Vigils in Labrador and St. John’s honour now-submerged Muskrat Falls

With reservoir flooding and methylmercury monitoring now underway, locals vow to continue fighting to protect their food and way of life.

On Tuesday evening land protectors and others gathered in Labrador and St. John’s to honour the Muskrat Falls, which after featuring prominently in Indigenous life and history for thousands of years have now been submerged underwater as part of the controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric development.

In the midst of an ongoing struggle by Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians to protect the falls and surrounding marine ecosystem—and subsequently their traditional food supply and way of life—Crown energy corporation Nalcor began the first phase of reservoir flooding earlier this month.

The flooding began once the leaders of Labrador’s three Indigenous groups gave their approval after two consultants reviewed Nalcor-commissioned reports that outlined the necessity of partial reservoir flooding ahead of winter freezeup to protect the integrity of the hydro infrastructure.

Despite the Indigenous leaders’ consent to first flooding—which Nalcor claims will bring water levels up to 25 metres above sea level, to around or slightly above the Grand River’s springtime high water mark—many in Labrador are not satisfied with the political leadership’s Oct. 26 agreement, which came amid growing protests in Labrador and the occupation by land protectors of Muskrat Falls’ main workers’ camp.

As night fell Tuesday, dozens gathered outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls construction site, in Rigolet and in St. John’s for vigils and prayers.

“We ask God that you…protect us and keep us safe from the mercury poisoning,” Rev. Sarah Baikie of St. Timothy’s Anglican Church said, leading a small group of Rigolet residents in prayer. “We ask that you protect the animals and all the wildlife, everything, from the flood. We thank you for the use of the land that we had for so many years. We never ever dreamt, Lord, that there would come a time when we could not use that land as we always did. We ask that you be with all those who is looking after it and help them to be able to protect it, and just to help us to be good stewards of the lands, and help us to be able to help the [Muskrat Falls] workers to know why it is we wants the flooding stopped and the land clean. Lord, it’s of our life, it’s of our health. It’s just part of who we are as Inuit.”

Rev. Sarah Baikie of St. Timothy's Anglican Church in Rigolet led locals in prayer on Nov. 15. Photo by Charlie Flowers.
Rev. Sarah Baikie of St. Timothy’s Anglican Church in Rigolet led locals in prayer on Nov. 15. Photo by Charlie Flowers.

Outside the gates of the Muskrat Falls worksite, more than 50 people, including Inuit drum dancers and Innu and Inuit elders, gathered in ceremony and prayer.

And in St. John’s, a small group gathered on Confederation Hill for a solidarity vigil, where Labrador land protector Denise Cole said the latest images coming out of Labrador that show Muskrat Falls underwater are “devastating”.

“I have walked on that place and have sat and listened to the falls and felt the spray on my face,” Cole told the crowd gathered at the foot of the steps of Confederation Building. “And to know that generations before me were also able to feel that, and that generations after me may not be able to experience that, is a break in my culture.”

Cole said when she speaks of the Muskrat Falls dam as a form of “cultural genocide”, it’s because she is “watching my culture be dug up and destroyed and completely disrespected in the name of profit and greed, of Nalcor and the provincial government, for this hydro project.”

The Oct. 26 agreement between the premier and the leaders of Nunatsiavut Government, NunatuKavut Community Council and the Innu Nation mandated Nalcor to await approval from the Indigenous leaders before beginning the first stage of flooding.

Though water levels have been raised, the leaders’ agreement compels Nalcor to bring water levels in the reservoir back down in the spring, after which time a newly formed Independent Expert Advisory Committee [IEAC] will “seek an independent, evidence-based approach that will determine and recommend options for mitigating human health concerns related to methylmercury throughout the reservoir as well as in the Lake Melville ecosystem,” according to an Oct. 26 government news release.

Despite the agreement, Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall has spoken out in provincial and national media, calling into question the feasibility of complete reservoir clearing, and even questioning whether methylmercury resulting from hydro dams has ever impacted people’s health.

