Why isn't Muskrat Falls megadam project sparking outrage?

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

In 2019, the entirely preventable methylmercury poisoning of the traditional country food web of Indigenous people downstream of the Muskrat Falls megadam in Labrador is set to begin. It's remarkable, though perhaps unsurprising in a country with an ongoing history of such atrocities, that this impending criminal act -- which violates all aspects of international humanitarian law, has been categorized by some as a war crime and of falling under the definition of genocide -- is clearly and plainly happening out in the open, yet sparking little outrage.

It's also funded to the tune of $9.2 billion by a federal government that touts this destruction of Indigenous people's food supply and traditional way of life as part of its green-energy strategy and respectful nation-to-nation relationships.

This week in Labrador, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who live downstream of the megadam -- which also threatens mass casualty drowning because a significant portion of the dam is supposed to be held back by a natural formation composed of quick clay, which liquefies and gives way under intense pressure -- are spending their days in a colonial court. Their alleged crime has been to commit a series of peaceful acts of land protection, from occupying the work site for four days in October 2016 to conducting a sacred ceremony.

Direct action October 29

As the Labrador land protectors face fines, restrictions on their movements and associations, and possible jail time -- four land protectors have already spent weeks at a time in maximum security prisons -- a group of their supporters heads to Parliament Hill on Monday, October 29. On that afternoon, they plan a non-violent rally and direct action, risking arrest to enter the House of Commons and place on the desks of MPs the pictures and words of those most at risk, as well as copies of the scientific reports and treaties being ignored by politicians who claim that the most important relationship is the one they have with Indigenous peoples.

Given the proximity to Halloween, some demonstartors will be wearing masks of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, and Labrador MP Yvonne Jones will also try and enter to apologize in advance for the Muskrat Falls disaster and demand that federal support be ended.

The Parliament Hill gathering takes place just over two weeks after the passing of Steve Fobister Sr., the former Treaty 3 Grand Chief and Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief who died October 11 at the age of 66 from mercury poisoning. Fobister fought most of his life for the rights of those poisoned by mercury at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, where up to 90 per cent of the people suffer from the debilitating effects of mercury poisoning. (A vigil honouring Fobister at Toronto's Queen's Park takes place Thursday, October 25 at 7 p.m.)

In a letter to the provincial and federal governments, Fobister's family challenged both Trudeau as well as provincial Health Minister Christine Elliott directly. "Our beloved Steve passed away without ever getting the closure of having a government minister look him in the eye and admit that he was poisoned by mercury," they wrote.

"Instead he was forced to fight for four decades for mercury justice in the face of denial, delay, and discrimination. We call on you to admit at long last that Steve Fobister Sr. lived with mercury poisoning and died from mercury poisoning. Will you respect Steve by speaking the truth, and commit to fairly compensate all Grassy Narrows people for the ongoing mercury crisis that has been denied and neglected for so long? Steve always wanted the government to admit that he had been poisoned by mercury. Now we take up his fight to honour him. Trudeau and Elliott, will you admit that Steve was poisoned, and will you compensate Grassy Narrows fairly for our mercury crisis?"

Ontario chose to poison Indigenous people

A petition to Trudeau and Elliott reminds them that:

"94 per cent of Grassy Narrows people receive no compensation for the mercury crisis which continues to rob them of their loved ones and to ravage their health, culture, livelihood, rights, and environment. The survivors of this avoidable disaster deserve the best possible health care and support, including a Mercury Home and Treatment Centre so that their sick loved ones can be treated with dignity, close to their families."

Last October, Ontario's Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe said successive provincial governments in Ontario "chose to allow the ongoing poisoning of the communities," and a report she wrote noted that "after accepting financial responsibility for the mercury contamination, the Ontario government declined to take action for decades, largely ignoring the suffering of the Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong peoples."

Saxe's report pointed out that the contamination "stripped the people of Wabaseemoong and Grassy Narrows of important facets of their cultural practices, livelihoods and health."

It's an all-too familiar story for Rita Monias, a Pimicikamak Okimawin elder who will travel more than 3,000 kilometres from her home in what is also known as Cross Lake, Manitoba, to take part in the Parliament Hill rally October 29. Monias, who helped lead a six-week occupation of the Jenpeg Manitoba generating station in 2014, says she hopes to shine a national spotlight on the role hydro dams have played in devastating Indigenous communities like hers, and to share with MPs -- if she is allowed into the House of Commons -- that the same future is in store for Indigenous people in Labrador unless the Muskrat Falls megadam is shut down.

