Mercury poisoning, Muskrat Falls and Canada's toxic divide

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Canada's premiers tour Muskrat Falls dam construction site in 2015. Photo: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador/Flickr

When 13 Indigenous people and settler allies were arrested on Parliament Hill June 10 simply for trying to deliver a 15,000-strong petition urging the federal government to act on the impending crisis of methylmercury poisoning of the Inuit and Innu peoples downstream of Muskrat Falls, it reinforced the recent United Nations finding about who in Canada lives on the wrong side of what was named a "toxic divide."

This suppression of Indigenous voices by Parliamentary security forces on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory came on the heels of a damning report on Canadian environmental racism by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak. Following coast-to-coast consultations, he called on the federal government to address concerns about lack of proper consultation with Indigenous people -- especially with respect to the parameters outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

From the tarsands of Alberta to the TransMountain pipeline proposed for unceded Indigenous territories in B.C., the chemical valley poisoning of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia to the still unaddressed mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows, the impending methylmercury crisis at Muskrat Falls to the role of Canadian mining firms in desecrating Indigenous communities here and abroad, the rapporteur concluded:

"In examining these concerns and the socio-economic factors of where resulting impacts are found, the question of discrimination becomes simply unavoidable. There exists a pattern in Canada where marginalized groups, Indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada. While the principle and right of non-discrimination is found in the Canadian Constitution, it does not appear to have served as a significant protection or recourse for affected communities in cases of action or, more often than not, inaction by the government. Appreciating the recognition of a healthy environment by Quebec and other provinces, I note that Canada has not recognized the right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment at the federal level, unlike the majority of states around the world."

Just this week, the crisis of Canada's toxic divide has come into sharp focus in Labrador, where plans to push the Muskrat Falls megadam to full operations by the fall fly in the face of the June 6 UN recommendation urging "the federal government to use its leverage as the largest investor in the project to review whether UNDRIP compatible procedures were followed for all affected Indigenous peoples, and to prevent the release of methyl mercury." Indeed, Ottawa has $9.2 billion backing the megadam, despite well-documented concerns about dire ecological impacts and adverse affects on the lives of Indigenous people downstream.

During the rapporteur's visit to Canada, he met with Labrador land protectors including Nunatsiavummiuk Amy Norman and NunatuKavut elder James Learning, along with Grand Riverkeeper's Roberta Frampton Benefiel and myself, representing the Ontario-Muskrat Solidarity Coalition.

Colonial consultation

They shared a brief outlining their position that "core to any study of Muskrat Falls is an understanding that Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by a megaproject that has never received the free, prior and informed consent of all Indigenous affected. The key project supporters -- provincial Crown corporation Nalcor, the federal government (which backs the megadam with $9.2 billion in federal loan guarantees), and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador -- sit at negotiating tables that are grossly unequal and weighted in their favour," adding "as with many megaprojects in Canada, federal and provincial governments have relied on their own impoverished, colonial definition of consultation at Muskrat Falls… discounting the often dissenting concerns expressed by elders, traditional title holders, and grassroots voices" instead of employing the UNDRIP's foundational guidelines of free, prior and informed consent.

The rapporteur took special note of concerns:

"regarding the absence of meaningful consultation … the risk of methyl mercury releases contaminating traditional foods and impacting health, the unaddressed risk of dam failure, and the flooding of sites containing toxic military waste. It was alleged that the vast majority of the affected community would either suffer from extreme food insecurity or be forced to eat contaminated food if the dam is constructed without proper clearance of the reservoir."

The risk of dam failure is a major concern for those downstream of Muskrat Falls, since a large natural formation, the North Spur, composed of quick clay (which liquefies under pressure), is being relied upon to hold back a full reservoir of water. The world's leading quick clay expert, Dr. Stig Bernander, has researched the issue and found no independent study has shown this to be feasible.

Despite the failure to address these concerns, residents downstream of Muskrat Falls have been informed the reservoir behind the North Spur is slated to be filled beginning August 7. No soil or vegetation clearance has taken place, which means once this organic material is submerged and begins decaying, methylmercury will be produced and bioaccumulate in the food web. This is particularly devastating for people who rely on a country food diet of fish, waterfowl and seal.

As Amy Norman told an Ottawa news conference:

"This is painful. Food insecurity in the North is a major problem, and we have to rely on our country foods. We can't afford to just go buy meat in the stores because it's quadruple the cost of food in southern Canada. Country foods are our only source of healthy food. There is also a huge cultural importance to this food. As Inuit, we are seal people. That's our culture, that's who we are. We live off the land. We hunt seal, we eat seal, we wear seal. It's devastating to have all this information about the negative impacts about methylmercury and for the federal government to have said in 2011 that the reservoir should be cleared, and eight years later here we are and it still hasn't been done."

