“We are not a bunch of criminals, we’re people trying to protect our land”

Elders, land protectors speak out from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.

Three Inuk Labrador Land Protectors are speaking out from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, where they are being detained after refusing to promise a supreme court judge Friday in Happy Valley-Goose Bay that they would stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.

Marjorie Flowers, Jim Learning and Eldred Davis all spoke with The Independent Monday from the maximum security men’s prison in St. John’s, where they say they were transported to late Friday evening.

Referred to as “The Labrador Three” by some, the elders and land protectors say they are doing what they feel must be done to stop Muskrat Falls and protect their people and land from destruction many, including experts, have projected will occur, including an increase of methylmercury in fish and other traditional foods and a potential dam breach to do the alleged instability of the North Spur.

Learning likened the recent increased RCMP police presence in Labrador to a “declaration of war” on the people of Labrador, while Flowers issued a call to Labrador Land Protectors and Labradorians to “step up to the plate” and follow in their footsteps in terms of being arrested in the effort to stop Muskrat Falls.

“Doing what we really have to do”

Davis, a 66-year-old NunatuKavut Elder, land protector and Grand Riverkeeper who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, told The Independent Monday that in Supreme Court of N.L. on Friday he told the judge “we are not a bunch of criminals, we’re people trying to protect our land,” but that Justice George Murphy “didn’t buy it and said I would have to be detained.”

Davis said he feels land protectors “are doing what we really have to do,” and that stopping Muskrat Falls is “a crucial situation.”

“If this process of building a dam at Muskrat Falls on the Grand River, in the method that they’re doing it now, comes to fruition, we are in great danger downstream,” he explained. “We are 100 percent certain now that the design and reinforcement of the North Spur is inadequate.”

Davis, Learning and Flowers were summonsed to court after allegedly breaking a Nalcor-initiated injunction and recognizances that mandated them to stay more than one kilometre away from the Muskrat Falls site.

Flowers said that on Friday morning before her court appearance she had planned to respect the undertaking from then on, but that she soon came to realize that approach “was a mistake.”

“I just felt that I had succumbed to the pressure of this whole crazy process of the skewed justice system, and the process unfolding under the so-called justice system,” the 50-year-old Inuk originally from Rigolet recounted.

“By afternoon, in seeing so many people say that they would follow the injunction, and after realizing that this was going to get us nowhere if everybody does that — and then I saw Jim get arrested. After hearing Jim’s speech to the judge I realized he was on the right path and I needed to follow him.

Flowers said shortly after she was detained at the courthouse she was transported with Learning to an airplane hangar in Goose Bay, where the two were “heavily shackled” by RCMP officers.

“There were about 10 cops there and they were trying to figure out how to put this new lock on,” Flowers said.

“We had new and improved, apparently, handcuffs and ankle locks that were double-locked. They were chained around first and then double-locked. The chain was weaved through top and bottom, just the way you see it on TV really, around our waists, and double-locked on. We couldn’t move an inch.”

Flowers said once she and Learning were put aboard a plane, “we had to sit on the plane basically unable to move.

“I could take the water into my hand, but I had to get help to push it up to my mouth if I wanted a sip of water.”

Neither Flowers, nor Learning, nor Davis have been convicted of a crime related to the Muskrat Falls protests, and none of them have been charged with a violent offense.

“I’m in jail now and so far I have not committed any offence,” Davis told The Independent Monday. “But apparently the way they have the laws written, if you don’t sign the undertaking you’re held in captivity.”

Inadequate responses from Nalcor and government

“They are trying to make criminals out of people who are trying to defend themselves from methylmercury poisoning of a thousands of year food supply that we’ve always relied on at a time when the rest of Canada is looking for food security,” Learning, who is 79 and living with advanced prostate cancer, told The Independent Monday. “This government has decided that we don’t deserve that.”

During the Indigenous-led occupation of Muskrat Falls last October Premier Dwight Ball struck a deal with Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders and agreed to take further steps to mitigate methylmercury in the hydro dam reservoir.

To date the details of an Independent Environmental Advisory Committee have not been made public, nor has a plan of action to protect individuals living downstream from methylmercury, which was projected in a 2016 peer-reviewed scientific study to expose Inuit communities downstream to unsafe levels of the neurotoxin.

As part of that agreement the provincial government commanded Nalcor to lower water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir in the spring. Nalcor initially agreed, but later announced it would lower water levels in mid-July. After public pressure was put on the government, Nalcor then announced, on the first day of summer, that it would lower the water levels to those “that would typically be seen at this time of year.”

