“They’re afraid of us,” land protector says of government on Muskrat Falls

Labrador land protector Denise Cole and others confronted environment minister Perry Trimper following a peaceful ‘die in’ protest in St. John’s Tuesday.

On Monday around two dozen people in St. John’s staged a ‘die in’ outside The Rooms provincial archives to protest the imminent flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir in Labrador, where the health and way of life of Indigenous communities downstream will be impacted once the dam’s reservoir is flooded, which Crown energy corporation Nalcor Energy says could being as early as Saturday.

The peaceful protest was staged “to represent the cultural genocide that is happening in Labrador to Labradorian people by having their lives put at risk, their culture put at risk, and their health put at risk,” said Denise Cole, a Labradorian living in St. John’s who narrated the peaceful protest as guests of the provincial government’s invite-only ‘The Way Forward’ event exited the building.

“We knew there would be a collection of individuals there, and if they’re talking about moving forward they have to be willing to talk about Muskrat Falls and the implications it has for Labrador people as well as for the entire province,” Cole said, explaining how the grassroots group chose the time and place for their action.

Cole said while some folks stopped to hear the group’s concerns and expressed their support, most walked by or away from those laying on the ground.

“We had hoped that people would actually stop and want to have a conversation about the meetings they had,” she continued. “We wanted to hear politicians come out and say, yes, Muskrat Falls and the fears that Labradorians are dealing with is front and centre in our scope. That didn’t happen, unfortunately.”

Photo by Daniel Smith.
Scenes from the Oct. 11 Muskrat Falls die in outside The Rooms in St. John’s. Photo by Daniel Smith.

After the hour-long action ended and most involved had left—who Cole made a point of calling “land protectors, not protesters”—provincial Environment Minister Perry Trimper exited the building and spoke with the few who remained.

A video of the interaction posted to YouTube shows Cole and others questioning Trimper on Muskrat Falls.

St. John’s resident and activist Matthew Howse asked Trimper if he was in a conflict of interest since under his former employer, Stantec, he did work for Nalcor on the project.

Trimper called any such claims “conspiracy theories” and said, “I left my job a couple years ago and I’m doing my best every day.”

When Cole said she would like to see more involvement by Labrador’s Indigenous leaders in direct actions to stop the flooding of Muskrat Falls’ reservoir, Trimper said he spent an hour on the phone Tuesday with NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) President Todd Russell.

Russell, who was arrested alongside half a dozen others in 2013 for protesting the dam, has not been present at any of the recent acts of peaceful civil disobedience on the Muskrat Falls site, though NCC councillor and NunatuKavut Elder Jim Learning has. He is currently involved in negotiations with the federal government over a land claim for the Inuit of southern Labrador, and did not respond to an interview request from The Independent by the time of publication.

Trimper told the land protectors that he is kept “awake at night [due to] the fact that messaging and communication has really escalated to the point that now there are a lot of folks who are legitimately worried, and that bothers me,” he said.

“The best I can do is have good, one-on-one conversations with people if that’s what it takes. If I have to have half a million of them I will,” he said.

Residents of Mud Lake and lower Happy Valley who live in the flood zone, should there ever be a breach in the dam, have continually expressed concern over a lack of information from Nalcor proving the North Spur is stable.

The Independent has requested raw data on the North Spur drilling samples from Nalcor, but that data has not yet been provided.

Cole told Trimper he should halt construction at Muskrat Falls until concerns are adequately addressed, to which the minister replied, “I hear that from a lot of people,” and that the “Canadian Dam Builders Association has huge scrutiny on this, and a variety of goverment departments are watching every step.”

Trimper was in fact referring to the Canadian Dam Association (CDA), a self-described “group of Owners, Operators, Regulators, Consultants and Suppliers interested in dams and reservoirs,” according to the association’s website.

An interview request left with CDA’s Executive Director Don Butcher was not returned by the time of publication.

The CDA’s website says the association is funded in part by SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering firm that won a major contract on Muskrat Falls for engineering procurement and construction management, and which is embroiled in an international scandal from which it faces charges of bribery and corruption.

In 2013 the World Bank blacklisted SNC-Lavalin and 114 of its affiliates, debarring them for 10 years from working on any World Bank-funded projects around the world. The action moved Canada to the top of the bank’s list for countries home to corrupt companies.

SNC-Lavalin and some of its affiliates were behind various reports related to Muskrat Falls, including the 1999 Muskrat Falls Feasibility Study, which notes the “soils forming the spur consist of a complex interbedded sequence of relatively low permeability silty sands and sands, and sensitive marine clays,” but that ultimately that the North Spur could be stabilized under the right conditions.

The Department of Environment and Conservation’s Dam Safety Program webpage explains Nalcor “is responsible for keeping the dam in good repair and ensuring that the structure is maintained and operated safely following the Canadian Dam Association (CDA) Dam Safety Guidelines,” though the government’s website does not say what the guidelines are.

