Let’s talk about language.
When photos surfaced of Rigolet resident Emily Wolfrey being physically lifted in the air by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and dragged off under arrest, some—myself included—referred to it as an ‘attack’.
According to our editor Justin Brake, who was the only reporter at the scene, “After 6 arrests 21-year old Emily Ann Wolfrey of Rigolet was violently arrested after yelling at a police officer while standing on the side of the highway police directed land protectors to. Wolfrey was upset and yelling at a police officer, who then suddenly charged toward her. Wolfrey resisted and three other police officers moved in to help with the arrest at #muskratfalls blockade.”
Others were quick to resist that language. The officers were simply enforcing an injunction, they said – it’s not an attack when they’re enforcing the law. The Land Protectors should have predicted they’d be arrested—it’s not an attack when it’s predictable, said some. Unless there was “unnecessary” force used, the standard term is simply ‘arrest’, said others.
It’s important to note that the critics were mostly white men commenting from armchairs in St. John’s, not the front lines of the struggle among Indigenous communities in Labrador where land protectors and hunger strikers have been fighting for weeks to resist the imminent flooding of their land by the Muskrat Falls hydro development, which scientists have projected will result in dangerous levels of methylmercury exposure throughout the local food chain if more stringent environmental standards are not followed.
But what all these critiques ignore are the power dynamics at play on the ground, and Labrador’s history of colonialism.
Think about the situation for a moment. An Indigenous woman is fighting desperately to protect her family’s food source and way of life. If the fish, seal and other animals in Lake Melville become unsafe to eat, her entire community’s existence as it is and has been for almost 300 years will end. Moreover, the people of Rigolet, many of whom still live with the legacy of residential schools and the intergenerational trauma they spawned, are only trying to exist as they are, where they are. In the midst of the fight for her family and community, a federal police officer orders her to stand in a “safe zone” unless she wants to be arrested, and then minutes later charges toward her for doing nothing more than expressing her distress over the imminent loss of her family’s ability to feed themselves. Multiple officers then lift this young woman off the ground against her will and force her into a police car. No matter where it happens in this country, Canadian police arresting Indigenous people for fighting for their lives constitutes an attack, and an expression of colonialism.
Moreover, the very act of enforcing court injunctions and flooding the reservoir in defiance of local inhabitants’ concerns constitutes an attack by the provincial government and Nalcor against rural Indigenous communities. Muskrat Falls is but the latest effort to colonize Nitassinan, NunatuKavut and Nunatsiavut, as the project disrupts the natural environment and way of life in all three of Labrador’s Indigenous regions.
The language that is used in these circumstances is biased in favour of the powerful. A state-sanctioned act of violence against a young woman is still an act of violence. A state-sanctioned act of violence against an entire region—poisoning their waterways and food—is still an act of violence.
Google defines the word rather clearly: “attack (noun): an aggressive and violent action against a person or place.”
Let’s be clear: Muskrat Falls, and the actions of Nalcor and the provincial government, constitute an act of racist violence against rural and largely Indigenous communities in Labrador.
When those who share the privileges of class, race and ethnicity with the people in power police the language that other people use to describe their experiences of oppression, they’re acting to perpetuate the power and dominance of their class and race against those who challenge it. Their experiences become the norm. Their perception of what is an attack, and what is everyday business, becomes the norm.
In this case, Nalcor and the provincial government have the full resources of an armed police force, ranks of high-priced lawyers and an apparently limitless budget of billions of dollars to defend their right to do whatever they want at Muskrat Falls and in Labrador, even at the expense of the health, lives, and locals’ sense of security.
Meanwhile, local communities have neither wealth, nor lawyers, nor armed police on their side. All they have is themselves: their bodies and their will to resist in the defence of their land, health, and their family’s future.
More than 100 locals marched onto the site on Sunday, putting their physical bodies on the line. When you consider how sparsely populated Labrador is, these numbers are remarkable.
Several remained at a blockade outside the main gate overnight, further committing their bodies to the cause.
Inuk artist Billy Gauthier is now on day five of his hunger strike, throwing his own body and health up in the defence of his community. There are now reportedly two other people in Labrador on hunger strike against the project.
By saying the acts of Nalcor and the provincial government, and the police officers who will quell any inconvenient resistance on the ground, do not constitute an attack on the communities and peoples of Labrador, simply because they have money and the law on their side, is whitewashing what’s actually happening. It’s whitewashing the colonial and racist legacy of governance in this province (and country), and it’s whitewashing the disproportionate imbalance in wealth and power between white urban elites in St. John’s and rural, largely Indigenous communities in Labrador.
Not only is this an inappropriate use of public resources, but it undermines community trust in policing and undermines the ability of police to do their job in Labrador.
It’s whitewashing racism. It’s whitewashing violence.
Saying “they’re just doing their job” is, as recent years have shown, insufficient moral justification for acts of police and other state agents. State agents were “just doing their job” when they tore children away from their families and home communities in the early 20th century and sent them to endure abuse at the hands of residential schools. It was fully legal. It was not right.
The provincial government and Nalcor are acting in irresponsible fashion when they use police to enforce corporate profit. Not only is this an inappropriate use of public resources, but it undermines community trust in policing and undermines the ability of police to do their job in Labrador. How can it not undermine public trust in police officers when they intervene on behalf of distant corporations against unarmed community elders and youth who are simply trying to prevent their land from being poisoned?
These days, spitting on a police officer is considered “assault” by the law and prosecuted as such. Yet when three armed men pick up a young woman who’s trying to defend the safety of her community and future generations, it’s not? Preferential treatment for the wealthy and powerful is built into the law. Using it in this fashion, as Nalcor and the provincial government have done, is exploiting that privilege and perpetuating the racist, colonial foundations on which it is built.
It’s important not to feel intimidated in the language we use. It is not “loaded language” to refer to efforts by a corporation to poison your food chain as an attack. It is not “loaded language” to refer to it as an ‘attack’ when rural and Indigenous inhabitants who have no other means of resistance besides their own bodies put those bodies on the line to defend their communities, and are beset by armed police officers and dragged away and imprisoned. It is not “loaded language” to refer to an ongoing legacy of racism and colonialism as an “attack” on the natural rights of rural and Indigenous communities in Labrador.
Racism and colonialism are not just a matter of history: they’re a matter of ongoing public policy by Nalcor and the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government. They’re a matter of ongoing injustice in which the federal Liberal government is equally complicit through its silence and its willingness to consider guaranteeing billions more dollars in loans to the province that makes this ‘attack’ on rural Labrador possible.
So yes, let’s talk about these things. But let’s not whitewash them.
Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.