Special to APTN National News
Leaders of the three Labrador Indigenous groups joined hundreds of protesters Monday in Happy Valley-Goose Bay demanding Premier Dwight Ball halt construction of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
It marked the first time all three groups have come together in a unified voice on an issue.
“This is a historic event,” shouted Todd Russell, president of NunatuKavut Community Council. “I think that itself speaks to the seriousness and significance of the methyl mercury poisoning which the government and Nalcor is intent on doing to our people.”
The Indigenous groups, and those gathered, believe unless further work is done to mitigate the environmental impacts of the dam before it goes on stream it could contaminate aquatic life in Lake Melville, a major food source of fish, birds and seals for many Labradorians.
Dozens booed as the premier took the stage saying that his Liberal government inherited the problem of Muskrat Falls from the previous Progressive Conservative governments. As Ball suggested that he wants to meet with Indigenous groups to come to an agreement over the project, protesters shouted, “we don’t want your money.”
Cars drove by honking in support of the rally as Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe invited the Indigenous groups at the rally and all Labradorians to take part in fighting against the development.
“We are not interested in compensation, we want to enjoy our way of life, we want our children, grandchildren, and future generations to come to enjoy this way of life. We don’t want them to fear eating the fish, birds and seals in Lake Melville,” said Lampe.
Lampe asked Ball, who is also the provincial minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs, if he can “look around look at faces of youth and elders and tell them everything thing will be ok. Tell them you will protect their health, culture and way of life. Tell them you care, tell them you will make muskrat right.”
Make Muskrat Right has been the campaign of the anti-hydro protesters for months. The Indigenous groups say they were misled by the provincial energy company, Nalcor, and that more recent independent research conducted by Harvard University conflicts with Nalcor’s findings that the Muskrat Falls project will not significantly raise levels of methyl mercury in the surrounding waters.
The Harvard study said that unless Nalcor clear cuts the dam’s basin before it is flooded, it will cause methyl mercury levels in the surrounding waters to rise. This potential contamination includes nearby Lake Melville, where many Indigenous people and Labradorians fish, hunt and gather. Nalcor responded by saying that environmental monitoring of mercury levels and possible compensation is the best way to protect people in Labrador.
Carlene Palliser, from the Inuit community of Rigolet, traveled across Lake Melville by ferry to reach the protest. Her community is downstream from the development and she is concerned about the future for her children and grandson.
“It’s a sad state that it has come to this, that we actually have to fight for our way of life,” said Palliser while holding a large “Fighting For Our Lives” sign. “To think our way of life is in jeopardy, the things we love to do – going out on the land and going fishing – we might not enjoy in the future. I want my children and grandchildren to enjoy the same type of things that I’ve experienced.”
Labrador Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee said thorough assessment and preventative work, and not mitigation afterwards, is the only way forward if the government wants the continued support of the Innu.
“Nalcor and the province must honour their deal with the Innu,” said Qupee, “It is a concern for all of us that use Lake Melville that the pathways methyl mercury uses to enter the food web is not fully understood. The province needs to compare Nalcor’s science to the independent experts, scientists and Aboriginal knowledge holders.”
While the two Inuit groups, Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut, have opposed the project since construction began, the Innu signed an Impact Benefit Agreement with Nalcor and the province. They say the conflicting information about increased methyl mercury levels were not included in their negotiations with the provincial energy company.
Had they known it would acted differently.
The impact of Muskrat Fall’s tab is being felt the province.
Last week, it was announced the project is years behind schedule and its price tag has ballooned from $7 billion in 2012 to $11.4 billion in 2016. Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall admitted the project was a “Boondoggle” and “not the solution to the province’s energy needs.” Debt from the project is expected double current electricity rates in the province.
“To add salt to our wounds [the province] looks us in the eye and says you’re going to pay for it,” shouted Russell shaking his head. “Well, we are not going to pay for it.”
One of the project’s most vocal critics, 77-year-old NunatuKavut elder Jim Learning, was absent for the rally. Learning has been to almost every rally so far and arrested a number of times for protesting against the development. Learning is in St. John’s now receiving radiation treatment for cancer.
He said while he may not live to see Muskrat Falls shut down, or at least mitigated, he has hope for the people of Labrador to see them united.
“It took us a lot of years to get to this point to build momentum,” said Learning his voice weak from treatment. “The determination is there now, it’s not much yet, but it’s a foundation we can build on go from there. It reminds us of the control we could have over our territory, without outside interference. That’s what our future is.”
Nalcor had originally stated that the dam would go online between 2017 and 2018, that date has been pushed back to at least 2020, not factoring in a possible clear cutting of the flood basin and other factors to mitigate environmental damage that the Indigenous groups want to see.