The CDA offers the Dam Safety Guidelines on its website, though “non-members” must pay a $250 fee to obtain them.

People living downstream have been calling on Nalcor to provide assurance that there is no risk to their lives, and say so far they have not received an adequate response.

Cole told Trimper he should be pushing Ball, who is also the Minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs, and others in government to halt the project until the concerns of Upper Lake Melville residents are addressed.

“Stop until we can make sure that the people know and can feel safe,” she said. “Stop what you’re doing. You’re acting like you can’t stop. If this was anywhere else in Newfoundland and there was this kind of risk and populations at risk, you would stop.”

Trimper responded, saying, “this argument has been going on for years and now we’ve got a sudden realization there’s an issue.”

Since the environmental assessment hearings in 2011 Nunatsiavut Government, Grand Riverkeeper Labrador, the Sierra Club and others have continually raised concerns about damming Muskrat Falls, including those around the dangers of methylmercury.

Since then, Amnesty International, the Council of Canadians, the David Suzuki Foundation, Memorial University’s Students’ Union, the provincial NDP and most recently the Social Justice Co-operative of Newfoundland and Labrador have added their voices to the movement calling for the dam to be stopped until the concerns around methylmercury are adequately addressed.

The province and Nalcor have said the first phase of flooding, which will account for 25 percent of the reservoir’s holdings, will proceed as early as Oct. 15 without full clearing of vegetation and topsoil, citing legal and contractual obligations as well as technical reasons why the flooding cannot be delayed.

They’re afraid of us, and that they’re aware of who has the power. — Denise Cole, land protector

Trimper told Cole and the others that stopping the project “may sound easy to do [but] there’s 5,000 people up there working.”

“And there’s 10,000 living downstream,” Cole responded. “If anything happens to them you’re going to be the guy responsible.”

Trimper said since early August dialogue with Nunatsiavut Government has improved. The province has agreed to some of the demands outlined in Nunatsiavut’s Make Muskrat Right campaign, but not to full clearing of the reservoir, which Nunatsiavut Minsiter of Lands and Natural Resources Darryl Shiwak recently told The Independent was “the most important part”.

“The only way to mitigate is to fully clear that reservoir,” he said. “Everything else is secondary to that, because once you flood even a little bit the methylmercury is going to start to rise and it will go into the ecosystem and into the wild foods and eventually get up into whoever eats those wild foods — and there are a lot of people downstream who do that.”

Addressing Cole and the others outside The Rooms, Trimper said methylmercury production is “naturally occurring” in the environment, and that “when a beaver makes a dam and floods an area you create methylmercury,” to which Cole replied the peer-reviewed Harvard study is more credible than Nalcor’s contracted scientists, who initially proposed there would be “no measurable effects” of methylmercury beyond the mouth of the river in Lake Melville and had not conducted research on Lake Melville itself.

Photo by Daniel Smith.
Scenes from the Oct. 11 Muskrat Falls die in outside The Rooms in St. John’s. Photo by Daniel Smith.

“It was that political rhetoric: we’re doing the best we can, we inherited this bad project, we can’t stop things now but we are going to try our best to work with Aboriginal groups and mitigate things in the future,” Cole told The Independent, likening Trimper’s responses to locals’ and the Indigenous groups’ concerns “a pinball machine of excuses”.

Trimper did not respond to an interview request from The Independent by the time of publication.

“For me, as an environmentalist and a land defender, there’s no right way to do Muskrat Falls besides stop it altogether,” Cole added, saying there’s a “sense of urgency” with the first phase of flooding only a few days away.

“The lives of people in Labrador are gravely at risk from this project — the North Spur [instability], the methylmercury poisoning,” she said, explaining those who participated in the die in “were lying there to represent the people who are [in Labrador] now, and generations to come.

“I think the fact the government completely avoided having any contact with us—I hope the rest of the province is paying attention, because I don’t know how you have consultations all day with your hand-selected few and talk about doing what’s best for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, but then completely avoid having any contact with your grassroots people who are trying to bring a message forward. That tells me two things: that they’re afraid of us, and that they’re aware of who has the power,” she continued.

“So anyone who thinks that they cannot take on government, I hope this shows them that you can, because government now is afraid of us and is avoiding us. Imagine if they lived downstream and have to live with that fear. The fear the politicians have right now is having to face the people they’re supposed to represent. That’s not how government is supposed to work.”

The grassroots resistance to Muskrat Falls is set to continue on Thursday in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, where organizers have planned a ‘People’s March for Representation’, where they will be “calling out all elected leaders,” including provincial, federal and Indigenous leaders, according to an event poster circulation on social media. People are gathering at 2 p.m. outside the Labrador Friendship Centre and will walk to Trimper’s office at the Department of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs building.

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