On the eve of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology to residential school survivors in Labrador, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Labrador MP Yvonne Jones met with Muskrat Falls land protectors for a sharing circle and to talk about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
The event came just days after federal Justice Minister Judy Wilson-Raybould announced the Liberals would support NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s private members’ bill, C-262, which calls for the full implementation of the UNDRIP into Canadian law.
Land protectors and the leadership of two of Labrador’s three Indigenous groups have maintained at various times since the inception of the controversial hydroelectric project at Muskrat Falls that free, prior and informed consent was not given to the provincial and federal governments, or to the provincial crown energy corporation building the dam, Nalcor Energy.
Many have argued Muskrat Falls contravenes several articles from UNDRIP and calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
On Thursday evening, land protectors laid out their concerns for Bennett and Jones, arguing Muskrat Falls threatens Inuit and Innu communities’ food, culture and ways of life.
“We have real genuine concerns about our families and our future, the future of our children and grandchildren on the land,” said Marjorie Flowers, an Inuk woman from Rigolet who was arrested in 2013 and 2016 for protesting the dam, and who spent 10 days in a maximum security men’s prison in St. John’s after refusing to promise a judge she would stay away from the project site.
“We’ve lived here for hundreds and thousands of years. And this project moved in and ripped the land to shreds.”
Linda Saunders-McLean, a social worker and occasional minister at the Moravian Church in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, told Bennett and Jones that the Indigenous-led resistance also was met with a frightening response from the RCMP, with the support of provincial Justice Minister and Attorney General Andrew Parsons.
In a desperate, last resort effort to protect their country food from projected methylmercury poisoning last fall, dozens of land protectors blockaded and occupied the Muskrat Falls site, prompting Nalcor to apply for court injunctions, and subsequently for the RCMP to deploy hundreds of officers, at the time and in the months to follow, to the remote location in Central Labrador.
Many, including elders and community members who had previously never been in trouble with the law, now face lengthy legal battles to defend their actions.
“Social workers are here to protect children, but I feel like I can’t protect my children,” Saunders-McLean said, crying and holding a picture of her children and grandchildren.
She said her family lives in the flood zone downstream of Muskrat Falls, and that she and many others are convinced once the reservoir is fully flooded, the dam will not hold. Their concerns are shared by independent observers, including retired engineer James Gordon, who has won awards for his work on large hydro dams around the world.
Gordon and others have argued that a dam of Muskrat Falls’ size has never been built on the kind of sand and clay that make up the ground that stretches along the banks of the Churchill River. Many have called for an independent review of the North Spur, the natural geological feature on the river at the heart of the dam integrity concerns, and which Nalcor is figuring into its construction of the dam.
“I feel like whenever I speak out against this, I have a fear that I’ll go to court, that charges will be laid against me and I’ll lose my job,” said Saunders-McLean.
Land protector and event organizer Denise Cole asked Bennett to ensure her government moves “quickly” to align Canadian law with the rights outlined in UNDRIP, and to “look in retrospect at projects that have already been recently approved, such as Muskrat Falls…because that includes Gull Island, which has not officially begun yet.”
Though the project has not yet undergone an environmental assessment and construction has not begun, a third dam on the Churchill River in Labrador, at Gull Island, a sacred place for the Innu, has already received approval from Labrador’s Innu Nation.
“From coast to coast to coast, our waters, our lands, and our culture is being destroyed on this idea of resource projects for the country,” Cole said in the circle.
“So we need to thoroughly look at what’s being approved, and sometimes we need to go backwards and change how things are,” said Cole. “We’ve very much asking for a suspension of the Muskrat Falls project until issues are addressed, including the fact that we no longer feel that we have ever been able to give our free, prior and informed consent to this project.
“And UNDRIP specifically states that when it comes to duty to consult it is for the entire life of the project. The Crown should have automatically been triggered to do a new duty to consult as they are doing now in Clyde River.”
Cole said in light of the new information and resulting concerns, Muskrat Falls “should have stopped and only moved forward with our free, prior and informed consent.”
She maintains free, prior and informed consent “does not just include Indigenous leaders,” and that it “has to include the people.”
Responding to the land protectors, Bennett said the government is working to bring Canadian law into accordance with UNDRIP, and that they will “go further than that in a Canadian way, in that here we have First Nations, Inuit, Metis rights, Section 35 rights and treaties, and so our legislation will be specific for Canada but will embody those principles.”
However, Bennett indicated the Liberals are not likely to look at resource development projects that have already been sanctioned.
She said, “going backwards is going to be very difficult.”
But Cole said that if they need evidence as to why things that are anticipated to harm Indigenous people ought to be stopped before they inflict suffering, the federal government need look no further than their own present reason for being in Labrador.
“They’re here apologizing for mistakes that were made many years ago. You can go back. You can do it right. You can change,” she said.
The meeting was prompted by the actions of a Muskrat Falls solidarity group in Ontario, who occupied Bennett’s constituency office in Toronto last month and demanded the minister meet with land protectors in Labrador.
Last week the provincial government launched an inquiry into Muskrat Falls, though the terms of reference do not mention environmental concerns or Indigenous rights.
At the height of the Muskrat Falls protests last year, Jones, who is also Bennett’s parliamentary secretary, said she made recommendations to the Prime Minister’s Office regarding the province’s request for a second loan guarantee to continue construction of Muskrat Falls, which is billions over the originally estimated cost.
On Friday Jones told APTN that when she offered recommendations to the PMO last fall, they did not include attaching conditions to the new loan guarantee.
“At the end of the day it was an economic decision in terms of whether we would assist the province or not,” she said.
“It wasn’t a project that was in financial jeopardy, it was a province in financial jeopardy, and the federal government was asked to intervene and provide that support.”
One week after the Indigenous-led occupation of Muskrat Falls ended in 2016, and as dozens of land protectors, including elders, were being charged, the Trudeau Government announced a $2.9 billion loan guarantee to Newfoundland and Labrador to continue work on Muskrat Falls.