Resisting the terror of cultural genocide at Muskrat Falls

Muskrat Falls mega-dam construction site. Photo: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador/Flickr

On Monday, May 7, a rally and nonviolent direct action will take place on Parliament Hill in solidarity with the Labrador Land Protectors, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who are trying to stop an act of cultural genocide downstream of the massive Muskrat Falls mega-dam that experts predict will eventually cost $78 billion.

Individuals trained in nonviolence will attempt to walk straight into the House of Commons and place on the desks of all 343 MPs pictures and testimonies from those at risk of methylmercury poisoning as well as mass drowning from a potential catastrophic dam break in Labrador.

The gathering is in response to a call from the Labrador Land Protectors, who write:

"This battle for our very lives can no longer be waged alone. Most of us in Labrador cannot go to Ottawa. We need your voices to help expose the major tragedy unfolding that there is still time to stop. Ensure the federal government sees our faces, hears our voices, and acts on our demands."

Among those who will be making the incredibly long trip from Labrador to Parliament Hill is 79-year-old Nunatukavut elder Jim Learning, who spent almost two weeks locked up in a maximum security penitentiary last summer for peaceful acts of land protection.

"They are trying to make criminals out of people who are trying to defend themselves from methylmercury poisoning of a thousands-of-years food supply that we've always relied on at a time when the rest of Canada is looking for food security," Learning said at the time.

While Justin Trudeau brought his apology Kleenex box to Labrador last fall to apologize for a past act of genocide (the Labrador residential schools), he failed to address the fact that his government is backstopping a current act of cultural genocide with a $9.2-billion investment (more than four times what he expects to invest in another violent project illegally invading Indigenous territories, the Kinder Morgan pipeline). Funding for the mega-dam has been arranged by TD Bank, with the assistance of other Canadian banks and Goldman Sachs.

At the time, residential school survivor Marjorie Flowers expressed ambivalence about the apology, also having spent 10 days at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's last summer for acts of land protection.

No consent

"I have been deeply scarred by the intergenerational trauma that affected my family with residential schools," Flowers told me from her home in Goose Bay, Labrador. "I feel it every day. I won't discredit the value in an apology, but I'm puzzled at how the same government is perpetrating a disaster against the environment and our culture. This Muskrat Falls project is putting our lives in peril. There is a huge contradiction."

As with any other energy megaproject in the land known as Canada, the federal Liberals have failed to fully enact their responsibility under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to seek and obtain free, prior and informed consent, and to also accept a refusal of consent. As recently as last November, Carolyn Bennett, the minister responsible for colonial affairs, took part in a Labrador sharing circle and essentially declared that UNDRIP would not apply to the Muskrat Falls project.

Labrador Land Protector Denise Cole reminded the minister that consent must apply throughout the entire life of the project, and not only at the beginning. Cole explained to Bennett that as critical new pieces of information came to light about the Muskrat Falls mega-dam (especially a 2016 Harvard University study that documented the significant danger posed by methylmercury, and a world-renowned engineer's report finding that "the safety and reliability of the Muskrat Falls dam have not been demonstrated"), "The Crown should have automatically been triggered to do a new duty to consult."

But as we have seen from coast to coast to coast on projects ranging from Site C and Kinder Morgan to Line 3 and the ongoing encroachments at Kanehsatà:ke, among many other sites, the Trudeau government views UNDRIP as a nice rhetorical instrument as long as it doesn't have to be put into practice.

In Labrador, the incessant demands for proper consultation with all Indigenous people affected have been dismissed by the single biggest backer of the project, a federal Liberal government that repeats the same meaningless mantra millions of women hear from male abusers who share a similar inability to respect consent: no relationship is more important to them than this one.

Criminalizing land protection

In this particular abusive relationship, the RCMP and the Canadian military have been employed to squelch outbreaks of democracy, or what Newfoundland and Labrador's Justice and Public Safety Minister, Andrew Parsons, referred to as the need for "emergency measures." While Ottawa's "Government Operations Centre" regularly monitors and reports on the activities of the Labrador Land Protectors, the colonial courts have enforced a punishing injunction that has criminalized and jailed dozens of Indigenous people for simply being on their traditional territories, applying the same rough justice to numerous other non-Indigenous residents of the area.

