(An aerial view of the Muskrat Falls dam in Labrador. Photo courtesy of Nalcor Energy)
APTN National News
Despite continued calls for Nalcor Energy to drop its injunction against anti-Muskrat Falls hydroelectric activists, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Justice minister and Attorney General is firm that he cannot politically interfere.
“It’s one thing to have a conversation with a Crown corporation as it relates to injunctions,” said Andrew Parsons, in a phone interview with APTN National News from his riding in Port aux Basques.
But he said once the injunction is in place, “It would completely be inappropriate for me to intervene in any way to apply political pressure to persuade a court or individuals or companies on how to proceed.”
On Monday, three Inuit land protectors appeared in court after 10 days in jail for defying a court order to stay away from Muskrat Falls, a multi billion dollar hydro project under construction in Labrador.
Jim Learning, Eldred Davis, and Marjorie Flowers were sent to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, prompting five senators to send a letter to Premier Dwight Ball, demanding their release.
“Our country is struggling with a colonial legacy that continues to disproportionately marginalize, criminalize and deprive Indigenous Peoples of political agency,” wrote senators Kim Pate, Lillian Dyck, Murray Sinclair, Sandra Lovelace and Wanda Thomas Bernard.
“This context makes decisions to imprison Indigenous men and women for using protest to assert their right to determine how their traditional lands are used particularly abhorrent.”
Nalcor Energy, the provincially-owned corporation developing Muskrat Falls, sought the injunction last fall after demonstrations against the project gathered steam. The main gate was blockaded at times by land protectors and, in October, a group marched past the gates and occupied a Nalcor building inside the site for five days.
There are a growing number of calls for the injunction itself to be withdrawn altogether, including Labrador MP Yvonne Jones. On July 26, she wrote a letter to Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall.
“My concern is that a large number of individuals have been and continue to be charged and face possible jail time, criminal records, and fines without causing any harm to Muskrat Falls project or to your company,” wrote Jones. “I believe the injunction imposed is far reaching and many innocent people are suffering.”
Crashing the Meeting …
(Denise Cole, left, and anti-Muskrat Falls activist crash a meeting in Goose Bay, Labrador. Photo courtesy Trina Roache/APTN)
Jones hosted a meet and greet Sunday evening for visiting Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Liberal MP Robert Falcon Ouellette who were in Labrador to attend an Inuit youth conference.
A group of around 15 Labrador land protectors came to the meeting, seizing the opportunity for a federal audience. Jones invited them in and they filled the small room, holding their signs and Labrador flags, waiting for their chance to speak.
“We come with grave concerns that our voices have no longer been heard, that our government provincially refuses to meet and speak with us,” said Denise Cole on behalf of the land protectors. “We’ve asked that this provincial government mandate Nalcor to perform a public inquiry now, not after the project is over and the damage is already done.”
A public inquiry, independent scientific assessment and a forensic audit are some of the key demands from the land protectors among others in the province. The range of concerns is vast, from methylmercury contamination to flooding of communities downstream to the ballooning cost of the project, now sitting at over $12 billion.
Cole and others say the court injunction over Muskrat Falls is an obstacle to peaceful protests of the project. She was able to have a side conversation with Bennett at the meet and greet.
“Once something ends up before the court, or once something is illegal, then we can’t do anything except change the law,” said Bennett. “We can’t interfere with the court system.”
“When we see elders and women and grandmothers going to jail because they are trying to protect their food source, their culture and the very lives of their people,” replied Cole, “that should be a role that the federal government should lend a voice to. I’m not saying change a law.”
When Bennett noted that province is the one making decisions around Muskrat Falls, Cole interrupted and said, “And the province tells us it’s Nalcor. We’re tired of this whole passing around responsibility. When we work in an Indigenous circle everybody takes responsibility.”
Cole spoke to APTN after the meeting and pointed out that the provincial project is backed by federal loan guarantees.
“And if they’re serious about the Truth and Reconciliation report and the Calls to Actions,” said Cole, “you need to stop blaming the provincial government or the provincial government blaming the corporation.”
