me, it really do.”