When Land Protectors Beatrice Hunter, Jim Learning, Marjorie Flowers and Eldred Davis were jailed last summer, Senators Kim Pate, Wanda Thomas Bernard, Lillian Dyck, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, and Murray Sinclair wrote in an open letter that:

"we are shocked and disappointed that the province's response to [the concerns of the Labrador Land Protectors], and the flaws in the consultation process, has been to jail those who raise them... Their incarceration flies in the face of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, which the province has committed to supporting, and the duty of our country as a whole to work toward a nation-to-nation relationship, grounded in respect, between Canada and Indigenous Peoples." 

While Trudeau dithers on Truth and Reconciliation calls to action (fewer than 10 per cent have been implemented), the Labrador Land Protectors have been described as an example of truth and reconciliation in practice, most symbolically in the harmonious occupation of the mega-dam construction site in October 2016 by Inuit, Innu and settler residents. The occupation coincided with a hunger strike that took fasting land protectors Delilah Saunders, Jerry Kohlmeister and Billy Gauthier to Ottawa to pressure the federal government. Among their many creative and ongoing acts of land protection, the Protectors also conducted a three-week shutdown blockade of the Labrador Affairs office in Goose Bay in 2017.

Living with fear

While communities have drawn strength in coming together to resist their destruction, though, they are also dealing with the particular pain of an entrenched colonialism that continues to exert its power in ever new and more destructive ways. In the same way that the psychological terror of living with the fear of unpredictable, imminent death is described in the landmark study "Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan," a growing number of people living downstream of Muskrat Falls are experiencing symptoms of trauma as well.  It's a double-barreled trauma brought on both by facing the loss of a cultural and spiritual connection to the land and water -- one that will be severed by the knowing and well-documented poisoning of a country food web that has sustained them since time immemorial -- as well as fears that the dam itself, largely held back by a foundation built on quick clay (sand that moves and liquefies under pressure) will be unable to withstand the stress of a fully impounded reservoir.

Indeed, there are numerous reports of people trying to sleep with life preservers under their beds in the event of an overnight flash flood (a precursor of which was seen last year in the unprecedented flooding of the Mud Lake community, a terrifying event which many directly blamed on the dam).

An impending genocide

The conditions emerging at Muskrat Falls dovetail with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, defined as:

"any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: …(IIb) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (IIc) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (IId) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group."

The results in Labrador are already appearing, as families are faced with the impossible choice of going hungry or consuming foods that may be riddled with methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin with severe effects that can lead to kidney and liver failure, endocrine disruption, cardiovascular problems, and neurocognitive delays in children (including reduced verbal function and memory, long-term IQ deficits and attention deficit disorder). The effects of mercury poisoning have been well documented at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations, with 90 per cent of residents exhibiting signs of mercury poisoning. The Inuit, Innu and non-Indigenous people of Labrador have good reason to fear that similar effects doom their future as well.

Between the destruction of a traditional food web that is also under assault by the spraying of Agent White (a toxic herbicide poured by the millions of litres over the people of Vietnam by the U.S. military in another act of ecocide) and the likely tripling of hydro rates, it would appear that a direct consequence of the Muskrat Falls mega-dam is to make life unlivable in Labrador. Muskrat Falls, while bankrupting the province, may also depopulate the land so that no human beings can interfere with the corporatized desecration of what is left, an imposed 21st-century terra nullius (the racist concept that Indigenous lands were empty when colonizers first arrived). Indeed, beyond Muskrat Falls there are plans for yet another massive hydro project at nearby Gull Island.

In the arrogant language of colonialism, the provincial Crown corporation behind the mega-dam, Nalcor -- which behaves in Labrador like United Fruit ran Guatemala -- says that "The hydroelectric potential of Muskrat Falls and Gull Island make the lower Churchill River in Labrador the best undeveloped hydroelectric source in North America." Unacknowledged is the fact that this amazing river system is far from undeveloped. In fact, it had developed over millennia into a brilliant and beautiful, fully functioning ecosystem that is being systematically destroyed by corporate greed and pliant governments that mouth empty pieties about science, transparency and respect for nation-to-nation relationships. 

Province refuses mitigation

In 2011, a joint federal-provincial panel called for "a precautionary approach particularly because no feasible adaptive management measures have been identified to reverse either long-term adverse ecological changes or mercury contamination of renewable resources." Nalcor claimed that there would be "no measurable effect," concluding that clearance of trees, vegetation and soil -- whose decay while under reservoir water produces the neurotoxin -- "would not be cost effective if carried out strictly to reduce fish mercury levels." In other words, it is more cost effective for Nalcor to enable the poisoning of a largely Indigenous population by refusing to protect a major food source.