(Significantly, Manitoba Hydro International played a major role in helping sanction the Muskrat Falls project, producing a report that was embraced by then Newfoundland and Labrador premier Kathy Dunderdale as ammunition she needed to fight back against those who demanded the seeking of Indigenous consent and solid scientific proof that the megadam would not cause serious damage. In recognizing this connection, a fundraiser for Labrador Land Protectors takes place in Winnipeg on October 27 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Strong Badger Coffeehouse).

"We have always heard promises of jobs, of compensation, of respectful nation-to-nation relationships, but that's not the reality we see in our communities once hydro dams come in and change everything, destroying our ways of life," Monias says.

"We have seen major displacement, a loss of cultural knowledge, reduced access to traditional foods and medicines and far fewer opportunities to take part in our traditional economy, destruction of our burial grounds and cultural sites, the fear of eating our traditional foods because of methylmercury poisoning, injury and death due to hazardous navigation on the waters, and major changes and reductions in the wildlife whose patterns have been disrupted by the dams. We cannot allow any more environmental devastation on our Mother Earth. We have to protect it."

Unnecessary and avoidable suffering

In 2001, the Manitoba Aboriginal Rights Coalition (MARC) released a report, "Let Justice Flow," which concluded that "the ongoing suffering of Cree and Métis peoples as a result of hydroelectric dams is both unnecessary and avoidable." This followed on the report of the Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in 1991, which found that:

"Aboriginal people also argue that they were never told of the environmental destruction that would occur. They say that they were never told that graves would be washed away and fish habitats demolished, nor that an entire way of life for what previously had been strong communities would disappear."

The MARC report quoted Pimicikamak Okimawin resident Bobby Brightnose, who said:

"Our people are grieving, they are grieving for land, the water and a way of life that was brought to an abrupt halt. I remember going along the shoreline to pick medicine with my late grandmother only to find it flooded. My grandmother stood there crying because that was her life. Her life was the land. There is a great deal of grief that needs to be resolved and dealt with among our people in Cross Lake."

APTN reporter Justin Brake recently completed a series of news reports on the impact of hydro dams on the Indigenous people in northern Manitoba. In one segment, Ramona Neckoway, from Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation at Nelson House, truthfully names what is taking place as genocide. 

"For me this is a cultural genocide that's going on," she told APTN. "And I don't use those words lightly. I say that because I see that there are entire generations of children in our communities that don't go on the water, that don't understand the importance of that water to who we are, that have never left the reserve, this cage that they've created through colonial policies that have been imposed on us. To me, Nisichawayasihk, our territory, actually is much bigger than the reserve that they allotted to us. And we were using that territory -- my mother's generation was using that territory, going to camps, going to these different spaces and actively using that land and that water."

Misipawistik councillor Heidi Cook agreed, noting that the effects of hydro dams have been worse even than residential schools because they have destroyed their homes. She spoke poignantly of how hearing the sounds of the rapids for miles around not only defined a sense of place, but also helped remind people of who and where they were. But after construction and damning the flow of the rivers, there was only silence. Cook told APTN that:

"I felt it myself, personally, that as somebody from Grand Rapids I was robbed of my birthright to know these rapids and to have this beautiful part of my home sing me to sleep at night, and greet me in the morning when I wake up."

In September, the abuses of Manitoba Hydro were the focus of a press conference where one Indigenous woman, Martina Saunders, announced a Manitoba Human Rights Commission complaint, as Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee reminded reporters that "our people have been oppressed. Our people have been treated as if they are second-class citizens in their own lands."

A coast-to-coast scourge

The devastating impact of hydro dams on Indigenous communities is not limited to Muskrat Falls or Manitoba (nor are such appalling consequences limited to hydro projects, given the endless examples of Canadian extractive industries wreaking havoc in Indigenous communities around the globe). Dozens of other communities face predictions that the scourge of methylmercury poisoning will threaten them with current and planned projects. A group of Harvard scientists wrote in their 2016 report, "Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities," that "all 22 Canadian hydroelectric facilities being considered for near-term development are located within 100 kilometres of Indigenous communities." (eight are in Yukon; two each in Nunavut and Manitoba; four in Quebec, one each in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and B.C.; and two in Labrador).

They explore both the significant projected increases in the bioaccumulating neurotoxin methylmercury at Muskrat Falls and then point out that modeled poison reservoir levels at 11 of the proposed 21 hydroelectric sites across Canada "are comparable or greater than the Muskrat Falls reservoir." In practical terms, this means that said poison will affect those who rely on a traditional country diet of fish, fowl, seal and other mammals in whom the poison bioaccumulates.

