A year ago, it seemed Labradorians’ demands and concerns about Muskrat Falls were being heeded
A year has passed since I was in Labrador MP Yvonne Jones’s office in Ottawa.
I was with friends in our nation’s capital, pleading with the government to hear our concerns over the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. It was after midnight and we were all waiting on news from the talks between the three Labrador Indigenous leaders and the province over environmental mitigations at the Muskrat Falls project site.
Those of us who were still eating had ordered pizza. We carefully chose to eat it in the hallway down from Ms. Jones’s office, because inside, Billy Gauthier, Jerry Kohlmeister and Delilah Saunders were on a hunger strike, and even though they said they enjoyed the smell of food, you couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt eating in front of them. Billy had lost 21 pounds at that point. We could all see it was taking a toll.
Soon we got a call from the province’s representative telling us all the demands of the hunger strikers had been met after hours of negotiation. My friends could eat again.
We felt like we were on top of the world. We felt like we had won an important battle in the war to save our way of life, food and future in Labrador.
We were overly optimistic. We thought that the word of our premier, Dwight Ball, actually meant something. We thought a public declaration would be enough to hold off on construction of the dam while important environmental testing, mitigation and monitoring work could be completed. We were desperate, exhausted and pushed past our limits; the province no doubt realized this and pushed forward their agenda. They agreed not to raise water levels and to seek out and remove the contaminants before flooding.
It has been a year, and as the dam construction continues, none of these promises have been delivered.
While the dam’s runoff is in the shared harvesting area of Lake Melville, the falls themselves lie within the Innu land claim. For inking the contract on Muskrat Falls, they were promised a desperately needed new school that wasn’t full of mould, new houses for the exploding population, recognition by the federal government of a Labrador Innu homeland, and an apology for driving out the Innu from Central Labrador for the Smallwood reservoir.
Let that sink in. The Innu were desperate from decades of abuse and neglect from provincial and federal governments, and the province used this promise of a decent standard of living — which they already should have had — in exchange for signing off on this monstrosity. I do not blame them one bit. What’s a bit of contaminated fish in exchange for having running water and a warm house?
It is deplorable that the province and federal government used this as bargaining chips to get what they wanted.
For years, as concerned citizens and Indigenous people, Labradorians repeatedly told the province and Nalcor that we were scared of this dam. We were scared that it would pollute our prime food source of Lake Melville, we were scared that this would cleave us away from our culture, our way of life, the way of our families and ancestors. We were afraid that we were not being listened to. We were afraid that science was not being listened to. We were afraid of the stability of the bank. I’ve talked to people in Happy Valley who say they lie awake at night thinking their homes and families could be washed away from this earth. We were afraid, too, of our democracy being eroded.
Muskrat Falls makes Labrador feel like a colony of Newfoundland and not an equal partner in this province. We feel like nothing more than a provincial suffix — “and Labrador” — that claims ownership of our land rather than equality. We felt that no matter what we did, no matter how right we were, no matter how much proof we had that this was going to damage us, this project would go ahead. At no point in the history of the Lower Churchill Project were we afforded the right to say no.
How can I have faith in my democracy when there is only room for endless debate and no room for action to correct the problems we all see? How can I believe in government when they promise they will do the work to protect us, to make us feel safe in our own land, only to have them change their minds? How can I believe in reconciliation when our Indigenous rights are not being heeded? How can I believe any of this when it took my friend losing 21 pounds from a two week hunger strike just to have what we thought was a real negotiation with our elected officials?
After Muskrat Falls, my province is weaker, my home is damaged, my culture is threatened, my food security is lessened, my democracy has been undermined, my press is less free, my government is less transparent, and I’ve never seen the people of my home more divided.
Many have told me they see this project as a yet another injustice to Indigenous peoples, or a blatant disregard for environmental science, but for me and those in my community it is a lot more simple: we want to keep eating our fish and seals. We want to continue our way of life. Contaminating our fish and seals with methylmercury is doing more than just impacting our food security — it’s casting doubt on our culture. It’s making us question if the best food we have available to eat locally right now will make us sick in the future.
I implore the Islanders reading this: imagine if you could have seen the exact events of the fisheries collapse coming. Imagine if you fought to protect those fish for future generations and
In the early hours of Oct. 26, 2016, after two weeks on a hunger strike, Billy Gauthier is comforted by his mother, Mitzi Wall, in MP Yvonne Jones’s Ottawa office as a representative of the Newfoundland and Labrador government tells him the demands of the hunger strikers have been met and he can eat again.