Indigenous leaders did not accept Nalcor's unsubstantiated claims, and when the provincial and federal governments greenlit the project in the absence of the comprehensive downstream impacts assessment that their own joint panel had recommended, leaders in Nunatsiavut (formed in 2005 as the first Inuit self-government body in Canada) contacted Harvard University to conduct an independent study. Their 2016 report was a bombshell, illustrating how methylmercury levels would rise dramatically above both U.S. and (the more lax) Canadian health guidelines.

The uptick in public action following the Harvard report forced the provincial government to commit in October 2016, to reservoir land clearance to reduce methylmercury accumulation. However, in September 2017, Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe issued a statement saying "we have been informed that the major commitment to lower water levels in the reservoir to allow for further mitigation measures will not be honoured."

Lampe's concerns were again reflected last week with the release of reports from a panel ironically known as the Independent Experts Advisory Committee (IEAC, few of whose members were actually independent), whose job was to explore "mitigation" measures for people who are about to have their traditional food web and water supply poisoned with methylmercury. While the divided and problematic IEAC nonetheless called for targeted soil removal and land clearance, the report was essentially an acceptance that Indigenous people and settlers alike will have to settle for varying degrees of poison.

In their "recommendations on the monitoring, management and mitigation of potential methylmercury impacts of the Lower Churchill Project," the group advises that local Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations need to be properly informed about the results of monitoring the poisons in their water and food supply. These experts also accept the very real possibility that a disaster awaits, which is why they called for the province, Nalcor Energy and "Indigenous groups and the local populations [to] negotiate an Impact Security Fund prior to full flooding. The purpose of the fund is to guarantee continued access to local country food, or safe alternatives, if methylmercury exposures increase above pre-established thresholds, despite mitigation efforts."

The recommendation recognizes that once the poison becomes too dangerous to deal with, "the fund would be used to compensate for lost food and traditional harvesting practices, and for the associated physical and mental health impacts of this loss." In any other context, the language would be more honest: to compensate for an act of cultural genocide (how does one compensate for the loss of cultures and traditions that have existed since time immemorial and which are at the very centre of daily spiritual life and identity?), some crumbs may be thrown their way if colonial courts that have opposed them thus far certify that there is a case for compensation.

Ignored here is the peer-reviewed, four-year Harvard study, which found:

"After entering the base of the food web (plankton), methylmercury bioaccumulates (concentrates in aquatic food webs) and reaches concentrations of a million times or more those present in water….Ninety per cent of Nunatsiavut residents (89 per cent of whom are Inuit) over 15 years of age reported harvesting country food in the prior 12 months. Food sharing networks are strong in Nunatsiavut, with a majority of households reporting that family and friends share country food with them. Country food is rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, protein, and micronutrients. As such, it makes a critical nutritional contribution to diets in a region with high market food costs and nearly five times the level of moderate to severe food insecurity as the general Canadian population. Harvesting itself is associated with physical, cultural, material, spiritual and social benefits. It is a cultural anchor, reaffirming Inuit identity and connection to the land and strengthening social relationships through food sharing practices…The benefits of country foods are difficult to replace and must therefore be protected as a nutritional source."

As one way of reducing the devastating prospect of poisoning, the Harvard study referred to the joint federal provincial panel's call for full clearing of trees and vegetation from the Muskrat Falls reservoir, noting that, "the more trees cleared, the more benefits accrue in terms of reducing methylmercury accumulation and greenhouse gas emissions, though gains may be small." The Panel found full clearing to be technically and economically feasible, and recommended that Nalcor be required to carry out full clearing to prepare the reservoir for flooding. But the federal government (then under Stephen Harper) deferred to the province on this issue, with the province rejecting the option as too expensive.

Global South, meet Global North

If all this sounds like the kind of daily depradations carried out by Canadian-supported projects in the Global South, it may be in part because there is in fact a direct connection through the current CEO of Nalcor, Stan Marshall, who currently helms a project he had criticized as a "boondoggle" that was not the right project for the province. But he has since aggressively pursued the project's completion.

