(Putting Muskrat Falls on hold – 0ccupiers sit in camp forcing Nalcor to send workers home. Photo: Justin Brake/The Independent)
APTN National News
Work is on hold at Muskrat Falls after a large group of Innu and Inuit took over the construction site at Labrador’s massive hydroelectric project late Saturday afternoon.
After cutting the padlocks, around 50 people stormed past the gate and marched up a long dirt road 30 kilometres west of Happy Valley Goose Bay and into the Nalcor buildings, while another 150 people continued to blockade the entrance to Muskrat Falls.
“The mood was exciting,” said David Nuke, an Innu Elder who is part of the group occupying the Nalcor camp. “People were excited, there was a lot of momentum amongst ourselves. The strength, it was very strong with everyone determined to push this action as far as they could.”
Nuke said the group was welcomed by the hundreds of Nalcor workers on site.
“It was a very overwhelming reception we got from the workers, very friendly, they were very accommodating,” said Nuke. “They were supportive of this type of initiative. A lot of them said they wouldn’t allow this type of work to happen in their backyard either. They encouraged us to be strong.”
Busloads of workers have left the site since Saturday evening. Nalcor chartered flights to send the hundreds of workers home.
The goal for the Labrador Inuit and Innu has been to push pause on the Muskrat Falls project so that the dam reservoir can be fully cleared of all trees, vegetation and topsoil.
If left in the reservoir, the naturally occurring toxin methylmercury will be flushed out by the flooding sending it downstream from the dam and work its way up the food chain, contaminating traditional country foods for the Inuit and Innu.
“We were told that the flooding is put on hold until the premier will meet with the three aboriginal leaders,” said Nuke. “That doesn’t guarantee that the flooding will be upheld indefinitely. That worries the group here.”
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball issued a statement Saturday evening and said a meeting has been in touch with the Inuit leaders representing the Nunatsiavut Government and the NunatuKavut Community Council, and the Innu Nation.
A meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.
“Until this meeting has occurred, Nalcor will do nothing to increase water levels above the falls,” said Ball.
Initial flooding was set to begin by the end of the month for an area that would cover 11 square kilometres.
Earlier in the week, the province issued an order to Nalcor to clear more forest cover.
Provincial Environment Minister Perry Trimper called it the “clearing-as-much-as-possible scenario.”
“Recognizing that it’s going to be essentially impossible to achieve this 100 per cent,” Trimper added. “But we are directing to do the best they can to get there.”
That assurance wasn’t good enough for the Labrador Inuit and Innu.
“Our position has not changed,” said President Johannes Lampe, in a statement on Thursday. “Labrador Inuit health, rights and way of life is being threatened, and we must continue to insist that flooding not be permitted until concerns over methylmercury have been meaningfully addressed.”
NunatuKavut President Todd Russell spoke at Saturday’s rally. The community council’s Facebook page provided updates and encouraged people to participate.
“We are not here today divided by race…we are here as one people of Labrador. We are a peaceful people, a free-loving people, we love being on the land,” said Russell at the rally. “That’s the kind of people that’s inside that gate and that’s the kind of people that’s down the road fighting for what they believe in…we are all standing up for justice and respect in our own land.”
Nuke says the group who’s taken over the Nalcor Camp at muskrat Falls has no plans to go anywhere until they have it in writing that the flood zone will be cleared.
“We’ve been very successful from our end,” said Nuke. “For quite some time we were wondering whether the police would be coming in to force us from the site. I don’t believe that will happen. This is non-violent. Very peaceful movement.”
Now, Nuke wants to hear from the Canadian Government as well.
“The most important meeting is with one of the hunger strikers, Billy Gauthier,” said Nuke. “He’s on his tenth day, he lost 18 pounds to date. We can never forget Billy.”
Billy Gauthier, an Inuk artist from Labrador, travelled to Ottawa hoping to meet Prime Minister Trudeau.
Gauthier has been joined on his hungers strike by two others – Delilah Mirian Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister. All three are in Ottawa for a rally on Sunday afternoon.
In a Facebook post, Gauthier’s mother Mitzi wall wrote, “I need everyone’s attention!!!!! You all need to know. Billy has now lost 18 lbs. he needs to eat. For the love of god don’t back down now. I need this to stop!! You need this to stop!!!! Do not trust anything they are saying. You can’t back down now. Billy is doing all he can and he needs to know you are. Please don’t stop now.”
A spokesperson for the prime minister says there are no plans for the two to meet.
Meanwhile, the blockade at Muskrat continues. And another group is now making their way up to an area at Muskrat Falls called the North Spur, to stop any construction happening there.