APTN National News
An elder and long-time environmental activist in Labrador has been taken into custody after defying a court injunction related to the Muskrat Falls hydro project.
Emotions were high in the courtroom as 79-year-old Jim Learning refused to sign an undertaking to stay one kilometre away from Muskrat Falls.
“It was a powerful moment,” said land protector Denise Cole. In a phone interview with APTN, her voice shook with emotion as she described what happened when Learning told the judge he would never agree to the injunction.
“Jim tells [the judge] what he does have to do is fight for this river,” said Cole. “He talked a lot about how unfair all of this is, that it isn’t right. He said, ‘We can’t win in your system. The only thing we can do is give our lives.’ And that’s exactly what he intends to do.”
Learning was arrested at a Muskrat Falls protest in 2013. He went on a hunger strike, until he was released from the correctional centre in Happy valley-Goose Bay six days later.
“He says he’ll hunger strike again,” said Cole. “He says he won’t concede. Jim has always been prepared to die for this.”
After the sheriff’s took Learning away, Cole said there were “huge outbursts” from others in the courtroom, who were either facing charges themselves, or had come to support the land protectors, like Tracey Doherty.
“Tracey stood up and spoke about how wrong this is and Nalcor should be the one on trial,” said Cole. “The whole province is screaming for an audit, yet they still don’t have to listen to anybody. There’s no consequences for Nalcor.”
Nalcor Energy obtained the court injunction last fall as rallies against Muskrat Falls picked up steam. The dam is still under construction and the injunction is intended to keep people from interfering with operations. A protest area has been set up across the road from the main gate, where land protectors have maintained a presence off and on for months.
But Cole said, as a water keeper, she’s been doing ceremony at that river since 2012 and a court injunction shouldn’t be able to interfere with that.
“I have a responsibility to the land and the people, the spirits of my ancestors are there,” said Cole. “They can’t make me stop doing ceremony any more than they can keep a Christian out of the church.”
Cole herself is among those facing civil charges in court Friday. After consulting with Learning and others, she’d decided to sign the undertaking so she can continue to fight the project.
But she says many are willing to go to jail.
“There’s no more fear,” said Cole. “We have nothing left to lose.
Despite 37 people facing criminal charges and 50 people facing civil charges, Cole said the land protectors are determined despite feeling crippled by the court injunction.
“We keep rising up and fighting back. I’m hurt, but I’m angry and I’m empowered,” she said. “I’m having a really strong fight with the warrior and the water keeper in me. I want to fight for my elders, for my people, but I have to find a different way to fight back.”
The main concern that sparked the demonstrations last year were focused on methylmercury. A 2015 Harvard University study indicated that trees and topsoil left in the reservoir when flooded will create the toxin and contaminate traditional food sources downstream.
As well, geological instability in an area of the dam called the North Spur have raised concerns about structural integrity and what would happen to communities downstream in the event of a dam breach.
Massive flooding did occur this spring. The community of Mud Lake was evacuated. Nalcor Energy pointed to ice jams as a natural cause of rising water levels. But critics are calling for an investigation.
And the Muskrat Falls project, set to be up and running in 2020, is billions of dollars over budget, with the costs now soaring to $12 billion. Nalcor Energy CEO Stan Marshall himself, has repeatedly called it a “boondoggle.”
“This isn’t just about a hydro project,” said Cole. “This is about methylmercury. This is about flooding and drowning and poisoning and killing of culture and taking away a traditional way of life that they have every right to have whether they’re Indigenous or Canadian. We’re not supposed to be policed like a martial law.”
In June, there was public outcry after Inuk grandmother Beatrice Hunter spent eleven days in a St. John’s jail for not promising to obey the same court injunction.
Senators Murray Sinclair and Kim Pate had 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.”