Within hours of speaking at this press conference, Norman was arrested and banned from Parliament Hill for 90 days for trying to present the Muskrat Falls petition. Also arrested with her were Indigenous women from Manitoba, who have lived with the devastating impacts of massive hydro projects for decades and who pointed out that Manitoba Hydro played a role in the Muskrat Falls disaster currently unfolding.

Demand to suspend flooding

On July 22, the Indigenous government of Nunatsiavut called on Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball to immediately "direct Nalcor Energy to suspend plans to flood the Muskrat Falls reservoir until mitigation measures are taken to reduce the potential impacts of methylmercury on the Lake Melville ecosystem."

Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe declared that:

"our concerns over methylmercury contamination are real and must be addressed before the reservoir is flooded. The premier and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador have done very little to ease our concerns over the potential impacts of Muskrat Falls on our health, culture and way of life…We are extremely disappointed with how the premier has handled the whole Muskrat Falls fiasco. He has repeatedly betrayed our trust by refusing to address our concerns, opting instead to place the health, culture and way of life of Labrador Inuit at risk. In the spirit of reconciliation, we call on the premier to do the right thing and direct Nalcor not to flood the reservoir until the concerns of Labrador Inuit are meaningfully addressed."

One of the most vocal opponents of the Muskrat Falls megadam has been elder James Learning, who, in addition to pointing out that eight river systems will be destroyed by the megadam, also told the UN rapporteur: "When somebody contaminates your food supply, you still have to eat it. There's a psychological impact that comes with that." He recounted being arrested, thrown in jail, and told by the RCMP who came to his cell that:

"you're going out the back door quickly and quietly" to avoid supporters outside, "and then you're cuffed and put in body chains and taken to the airport in Happy Valley Goose Bay and told you will be flown to the penitentiary in St. John's, 1,600 km away. We thought we were safe in our home in Canada, where there was supposed to be due process, but due process happens somewhere else. We had no psychological defences against that either. We're grassroots people who are treated as criminals.

"You're waiting for the dam to break upstream and you're waiting for this methylmercury contamination of our food supply that's going to harm your grandkids and great grandkids. These little kids will be sitting in classrooms years from now wondering why they can't understand or remember what's being said because they've been contaminated by a neurotoxin, and yet they're just going to ladle this stuff on us with no thought because we are a marginalized population and [it's expected that] we have to just bear this no matter what."

A lack of real alternatives

The expectation that Indigenous people will continue to bear the worst of the toxic divide, as well as the effects of a phenomenon known as climate apartheid -- the rich will always find a way to shelter themselves from the worst effects of climate change -- is illustrated in the relatively poor "green" platforms of Canada's major political parties, which present little more than lip service to Indigenous rights. Indeed, while Elizabeth May's Greens have inexplicably promised to keep the tarsands going until 2050, their commitment to Big Oil is an insult to Indigenous communities that, as the UN rapporteur noted, represent:

"a disturbing picture of health impacts of the tar sands that have not been properly investigated for years, and government inaction despite increasing evidence of health impacts on local communities…. Local communities have complained that they no longer have access to traditional foods or water sources, with reports of sickened animals, meat tainted by toxics, and mutations in fish."

The other "alternative," the NDP, has presented a rip from Trudeau's 2015 campaign, right down to leader Jagmeet Singh out on the waters in a canoe. The NDP plan contains absolutely no word on ending fracking and liquefied natural gas. There is nothing on uranium mining and exports or the need to end nuclear power; there is no position on methane-producing big dams like Muskrat Falls and Site C. There is nice language about respecting Indigenous rights (just like Trudeau's in 2015), but with no commitment to naming the projects violating Indigenous rights that must be shut down like LNG, Line 3, Site C, Muskrat Falls and others, that's all it is -- nice words. While Singh references the TransMountain pipeline as a stupid investment, he does not say it will be cancelled.

Hence, all of Canada's political parties play into a dynamic identified by the UN rapporteur, who pointed out that:

"throughout the lifecycle and value chain of economic activity in Canada, Indigenous peoples appear to be disproportionately located in close proximity to actual and potential sources of toxic exposure. Indigenous peoples live next to refineries and other manufacturing facilities. Existing and proposed pipelines crisscross their lands. Landfills, incinerators and other waste disposal sites are often closest to their reserves. This proximity and issues of access to justice and remedy raise questions of dignity and equality."

Back in Labrador, Shirley Flowers, from the small community of Rigolet (where methylmercury poisoning spikes will reach as high as 1,500 per cent once impoundment of the Muskrat Falls reservoir begins on August 7), wrote on social media earlier this week that:

"in a few short days, all of what we have known will be changed forever. The impoundment of the [Muskrat Falls] reservoir will make irreversible changes and will offer unsafe grounds to us and our neighbours. The perpetrators have ignored the cries of those who will receive and feel the greatest impacts…. Take heart folks and stand against misuse of land and water. Our lives are worth the fight."

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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