Marshall’s comments are “incredibly uninformed,” says Billy Gauthier, an Inuk artist and resident of North West River who launched a hunger strike in October as Nalcor proceeded toward flooding without following the recommendations of the only peer-reviewed scientific research on how methylmercury resulting from Muskrat Falls would impact local Indigenous food and health.

Gauthier says he doesn’t have “very much confidence” in Marshall and Nalcor more generally, since both had previously been willing to risk the health of Labrador Inuit to save money and time in avoiding reservoir clearing, he says.

“[Marshall] is doing a terrible job right now, and I only hope that he starts listening to what the credible scientists of the world are saying and starts looking into some of the problems that have happened in a number of different areas, including James Bay, where there are a lot of people who have been physically hurt, through sickness, from methylmercury poisoning,” Gauthier says.

Responding to Marshall’s comment, Innu Elder Bart Jack also recently pointed out that methylmercury resulting from the creation of the Upper Churchill Falls’ Smallwood Reservoir on sacred Innu lands has led to consumption advisories that still prevent Innu and Inuit from eating traditional foods today.

Provincial Environment Minister Perry Trimper, who came under heavy fire during the Muskrat Falls protests, locals have said, for not doing enough to protect their health and way of life, told The Independent on Tuesday that he feels the government is now on the right track.

Trimper said the government received the first results from the winter impoundment methylmercury monitoring program on Tuesday, and that it is working with the Indigenous groups to make the information, as well as the program’s design, “as available as possible and as quickly as possible.”

The environment minister, who is the MHA for Lake Melville and represents most of the people who will be impacted by the Muskrat Falls dam, also said with ongoing methylmercury monitoring in the reservoir over the winter months there will be a “two to three week” delay between the time data is collected in the field and when government receives those results.

Nalcor spokesperson Karen O’Neill told The Independent on Tuesday that a second round of sampling collection took place on Nov. 5, and that “additional sampling is conducted regularly.”

O’Neill said the sampling is being completed by Amec Foster Wheeler, which is using Flett Research Ltd., an accredited lab in Winnipeg, to test the samples.

While it’s unclear what Nalcor would have to do in the event monitoring results show methylmercury levels in the reservoir threaten the local food chain, and despite Marshall’s recent comments which upset many in Labrador, Trimper says the government is “very concerned about human health, and if additional mitigation measures are required, I will order that through my authority.

Labrador land protectors Jacinda Beals (left), Billy Gauthier (back), Erin Saunders (right) and Beatrice Hunter (front) in a tent outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project on Nov. 14. Photo by Beatrice Hunter.
Labrador land protectors Jacinda Beals (left), Billy Gauthier (rear), Erin Saunders (right) and Beatrice Hunter (front) in a tent outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project on Nov. 14. Photo by Beatrice Hunter.

“I feel I’ve been stepping up very much in terms of additional mitigation measures, responding to concerns, moving the direction of a multi-billion dollar project that was going down one road of ignoring concerns and issues that have been ignored for years,” he said. “And I guess over the last 10 months what I’ve been doing is in a very deliberate fashion changing the direction of this project and how it will proceed.

Trimper also said the IEAC is presently being established, and that it will eventually issue a recommendation to him, “and I will be acting on those recommendations.”

In the meantime, Gauthier and others have resumed camping out in tents across from the main gate at Muskrat Falls.

He says while the turnouts at the recently revived protests may be lower than those which took place in October, numbers swelled quickly last month in response to government and Nalcor’s handling of the situation and could do the same this time.

“Once we bring our thoughts and ideas together and we’re all on the same page…you’ll see bigger numbers coming out,” Gauthier told The Independent on Monday. “And I’m positive that with those bigger numbers you’ll see satisfaction in the end, by the public, by the people of Labrador, because we’re not going away. We’re in it until this is done right and people don’t have to worry about their health and safety.”

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