Dam frus­tra­tion

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.

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