“We’re willing to get arrested,” says protest organizer

Simultaneous protests against Muskrat Falls and Nalcor planned for Labrador and St. John’s on Friday, with further actions in the works for Monday as part of a national Indigenous day of action.

Elders, land and river protectors and others protesting Muskrat Falls are among those willing to risk arrest Friday, which is shaping up to be the biggest single day of grassroots resistance to the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador.

Residents of Upper Lake Melville will gather for the third time in a week to protest the dam, and for the second time in four days to walk on the Muskrat Falls construction site in an act of peaceful civil disobedience, says NunatuKavut Elder Jim Learning.

“Ultimately we want to keep this [movement] going and give it the momentum it deserves, and to tell people…that what [Nalcor and the provincial government are] doing is wrong,” he told The Independent on Thursday.

Meanwhile, grassroots organization Coordinated Approach has planned a solidarity action and act of peaceful civil disobedience outside Nalcor’s head office in St. John’s at 8 a.m., where they will stage a sit-in and blockade of traffic coming into the parking lot to “send the message to the executives at Nalcor that we stand with the people in Labrador, we know there’s some serious issues with this project and we really want to get some answers,” said organizer Ryan Young.

At noon Coordinated Approach will also hold a rally outside Confederation Building to bring that message to decision-makers. A host of speakers are lined up for the event, Young explained, including residents of Labrador who have been opposed to the dam since the project’s inception.

“There’s a core group of us that have said if it comes to it, we’re willing to get arrested,” he explained. “When it comes to [protecting] human lives I think that getting dragged off in a police car for a little while is a pretty small price to pay.”

Young said the main concerns around Muskrat Falls have “gone beyond financial accountability,” and “now we’re talking about methylmercury and the North Spur, which are going to put people’s lives in danger.”

With the first phase of reservoir flooding scheduled for as early as Oct. 15, Young said the group “thought the responsibility was really on us to try to bring people together to say we’ve got to stand in solidarity with Labrador, and say we’re not going to take this. There’s still time to change this, and if we band together and show we’re not going to be a divided province…and stand with our brothers and sisters in Labrador and let them know we’re right there with them and we’re not going to accept this.”

Hunger strikes a possibility

At least two members of the group in Labrador are contemplating a hunger strike if they are arrested on the Muskrat Falls site Friday.

Learning was arrested in 2013 while protesting Muskrat Falls and launched a five-day hunger strike while in custody. In recent months his battle with cancer has worsened, but he said he’s preparing to put his life on the line to stop the project.

He said the group is walking on the site as “protectors of the land,” but that they face the “disadvantage of [having] no police assistance whatsoever,” so they expect to be arrested at some point as the protests gain momentum.

Conversely, he said, “Nalcor stands by there with the assistance of the police on the assumption that we’re wrong and they’re right. So I think it’s a moral misjudgement on [the police’s] part to think that way, but of course it’s the law that [Nalcor] has to finish [the project], so even if it’s a bad law they have a right to a police force as a result of that bad law. But nonetheless we’re going in anyway.”

Fellow Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident and organizer Kirk Lethbridge said he and a few others are also contemplating a hunger strike, but that each individual will make their own decision if and when they decide to.

On Tuesday provincial environment minister Perry Trimper told CBC the government will meet with Indigenous leaders and Nalcor representatives to explore the possibility of further clearing. However, the minister has previously said full clearing of the reservoir is virtually impossible due to logistical challenges and legal and contractual obligations Nalcor and the government have with companies working on the project.

Since the release of the only peer-reviewed in-depth study of Lake Melville and the projected impacts methylmercury increases will have on Indigenous communities downstream, Nunatsiavut Government, which represents the Inuit of northern Labrador, has continually called for the full clearing of the Muskrat Falls reservoir.

According to the study, methylmercury resulting from reservoir flooding will contaminate fish, seals and other country foods that Inuit and Innu communities depend on as a healthy source of food and to maintain their traditions and culture.

Amnesty International has lent its voice to the push for full reservoir clearing.

“Federal and provincial approval of the Muskrat Falls dam included requirements to monitor methylmercury in fish and issue warnings against eating the fish if the levels get too high. What this means is that government would wait until vital sources of Inuit subsistence are already contaminated and then deal with the problem by telling Inuit communities to abandon these foods and the cultural traditions of which they are a vital part,” the prominent global human rights organization says in an online petition urging provincial and federal leaders to heed the calls of Nunatsiavut’s Make Muskrat Right campaign.

Solidarity on the Avalon

Learning said those fighting the dam on the ground in Labrador “really appreciate” that people in St. John’s “are there in spirit and solidarity, because it backs up what we’re desperately trying to say: that poisoning Labradorians—I don’t think any civilized society can tolerate that.

“While we’re fighting our rearguard against one of the Newfoundland government’s actions, they…can change the system. It’s their opportunity. They are the youth, they have the strength and time and power to begin this process and clean this terrible system up,” he said.

Lethbridge said he’s “very happy to see people [on the Island] stepping forward and realize that they’ve been sold a bill of goods too. There’s a very real threat here of bankruptcy.

“Dwight Ball could have been a hero,” he continued. “When he first came [into office] he could have shut this down and stayed in power for 15 or 20 years and done a lot of good things. But instead he decided that he would follow in the same direction that Danny [Williams] led people, which is the direction of greed and contracts and destruction and poison and flooding. That’s one of the reasons we would like to see an audit, so we can see what’s being done with billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.”

Photo by Justin Brake.
Grassroots group Coordinated Approach is calling for a full audit of Nalcor to open up the books on Muskrat Falls. Photo by Justin Brake.

While Friday’s protest and rally in St. John’s will focus primarily on Indigenous and human rights issues related to the impending rise in methylmercury as a result of reservoir flooding and concerns around the integrity of the North Spur, Young said the group is also echoing independent MHA Paul Lane’s call for a comprehensive audit of Nalcor by the Auditor General.

“Even though the most pressing concerns are human life issues, we can’t forget about the financial issues as well — a lot of questions about contracts, the severance packages, the PUB report on Dark NL, conflicts of interest on the board of directors,” he said. “We’d really like to see the auditor general step in and clear the air on Nalcor, get some things out in the open that people are asking questions about and really let us know the truth about this project once and for all.”

Follow-up actions are already in the works in Labrador, Lethbridge said. Monday marks a Canada-wide Indigenous day of action, with protests planned in various cities and communities across the country aimed at the Trudeau Government’s inaction on a host of issues related to Indigenous rights and sovereignty.

Lethbridge said he hopes to see Labrador’s Indigenous leaders join the protests on Monday, or sooner, in light of the fact reservoir flooding will negatively impact their people.

Young said Coordinated Approach has further actions planned in St. John’s over the next two weeks.

“We are going to be a thorn in the government’s and in Nalcor’s sides,” he said. “We are going to let them know exactly how people feel, and we’re going to try and bring the message to the public and let them know what’s really happening up on the Churchill River and that it’s not too late to stop a lot of this damage from happening.”

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