“We feel powerless and terrible”: Inuit artist galvanized by Muskrat Falls

Heather Campbell’s “Methylmercury” is now part of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s contemporary Inuit art collection. The Rigolet-born artist is also selling prints to raise money for the Labrador Land Protectors.

Heather Campbell remembers going out on the land as a youngster.

She recalls being shown the places where her family and ancestors lived, hunted, trapped and fished.

Her grandmother’s family was from Rigolet, and her grandfather’s from Mulligan. The couple raised her in Rigolet.

Their families would “paddle back and forth,” Campbell explains, “down to [Rigolet to] do their summer fishing, and then paddle back in the fall to Mulligan.”

Though she has lived in Ottawa, more than 2,000 kilometres from her home in Nunatsiavut, for more than 20 years, the Inuk artist still cherishes trips home — especially the ferry ride from Happy Valley-Goose Bay down Lake Melville to Rigolet.

Her family’s summer place was in Snook’s Cove, adjacent to Henrietta Island just past Eskimo Island going North.

“When you turn by Eskimo Island to go toward Rigolet it’s like something changes,” she explains. “The air changes, the smell changes — everything. Immediately I feel more grounded, more connected, I feel more at peace.

“And to think that something is happening to my home that is my mother, is a horrible, horrible thing.”

Campbell is talking about the methylmercury that’s projected to contaminate fish, seals and other country foods that Inuit, Innu and settlers living downstream of the embattled Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project harvest for sustenance.

“It feels like rape. It’s like they’re raping the land and water. We feel powerless and terrible, like there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Heather Campbell. Photo: Tracy Leigh Photography.

She says watching the provincial government and crown corporation Nalcor Energy forge ahead with the project without a guarantee methylmercury won’t impact locals’ traditional food and way of life has left her feeling “powerless”.

That’s how one of her latest pieces began, she explains on the phone from her home in Ottawa.

“That powerless feeling that you can’t make a difference, or that something’s being forced upon you, and you feel trapped and frustrated and scared.

“It feels like rape,” she says. “It’s like they’re raping the land and water. We feel powerless and terrible, like there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Since researchers out of Harvard University, Memorial University and the University of Manitoba released a peer-reviewed scientific study in early 2016 outlining how methylmercury would impact Indigenous communities downstream if the Muskrat Falls reservoir was not fully cleared of topsoil and vegetation, many Inuit who stand to be affected have spoken out about the threat to their food, way of life, and even their identity as Indigenous people.

Those expressions have taken the form of rallies, talking circles, petitions, and even blockades, hunger strikes and an occupation of the Muskrat Falls site last October.

For Campbell, the best way to deal with the felt sense of powerlessness was to create a new piece of artwork.

The piece, titled “Methylmercury”, depicts Nuliajuk, the sea goddess, surrounded by marine life in blues and greens, and a host of black and grey “evil spirits” culminating in a hand around Nuliajuk’s throat forcing the evil—representing the methylmercury—down the goddess’ throat.

Campbell describes the piece as a “hybrid” of premeditated and improvised art, explaining the method she used to create the sea creatures and evil spirits as an “ink blot process” that entails dropping ink on to the paper in order to “let it kind of do its own thing.”

When the ink dries, she draws overtop of it “to bring out the images that I see in there.”

“It’s that struggle of trying to let the painting do what it wants and trying to get the idea that I have in my head and just making peace with [the fact] it’s going to end up being its own thing,” she says.

Campbell says she came up with the idea of depicting Nuliajuk “as a symbol of the rape of the land and water” around Muskrat Falls.

The evil spirits, she explains, represent “the nature of methylmercury itself, and what it would do to our bodies.”

She references missing and murdered Indigenous women as another epidemic of violence against Indigenous peoples in Canada, but bites her tongue on the word ‘murder’ since her six-year-old daughter is nearby vying for attention.

“All these things we see on Facebook every single day — we’re being bombarded by terrible things that keep happening to Indigenous people, especially Indigenous women,” Campbell says. “So I thought that depicting Nuliajuk getting something shoved down her throat was very symbolic of what was happening at Muskrat Falls.”

Campbell first shared the piece on social media last June, tweeting an image of the painting at Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball, and at Nalcor Energy, telling them: “I thought this visual aid might help you better understand how we feel.”

The piece is now part of the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s contemporary Inuit art collection and is slated to be featured at the gallery’s forthcoming Inuit Art Centre.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail described Campbell’s piece as “a shockingly blunt depiction of the quasi-sexual violation of the Earth and its waters at Campbell’s territory near Muskrat Falls in Labrador.”

On Thursday Campbell announced that she is selling prints of “Methylmercury” for $100, with $50 from each sale going to the Labrador Land Protectors, dozens of whom are facing civil and criminal charges related to protests against the Muskrat Falls project. She says she can be contacted through her website.

She says she tweeted the painting at Ball and Nalcor last summer because “so much was happening and [their] words weren’t enough.

“I was hoping that if they saw it they would have a better understanding of how they were making us feel.”

Campbell says she doesn’t know if the painting reached the premier and Nalcor, but that with Ball’s recent announcement his government will call an inquiry into Muskrat Falls she feels “maybe we’ve made some kind of an impact,” though she admits “I don’t have a lot of hope.”

The agreement struck between the premier and Indigenous leaders amid an Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls site last fall has rendered an independent expert advisory committee [IEAC]  to study the impacts of methylmercury and propose mitigation measures, but Nalcor has already contravened the terms of the agreement by raising water levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir in order to protect the dam’s infrastructure ahead of the winter freeze.

Last month Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe issued a statement saying his government has “always maintained that the health, culture and way of life of Labrador Inuit must trump any other concerns with this project,” and that the “concern of methylmercury production is an inherent risk if water levels remain high or are allowed to increase before adequate mitigation measures are taken, as directed by the IEAC.”

Campbell says watching the Muskrat Falls saga unfold has been emotionally taxing.

“I go through days when I think something’s gonna happen. And other days feel like nothing’s ever gonna change. So it depends what day you ask me,” she explains.

“Even though we get dejected, it’s important we don’t give up hope. Because it’s too important,” she says.

“I think of my six year old. I want her to go home with me and eat the same foods that I ate when I was a kid, and walk the same paths — and all the stories that were given to me I want to be able to share with her.

“But it’s so hard — you need the land there to be able to explain your family’s stories,” she continues, explaining methylmercury isn’t the only major threat Muskrat Falls poses to Inuit in Nunatsiavut.

“If those spots are gone, those stories will fade over time as well.”

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