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Beatrice Hunter, the Inuk grandmother and Labrador land protector who was jailed for defying a judge says she is traumatized, and angry about her experience of being shipped 1,600 km south to a St. John’s jail where she was strip searched.
“The guard, she didn’t touch me, but it was so degrading. All I kept thinking was that you don’t have my permission,” said Hunter.
In an interview from her home in Labrador, Hunter’s voice shakes with emotion as she describes what it was like to leave Goose Bay by plane in handcuffs and shackles on her ankles.
“I was fearful. What if I didn’t get to see my kids again?” said Hunter. “It really hit me. I couldn’t believe it. I looked out the window to make sure I saw my kid’s house, my sister’s house. The second thing I thought, I hope I don’t go missing and murdered like all those women. I broke crying down on the plane.”
Hunter said the Canadian justice system is “racist and discriminatory” and hopes the outcry over her recent incarceration brings about change.
“What I’m hoping for is Indigenous law to be a part of our legal system,” said Hunter. “I’m hoping for Muskrat to be shut down. I’m still hoping for our people to rise up and shut it down. It’s already done damage but we can still fix it.”
Hunter spent eleven days in a St. John’s jail for men over 1,600 km from her home for not promising to obey a court injunction to stay away from Muskrat Falls, a controversial hydroelectric project outside Happy Valley Goose Bay in Labrador.
On Monday, Senators Murray Sinclair and Kim Pate released a joint letter to express their “extreme disappointment” over Hunter’s “unjust incarceration.”
“Protesting is a basic civil right, not a crime justifying imprisonment,” wrote Murray and Pate. “She harmed no one and was motivated only by love and a sense of duty. She is a steward of land, the very land that the government failed to engage and consult about when the Muskrat Falls development was being planned.”
The letter to Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball called the actions of the government “shameful: first robbing Ms Hunter’s people of their legal rights to express their views on the project through a consultation process, then jailing Ms Hunter for making her voice heard through the only means left to her.”
Hunter said she has had moments when she is angry and in tears over her time in jail but said, “I feel this is a step in the right direction. Obviously, I won’t be happy until Muskrat is shut down, but I feel like it’s a win for all of us.
“I wasn’t expecting attention. I know I would have support from Labrador, but I didn’t think support would come from all across Canada. People message and tell me I’m a hero. I’m just me. I’m a mother protecting her son.”
Hunter, and her son Scott Dicker, were part of the protests that peaked against Muskrat Falls last October. Nalcor Energy, the crown corporation building Muskrat Falls, obtained a court injunction ordering people to stay off the property.
A protest area was set up across the road from the main gate.
On October 22, Hunter was part of the group that defied the injunction and broke past the gates. The land protectors occupied a main building at the work camp for five days.
“I had only realized I was oppressed and colonized when we broke through the gate,” said Hunter. “It had actually opened my eyes to see all the corruption and greed going on in Labrador. I’m thankful for it now. I realize what I do every day, it’s not being controlled by someone else. Especially after prison and occupying Muskrat Falls, I’ll say what’s on my mind and I’m not afraid of the consequences anymore.”
Hunter is facing both civil and criminal charges. But her time spent in jail was not stemming from those charges, which are still before the courts. She, along with ten other people, had been taken into custody after a protest in November and signed an undertaking to stay at least one kilometres away from Nalcor property.
In May, Hunter and her son returned to the Muskrat Falls site and against had to appear in court. While other land protectors agreed to follow the undertaking, the judge asked her to promise she would stay away from Muskrat Falls.
“I was nervous scared, intimidated,” said Hunter. “My heart was beating really fast. When he had called me up to answer for my actions, when he asked me if I was going to stay one kilometre away, I said no.”
That answer landed Hunter in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, NL.
Sinclair and Pate take issue with Hunter’s treatment.
“To hold any woman in a men’s maximum-security prison is unacceptable and a continuation of a legacy of racism and colonialism in this country that has contributed to the shocking overrepresentation of Indigenous women in prisons,” wrote the two senators. “Her story is a demonstration of how the Canadian judicial system continues to fail Indigenous women.”
Hunter’s lawyer, Mark Gruchy, raises larger questions about the court injunction itself. He said while it’s a legitimate legal remedy, that doesn’t make it the right course of action for a crown corporation like Nalcor.
“The pursuit of the injunction in this context, by an entity, namely Nalcor, really pokes the bear, opens a can of worms it really makes us ask questions about, how should we, in structural sense, be dealing with these issues and this is the right way?” said Gruchy.
Gruchy echoes Senators Sinclair and Pate that the missed step of consultation has created what he calls a flash-point.
“The way to avoid these problems is not to have crown corporations going out and seeking injunctions, but rather it is to foster and encourage direct government engagement with indigenous people so these situations don’t get like this,” said Gruchy. “You’re trying to shut the barn door after the horse is gone and we never should have got to the place.”
Sinclair and Pate are calling on “the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador to undertake a review of its laws to ensure they do not derogate from existing Indigenous rights and that they are in keeping with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.”
For Hunter, she was released from jail on June 9 and both Gruchy and the lawyer for Nalcor pushed to have the undertaking modified.
Hunter is now free to protest in the area across the road from the main gate at Muskrat Falls.
And she plans to do just that.
“I describe myself as a warrior who is fearless, who is powerful and I want the legal system and justice system that there is nothing that can break me,” said Hunter. “And the reason it had to be done is that there had to a light shone on the legal system in Canada and it had to be shown how unfair it is for indigenous nations across the country. It’s a colonial system and it’s racist and discriminatory.”
Another rally is planned in Happy Valley – Goose Bay on Tuesday evening. Labrador Land Protectors want answers from Premier Dwight Ball and Liberal MP for Labrador Yvonne Jones.
Specifically, they want an update on the status of the Independent Expert Advisory Committee that was stipulated in an agreement with Indigenous leaders last fall. To date, there’s been no word on any progress.
And land protectors are calling for a forensic audit of Nalcor and an independent review of the North Spur, an area of the dam under construction that has raised concerns about a possible dam breach due to the region’s unstable geography.