According to federal government hydrometric data for the Churchill River above Muskrat Falls for the years 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, water level readings measured between 16 and 16.5 metres. At the time of publication, water levels above Muskrat Falls were measuring at approximately 20.4 metres, according to federal government hydrometric data.

On the North Spur front, land protectors and others living downstream have criticized Nalcor for not providing adequate assurance and evidence that people’s lives are not being put at risk.

In a July 2015 response to a number of concerns in a letter from lawyer and Muskrat Falls critic Cabot Martin, former provincial Environment and Conservation Minister Dan Crummell estimated a breach of the main Muskrat Falls dam would result in “a potential loss of life” of 136 individuals and an estimated $47 million “for the loss of residential homes plus additional infrastructure losses.”

Flowers said she “can only express frustration because of the resistance to transparency by Nalcor and the government, for nearly a decade.

“Here we are, on the ground people, demanding that. We haven’t gotten any response from anybody at any point, so it’s just clearly a railroad job of bulldozing everybody flat to the ground. But how does one back down from it? If one part of our culture is being threatened, and our lives are being threatened, how does one back down from that? I don’t know how we can. We have to remain in tact as a group — we have to.”

Land protectors “at a pivotal point”

Flowers echoed Davis’ comment that the present moment is an important time for Labradorians, land protectors and the Indigenous groups in Labrador.

“This fight has to stay ongoing,” she said, adding she doesn’t want to spend her entire summer in jail and that the resistance can be effective if enough land protectors and supporters are willing to be arrested.

“We have to encourage other land protectors now to step up to the plate, to start with their initial arrests or breakings of the injunction, and just continue through this process – keep moving people through that court system, keep the light on this issue. That’s the only way we’re going to do it.”

Davis said it “seems that the peoples of Labrador are secondary to getting Nalcor to complete this huge monumental mistake that they’ve begun,” but that the “repercussions to the peoples of Labrador are far more important, including the possibility of loss of life, the poisoning of the food supply, which would continue indefinitely, possibility the elimination of the culture of the Inuit of the Lake Melville area, and the huge bills that they’re going to accumulate in doing this which will mean more than likely people will have to go into poverty in some cases.

“People will have to leave the area to find a place that they can afford to live; it’s a huge mistake and it’s being done for political purposes as far as I can see,” he continued. “It’s a known money loser, it’s a pit which will never pay for itself, and yet it’s being continued for, as far as I can understand, no other reason than continue to pour money into rich white men’s bank accounts, people who are unknown and seem to have control of government.”

Davis said he’s “grateful for all the Labrador Land Protectors who have banded together and expressed their concern and their frustration with the way things are happening here.

“People, law-abiding citizens, are being thrown in jail, incarcerated for no reason other than trying to protect our land, and the peoples, and the wildlife and the fish of the land.

“[We] are considered, if not criminal then punished as criminals,” he continued. “I do not agree with it and I think any civilized society would look at this and say, these politicians and the people under them have to be out of their minds to be treating people [like this].”

In a message directed at Nalcor and Premier Dwight Ball, Learning said to “do the right thing and don’t try to drown us or poison our traditional food supply.

“They know they’re going to do that with the North Spur because they will not tell people what they’ve done to make that Spur secure. So do the right thing and stop the project,” the NunatuKavut elder said.

Elaborating on his war analogy, Learning said the government and Nalcor “intend to meet none of our demands,” and referencing the recent increased RCMP presence in Labrador added “they’re just upping the ante to confront us.”

Flowers said she feels land protectors are “at a pivotal point with this land protecting process at the gate,” and that “with the transformers coming in there’s high energy around that.

“With so many people now being hauled into jail for these non-crimes, I feel like this has become a critical juncture where people really have to stay focused on what we started out to do,” she continued.

“I would encourage everybody, anybody, who feels that we’re being undermined and being unjustifiably treated: we have to stand up now, we have to stay on the focused road to stopping Muskrat for the point of poisoning of our traditional food source, and also for the potential drowning that’s going to happen in Mud Lake and the Lower Valley. [Flooding has] already happened – and they’ve already been proven that they don’t care about the people.”

Flowers and Davis say their next court appearance is scheduled for July 31. Learning said he has not been told when he is due back in court but that he assumes it will be the same day as the others.

Neither Ball, nor Minister of Justice and Public Safety Andrew Parsons, have commented on the elders and land protectors’ incarcerations, though when elected in 2015 both promised to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s calls to action, including adopting Aboriginal systems of justice to reduce the number of Indigenous Peoples incarcerated in Canadian prisons.

Ball and Parsons also committed to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation, which mandates settler governments to obtain free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples before developing on their lands or in ways that negatively impact their ways of life.

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