"Country foods are known to confer a wide-range of nutritional and social health benefits to indigenous communities, and nutritious alternative food choices are limited in the Canadian North," the report's authors write. "Past studies suggest reducing or avoiding consumption of country foods may also result in substantial adverse impacts on individual health." They propose that any such project must focus first and foremost on the removal or mitigation of poison risk, noting that interventions "such as the removal of organic carbon from the planned reservoir regions prior to flooding" should be considered.

That recommendation for clearance of the reservoir area at Muskrat Falls has been flat-out rejected by the Newfoundland and Labrador government, and it's an issue on which the federal government remains deathly silent, even as their own experts have urged such mitigation measures. Once reservoir levels rise next spring, the methylmercury accumulation will accelerate, as will the heightened risk of a dam break.

In the meantime, the Canadian government's support for these dangerous dams flies in the face of their legally binding commitments under the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a legally binding treaty negotiated under the United Nations Environment Program to reduce mercury emissions and to protect the environment and human health. When she signed the treaty in April, 2017, Catherine McKenna proclaimed: "Our government is unwavering in its commitment to safeguard the environment and the health of Canadians from the effects of mercury."

The convention Canada signed on to is clear in recognizing  "the particular vulnerabilities of Arctic ecosystems and Indigenous communities because of the biomagnification of mercury and contamination of traditional foods, and concerns about Indigenous communities more generally with respect to the effects of mercury."

But the Trudeau government is plowing ahead nonetheless, having shown with Trans Mountain, the tar sands, Site C, Line 3, LNG and other megaprojects, that it simply does not care about the voices of Indigenous people. The scourge of methylmercury and other poisons contaminating traditional country food webs is one 21st-century version of the Canadian government's 19th-century approach to genocide, when the same strategy of using food as a weapon was employed by John A. Macdonald.

As James Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, writes:

"Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border as the Canadian Pacific Railway took shape. For years, government officials withheld food from Aboriginal people until they moved to their appointed reserves, forcing them to trade freedom for rations. Once on reserves, food placed in ration houses was withheld for so long that much of it rotted while the people it was intended to feed fell into a decades-long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness from tuberculosis and other diseases. Thousands died."

Daschuk adds that Macdonald, acting as "both prime minister and minister of Indian affairs during the darkest days of the famine, even boasted that the Indigenous population was kept on the 'verge of actual starvation,' in an attempt to deflect criticism that he was squandering public funds."

Promises to ancestors

All of these issues provide a backdrop to the trials taking place in Labrador's colonial courts, where land protectors will be speaking many truths about their motivations, their hopes, and their commitments. Among them is Denise Cole of Happy Valley Goose Bay, who was hauled into court for allegedly violating a court order by Nalcor, the provincial Crown corporation behind Muskrat Falls, when she performed a ceremony "to ask for healing and safety for the land, water, and people."

Writing earlier this year, Cole declared:

"My duties to pray and hold sacred ceremony are more important than the unjust court orders that Nalcor uses to keep us away from our traditional lands as they destroy them for their Muskrat Falls hydro project. Creator is watching, Mother Earth is reacting. I know I am on the side of what is right along with many beautiful protectors and supporters across the nation and on our homeland of Labrador. I had to sign an undertaking to stay away from the place of our Labrador ancestors. The Muskrat Falls north side is a very spiritual and sacred place. This court order essentially keeps me away from my 'church' and forces me to dishonour my responsibilities to the land and spirits of Muskrat Falls. I know that right now I have to do that for the greater cause of helping save the river, land, and lives downstream from this megadam disaster. Still rest assured, my resolve is strong and unwavering and there is strength in my tears. I will perform ceremony in this place again, I promise that to the ancestors and Creator." 

As supporters gather in Ottawa -- unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin Territory -- on Monday, Cole's words will be among the many that other land protectors hope to place on the desks of MPs in the House of Commons. When a similar group, including four Labrador Land Protectors, tried to do the same thing in May, 15 of them were arrested and banned from Parliament Hill for 90 days.  

The presence of land protectors from Manitoba on Monday will also help mark the fourth anniversary of the six-week occupation of the Manitoba Hydro Jenpeg generation site, where Pimicikamak Okimawin evicted colonial staff and refused to leave. At the time, Tommy Monias, one of the hundreds on site, informed media that:

"We're just doing what we normally do in the last 2,000 years which is hang around in our lands. Hydro is occupying our lands. This is traditional territory of Pimicikamak people. We were always here. It's Hydro that showed up here 31 years ago and occupied our lands. This is where my ancestors have travelled for thousands of years."

It is such outbreaks of democracy that remind us of the words of the sorely missed Steve Fobister, Sr., who said when on hunger strike in 2014 at the Ontario legislature: "Words don't mean anything anymore. Direct action is all I have left. And here I am."

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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