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If Canada really wants Truth and Reconciliation it should start in Muskrat Falls

Drum dancer, Allyson Gear, stops a bus load of construction workers.

Any hopes that the governing federal and provincial Liberals might have had that the Muskrat Falls struggle would remain a remote and isolated matter of regional politics are rapidly evaporating. While the premier hides in his office, Muskrat Falls has escalated into a national struggle.

While many protestors are opposed to the controversial and massively expensive hydro development in its entirety, what all agree upon is that the key demands of the Make Muskrat Right campaign, organized by the Nunatsiavut Government, are a bare minimum for the project to proceed. If they are not met, and the reservoir area is not cleared of all surface vegetation, there is a very real and credible likelihood of methylmercury poisoning of the region's waterways and food chain. And this in a region that relies heavily on food harvested from the land.

Protests escalated dramatically in the days ahead of what Nalcor, the province's Crown energy corporation -- and the one which has refused demands of local Indigenous groups for more fair and safe environmental protections -- billed as the initial day of flooding the reservoir.

Nalcor and the provincial government clearly hoped the protests would fizzle of their own accord; instead, they grew. A blockade of the Muskrat Falls site by land protectors from communities across Labrador was organized in a desperate attempt to protect their land, water, wild foods and way of life.

Nalcor issued injunctions against the land protectors, who indicated they were willing to engage in civil disobedience and be arrested. Early in the early hours of Monday morning RCMP officers arrested and charged several of them for breaking the injunction, including at least one bystander, a young woman from Rigolet who was distraught by the arrest of her father moments earlier. When she cried out at the officers who arrested him, one charged at her and was helped by some of his colleagues, who dragged her off to jail too, leaving her 12-year old brother sobbing helplessly.

Assault on Indigenous self-determination

The scenes are heartbreaking, and a reflection of Nalcor's violent assault on Labrador communities and Indigenous self-determination.

The arrests simply escalated matters, inflaming outrage among Labrador's communities and across the country. A group of protesters occupied the Aboriginal Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, while another occupied the lobby of the provincial legislature in St. John's.

Following in the steps of Cartwright, the town that last week announced it would refuse to allow Nalcor to land its heavy industrial transformers at its port and transport them to the site, the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) held a press conference pledging resistance and announcing it would blockade harbours all along the coast to keep Nalcor out.

The next day NCC President Todd Russell landed a two-boat flotilla at the Muskrat Falls site. Meanwhile, solidarity protests have been scheduled in several other Canadian cities: Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, Fredericton, Saskatoon and more. Inuit artist Billy Gauthier has launched a hunger strike, now in its ninth day, and has been joined by at least three others.

Heavy-handed efforts by the provincial government and Nalcor to quash the grassroots Indigenous-led movement have had the opposite effect, uniting much of Labrador in a determination to stop Nalcor. Muskrat Falls has been transformed almost overnight into a symbol of the exploitation of Labrador's rural communities by the urban elites on the Island of Newfoundland, as well as a flashpoint for the rights of Indigenous communities across Labrador and Canada.

Events are at a pivotal point now. As Labrador rises up in opposition to Muskrat Falls, there will no doubt be considerable pressure to flood the Big Land with police troops, including the RCMP  --  an old-style colonial occupation to crush Indigenous demands for self-determination. It's cowboys and Indians, all over again.

In 2016, the year that Truth and Reconciliation is supposed to be an active principle in Canada's relations with Indigenous peoples, the Newfoundland and Labrador government is playing the centuries-old role of racist cowboy villain. It's an embarrassment to the province, and an embarrassment to the country.

There will also, no doubt, be pressure to target key leaders of the protest movement and take them out by arresting them and otherwise removing them from the scene, a tactic often used by police in efforts to strike fear into movements, hoping to deter people from defending their rights.

The primary coverage of the protests has come from The Independent, which relies on public donations and support to operate, and whose editor Justin Brake has been covering the growing grassroots resistance for more than a month and live-streaming many of the protests and police interventions.

There will doubtless be a significant temptation on the part of Nalcor, government and police to target him, as journalists covering other Indigenous resistance struggles have been targeted (most recently Democracy Now's Amy Goodman). The goal of silencing media is to diminish public awareness of what's going on. It's a very real danger threatening not only Indigenous rights, but also basic democratic rights for all of us.

The federal Liberal government needs to move quickly to rein in Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial government, and prevent any further deployment of the RCMP in Labrador. This is a living test of Canada's commitment to Truth and Reconciliation.

Will the legacy of centuries of Indigenous exploitation and genocide be stopped once and for all, or will Nalcor and the Newfoundland and Labrador government be permitted to continue with its colonialist Muskrat Falls development, which is projected to result in methylmercury poisoning of local waterways, animals, food, and people?

From Eagle River to Muskrat Falls

It would not be the first time the RCMP have been used to crush Indigenous protests against corporate encroachment on their lands and ways of life in Labrador. The Eagle River protests offer an important reminder of the province's legacy of intimidation against Indigenous peoples.

Throughout the early 1990s, tensions rose across southern Labrador in response to prosecutions of Indigenous fishers for practicing their traditional lifestyles, at the same time as wealthy tourists were flown in to fish salmon from spots like Eagle River.

When a company headed up by current federal Liberal MP Gudie Hutchings was granted a fishing permit there (her then husband being the Crown attorney who prosecuted some of the Indigenous people who exercised their right to harvest from the land), the Labrador Metis Association (LMA) -- now the NCC -- challenged this, arguing the limited fishing permits ought to be granted to local and Indigenous inhabitants, not wealthy outsiders.

