The Crown has dropped criminal charges against more than a dozen land protectors in Labrador who were involved with the occupation of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project site in 2016.
The decision came on Wednesday, more than two and a half years after the event, when Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians occupied the project site for four days in a last ditch effort to protect their traditional foods and way of life.
Scientists and Indigenous leaders had warned that reservoir flooding at Muskrat Falls would lead to spikes in methylmercury in the aquatic food chain, including fish, seals and waterfowl.
But the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and project proponent Nalcor Energy did not adequately respond to the warnings with mitigation efforts.
Beatrice Hunter, an Inuk woman living in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, was one of several dozen land protectors who occupied the site.
In the summer of 2017 she was jailed for 10 days in a maximum security men’s prison in St. John’s after she refused to promise Supreme Court Justice George Murphy that she would stay away from the project site.
The experience has left her with PTSD and other health problems, she says.
But Hunter doesn’t regret the occupation.
“It was the first time in my 48 years I saw my fellow Labradorians fighting oppression [together], so I don’t regret it one bit,” she told APTN News Thursday.
“I was a great moment. I was proud to be a part of it. I’m glad my son also witnessed it; I’m glad he was a part of it too,” she said.
Hunter’s 25-year-old son, Scott Dicker, also had his criminal charges dropped.
“For the last two and a half years, it wasn’t easy,” said Hunter. “But I guess doing the right thing, what you feel is right, isn’t easy anyway.”
At least six other land protectors, including Inuk Tony Wolfrey of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, still face criminal charges.
The father and grandfather was one of eight individuals arrested on Oct. 17, 2016, several days before the occupation, for participating in a blockade of the project site’s main entrance.
Wolfrey’s daughter, Emily, who is now 27, was violently arrested by RCMP officers moments after her father.
She had been standing in what police called a “safe zone” during the blockade in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 17.
Despite obeying the police orders to stay away from the project site entrance, after yelling in distress over her father’s arrest Emily was handcuffed, arrested and charged.
She filed a complaint with the RCMP over the arresting officer’s conduct, but that investigation found no wrongdoing on the federal police force’s part.
“If I knew that she would be getting arrested, I wouldn’t have bothered,” Tony said of his role in the blockade.
“You should have seen the bruises on her,” he added, referring to Emily’s arrest.
Dozens of land protectors, including Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians, occupied the Muskrat Falls site in 2016. Some still face criminal and civil charges. Photo courtesy TheIndependent.ca.
Tony says he and Emily should not be facing criminal charges and have pleaded not-guilty.
He says they will appear in provincial court again next month.
“We had to bring attention to what happened, and is still happening, because they still never clearcut [the reservoir],” Tony added. “The only way to get attention was to get arrested, I think, and for people to see what was going on.”
During the occupation provincial and Indigenous leaders agreed to create an Independent Expert Advisory Committee to study the methylmercury issue and make recommendations for mitigation.
The committee filed its report to the government in April 2018 and recommended that more vegetation be cleared from the dam’s reservoir prior to the final stages of flooding.
More than a year later, and despite pleas from Indigenous leaders and grassroots people in Labrador, the government still has not ordered Nalcor Energy, its own Crown energy corporation, to clear the reservoir.
Nalcor has said the final stages of reservoir flooding will take place this summer.