Dwight Ball’s provincial government is careful to distance itself from the initial decision-making on Muskrat Falls. Parsons was quick to point out that the megaproject came about under the watch of the previous government.
“I fully understand these concerns. These are the same concerns that while we were in opposition stood up and voiced in the House of Assembly and debated. That’s why I voted against the project,” said Parsons. “We’re in a situation now as a government, we come in, and we inherit this project, which has doubled in cost.”
Transformers heading to Muskrat Falls
(Transformers destined for Muskrat Falls hydro dam July 28. Photo courtesy Nalcor Energy)
But the injunction and authorization of an increased police presence both come in recent months. When the RCMP came to Parsons and said they needed more resources, he agreed.
“We had a situation back in October where basically the police were caught shorthanded. The province was caught shorthanded,” said Parsons, referring to the demonstrations and eventual occupation at Muskrat Falls.
So now that the massive 200-tonne transformers are slowly making their way from the port at Cartwright to Muskrat Falls, just 30 kilometres from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the RCMP wanted to be prepared.
“The transportation route for the transformers covers a long distance and is remote in some areas,” said RCMP spokesperson Laura Hepditch in an email. “The RCMP is using a carefully measured approach for our resources in Labrador that focuses on public safety.”
Parsons also emphasized that the priority was to protect the public.
“And I understand the perception that increased police presence causes angst. I get that,” said Parsons. “We need to pay for it if we don’t have that on the ground. And god forbid someone was to get hurt or there was some situation, we’ll face a larger problem.”
The mayor of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Jamie Snook, doesn’t buy that argument.
“I don’t think it’s doing anything to support public safety, personally,” said Snook. “I really do believe if anything it’s actually raised tensions in the community. It’s causing a lot of mistrust and really doing a lot more harm than good.”
The RCMP won’t release how many officers have been brought in from out of province for operational security reasons.
“We believe it to be upwards to a couple of hundred extra police officers at this time,” said Snook. “And we are on record as saying it feels heavy-handed and unnecessary for the level of protesting that we witnessed in recent weeks.
For months, Snook and his council have called on Nalcor and the province to drop the charges against land protectors who are against Muskrat Falls.
Fifty people face civil charges for violating the injunction and 37 people face criminal charges, including breaking a court order and mischief.
“I don’t feel at this time in our country’s history that there should be a criminalization of people expressing legitimate concerns that really are in the public good and in the public interest,” said Snook.
However, the mayor supports his local RCMP detachment and said it’s been understaffed in recent years. With growing crimes statistics in the town over the last three years, unrelated to protests over Muskrat Falls, there’s been no corresponding increase in police resources.
“We would’ve like to see more RCMP resources here long before transformers showed up,” said Snook. “And that would have done more to protect public safety.”
Cole said the high numbers of police on the ground in Labrador only further proves her point that Parsons is in a position to take action.
“If he can release RCMP to walk Nalcor equipment to their site,” said Cole. “Certainly, he can tell Nalcor to withdraw their injunction. That’s a cowardly way out for that minister.”
Two of the transformers have already been transported to Muskrat Falls. It could take until September for the other five to make the journey.
With the court injunction still firmly in place, so are plans by the Labrador land protectors to continue their opposition to the Muskrat Falls project.
One day after he signed an undertaking to respect the injunction and was released from jail, Eldred Davis was back at what Nalcor calls the designated protest pad. The land protectors call it their Peace Camp.
A small group gathered there Tuesday evening for a feast. They shared a lot of laughs and food. But under the jovial atmosphere is a current of determination, that somehow they can still stop the megaproject in its tracks.
Parsons said while the government is tied by the intricacies of complex project and contractual issues, he understands where the land protectors are coming from.
“I think the concerns people are expressing are very straightforward. Very basic. Health and safety. The environment. The cost,” said Parsons. “The burden that’s going to be left to us all to pay for this. Those are very basic issues and ones that hit all of us.”
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