Marshall has prior experience with dams that have not received consent and which have since gone on to cause irreparable harm to Indigenous populations. Indeed, he was the former head of Fortis Inc., from which perch he oversaw the construction of the controversial Chalillo dam in Belize, which Robert F., Kennedy, Jr. had described as "one of the worst boondoggles I've ever seen in nearly two decades as an environmental lawyer. It will make a few Canadian businessmen wealthier and impoverish the people of Belize for a generation. This is globalization at its worst. [Fortis's] contract with the Belizean government guarantees a 15 to 20 per cent profit per year and doesn't even require them to produce energy. It will be the highest-priced energy in Latin America."

According to a complaint filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Fortis Inc. owned 68 per cent of Belize Electricity Limited and 100 per cent of Belize Electricity Company Ltd. (BECOL), which made the foreign multinational "the sole distributor of electricity in Belize." The petitioners said the Chalillo dam would have irreversible negative environmental and human impacts  and that the Fortis-owned BECOL failed to perform proper archeological surveys and excavations, while "failing to fulfill the promised mitigation measures to prevent wildlife losses; failing to provide and/or perform required water testing; failing to perform proper tests concerning water quality; failing to develop the Emergency Preparedness Plans to mitigate the risk of dam failure and catastrophic floods…; failing to perform the promised waste management and pollution controls…failing to provide for issues of health pertaining to mercury levels in the fish."

In addition, the company's contract to produce and sell electricity exempted them from environmental laws and protected them from any private action with respect to damage caused. While local residents tried accessing courts to ensure the dam met minimal standards of safety and accountability, the government of Belize (no doubt under pressure from the Canadian owner of its electricity system) passed legislation that ensured the dam would proceed regardless of any court decision. In addition to the abovementioned concerns, the petitioners also stated that "the Maya people have lost  a major segment of their culture and history, which now lies underwater, buried in sedimentation in the Chalillo Reservoir."

A 2016 study from State University of New York concluded the Chalillo dam had had devastating impact on the ecology and diversity of the area, and "Mercury in fish from the Macal River has resulted in serious human health threats."

May 7: Hearing Their Voices

It is against this backdrop that Nunatukavut Elder Jim Learning will lead the attempted procession into the House of Commons on May 7. While Muskrat Falls will be top of mind for many participants, there are additional concerns that colour the attempts to preserve Indigenous peoples' future in Labrador. As Harvard points out, our fossil fuel lifestyle is also having a devastating impact in Labrador, where in addition to mega-dam concerns, the devastating impacts of climate change include:

"impacting place attachment in communities in Nunatsiavut by disrupting access to land-based activities and ice-based travel, with negative impacts on mental, emotional, cultural, social and spiritual health and well-being. Central to Inuit knowledge and ways of life are adaptation to a changing environment. However, socio-economic factors, the impacts of government policies of colonization and assimilation, remoteness, and connectivity deficits are also constraining adaptive capacity for some communities and individuals."

Meanwhile, Stolen Resources Minister Jim Carr, who has refused for years to meet with the Labrador Land Protectors, acknowledged when his government increased its financial backing that Muskrat Falls "has been beset by difficulties, cost overruns, and delays…the project has been in trouble," but insisted the dam was "part of the government's strategy to make sure that we are producing non-emitting sources of electricity."

What Carr failed to mention, of course, is that mega-dams, in addition to their disastrous human and environmental impacts, produce significantly greater amounts of methane than previously thought. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies methane as a global warming accelerant which, measured over a 20-year time frame, is 84 times more potent than CO2.

Carr's insistence that Muskrat Falls is a viable green alternative infuriates Kelly Morrissey, a Nunatsiavummiuk Inuk woman who's especially worried about family members in Rigolet, a Labrador community where methylmercury levels could skyrocket as high as 1,400 per cent.

"Do we have to have a sacrificial population in order to meet green energy targets, and if so, how do you decide who is that population?" asks Morrissey, who turned down a lucrative offer to work on the Muskrat Falls project. "You cannot put a cost on the loss of culture, of communing with each other on the land, of sharing food together as people have done since time immemorial."

The May 7 direct action -- "Hear Their Voices, See Their Faces" -- does not occur in a vacuum. It is part of a lengthy struggle for respect and rights that was even recognized by the very court currently criminalizing land protectors. Indeed, in a 2015 case, Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Judge David Orsborn declared:

"The rights held by the Inuit are real. They cannot be ignored…Respect and honourable dealing requires the province to look past the continuing disagreement and to at all times in its decision-making carry out a good faith balancing of the rights and interests of the Inuit and the rights and interests of the province."

But that balancing has yet to occur. May 7 will be one more modest step in righting the imbalance. It won't be the last.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador/Flickr

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