Several arrests were made during the ensuing protests led by members of the LMA and their supporters, a move that escalated matters and prompted hundreds of local residents to organize a blockade to prevent Hutchings' company from flying in materials to build its fishing lodge for wealthy tourists.

A Canadian Coast Guard vessel was deployed to break up the blockade, and 50 RCMP officers descended on the remote area. Dozens of arrests were made, some in response to a series of wild and unsubstantiated claims by Hutchings, including that she had been shot at.

As Brake reported in an investigative feature for Ricochet last year, "Kirby Lethbridge, a former southern Labrador Inuit leader, recalls the RCMP going 'house to house, telling people that they were close to making an arrest' over the gunshot that was claimed to have hit the helicopter.'

"Lethbridge believes the alleged incident created an opportunity for police to target the southern Labrador Inuit people perceived to be leading the protests. 'The goal was to break the influence of certain people, myself being one of those,' he says.

"'They manufacture whatever they need to in order to get their own colonial way.'"

Charges against those arrested were later dropped, and Hutchings later questioned her own memory of being shot at.

But the effect is what counted: RCMP, acting on claims that were later shown to be completely unfounded, had intimidated and arrested Indigenous community members and effectively broke up the protests. At the time LMA President Todd Russell accused authorities of "acting like a private security force to solve the logistical problems of a private entrepreneur."

The present crisis at Muskrat Falls echoes the heavy-handed actions of the RCMP in the mid-1990s. But much has changed since then. The federal Liberal government has committed itself to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and to avoiding repeats of shameful episodes like Eagle River.

Canada has even signed international commitments to that effect, like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signed just this past summer.

As VOCM reported this week:

The flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir over protest of locals may be violating a UN declaration Canada only agreed to last May. The Chair of the Council of Canadians Maude Barlow says the relationship between governments and the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands has changed even since the beginning of the Muskrat Falls project, and that moving ahead in this way may have international legal implications. She says as recently as last May the Trudeau government agreed to the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People which requires prior informed consent before anything like the flooding of the area can go ahead.

Because it's 2016

The manner in which Nalcor and the provincial government have responded to the Muskrat Falls crisis is simply not how things are done in 2016. They reflect the archaic and outdated approaches of previous decades, and reflect the backward-looking inability of those in office to adapt to the present.

The old heavy-handed approach simply doesn't work in an age of social media and international acknowledgment of Canada's need to change its relationship with Indigenous peoples. But it's not surprising the people in charge are stuck in the ways of the past.

Times have changed. But has the RCMP? Has the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador? The current events in Labrador are a true test of whether this country and its institutions have indeed changed.

In the past week alone, both of Labrador's Inuit leaders have explicitly stated Muskrat Falls is a direct infringement on the rights of their people and a major impediment to reconciliation. Inuit from the north to the south coasts of Labrador are growing anxious, angry and desperate. As one woman stated at a rally against Muskrat Falls a couple weeks ago, the Inuit faced relocation, and were then compensated. They were removed from their families and put in far-away residential schools, and then compensated. Now, they are being told their traditional foods will be poisoned with methylmercury, forcing them to give up their traditional cultural practices. And they will be compensated with money, provincial Environment Minister Perry Trimper has said.

Both Inuit groups and an overwhelming majority of people on the ground in Labrador have flatly refused such a proposal, arguing their health and way of life are not for sale.

Trudeau's reputation as defender of First Nations rights at stake

This is what Indigenous communities in Labrador face as the first phase of reservoir flooding has reportedly begun. It's do-or-die for thousands of people, and in quite a literal sense for the four hunger-striking young adults who are huddled in a Labrador tent outside the main entrance to Muskrat Falls, supporting each other through what could be their final days if Nalcor, Newfoundland or Canada don't intervene in the flooding.

If the federal government and the RCMP authorize the deployment of further police troops in Labrador, it will undermine public trust in the commitment of police and the Canadian justice system to reconciliation with, and respect for, Indigenous Peoples in this country.

The protesters in Labrador are peaceful and have shown incredible restraint in channeling their anger and desperation into effective resistance. Yesterday's actions included a 'nurse-in' by breastfeeding mothers to underscore the message that their children's lives are being put at risk from Muskrat Falls and methylmercury poisoning.

Land protectors are only impeding operations at the Muskrat Falls site because the very safety of their children and their communities is being threatened by them. If expanded police forces are deployed, it will be solely at the behest of corporate profit -- not in the furtherance of any sincere and community-centred project of law and justice.

The credibility of the federal government's commitment to reconciliation and to Indigenous justice hinges on its actions in the next few days.

The RCMP needs to consider its next steps very carefully. The credibility of its commitment to Indigenous reconciliation, and to justice for Indigenous peoples and communities, and the public trust in which the thousands of Indigenous people in Labrador and the millions across Canada will hold it hinges on its actions in the coming days. If it is able to retain their public trust, they need to stand down and not intervene on Nalcor's behalf.

Likewise, the credibility of the federal government's commitment to reconciliation and to Indigenous justice hinges on its actions in the next few days. Will it intervene and demand a halt to flooding until the demands of the Make Muskrat Right movement are met and the local rural and Indigenous communities give their consent for the project to proceed?

Nalcor has said that any delay at this stage will result in irreparable damage to the dam's physical infrastructure because of weather conditions.

So be it. Better damage to the dam than damage to generations of human beings and the ecosystems on which they rely.

Any refusal to delay at this stage, and any effort to deploy police in an effort to stop protests and blockades, will also result in irreparable damage  --  to Newfoundland and Labrador's, and Canada's, relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

The choice is theirs. The consequences, too.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

This article originally appeared in theindependent.ca. It is reprinted here with permission.

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Image: Twitter/Ossie Michelin

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