Make Muskrat Right activists celebrate cautious victory

Photo by Ossie Michelin

Last Saturday afternoon, 60 people cut the lock to the gates of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project work site, TheIndependent.ca reported. The independent news site's editor, Justin Brake, closely documented protest activity at the site over the past week.

At about 8:35 p.m. Atlantic Time on Saturday, Brake tweeted video of a woman inside the worker's camp reading Premier Dwight Ball's statement, which was released just earlier that hour, The Telegram reported. The woman, reading the statement to fellow protesters who had occupied the work camp, appeared to take exception to Premier Ball's "urge [to] protesters to remain peaceful and be respectful in their actions."

"We were already peaceful!" she said, raising her arm in the air. "We don't need Dwight Ball to tell us to be peaceful."

Ball's government has fallen precipitously in polls after imposing a deeply unpopular austerity budget that triggered unprecedented grassroots activism in the province.

The statement said that Ball would meet with Aboriginal leadership in Labrador on Tuesday and that, until the meeting occurred, the province's Crown energy corporation Nalcor "[would] do nothing to increase water levels above the falls."

The controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, whose costs have soared as oil prices have collapsed, is expected to cause increases to downstream methyl mercury levels and increased exposures to the neurotoxin, especially for the Inuit community of Rigolet. Residents rely on local wild food, such as fish, and fear contamination of their food systems -- even low levels of methyl mercury exposure, recent evidence suggests, have harmful neurologic effects. As well, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Connecticut found strong evidence that methyl mercury levels near Rigolet would increase following flooding. Newfoundland and Labrador's environment minister and Harvard have different accounts of what was agreed upon regarding the university researchers' role in future monitoring studies, the CBC's Geoff Bartlett reported.

The Inuit leadership in Labrador is not opposed to the project outright -- but it wants vegetation and topsoil fully cleared in order to reduce future methyl mercury levels. The Make Muskrat Right campaign, backed by the Nunatsiavut government, also demands the creation of an expert advisory committee, an impact agreement and joint decision-making authority. It has won increasing support from student, university, labour and Aboriginal groups over the past two weeks.

Matthew Della Valle is one of a group of activists who organized events in St. John's. Last Friday, the group occupied the Nalcor project office on Torbay Road in St. John's.

"It was really peaceful", Della Valle said. "We're a peaceful bunch, so we were shaking hands and talking to [staff and we] put up posters of Billy Gauthier." Gauthier is the Inuit artist who was on hunger strike over the flooding at Muskrat Falls.

Standing with Labrador

Last Sunday in St. John's, a rally took place in support of Make Muskrat Right activism. At least 200 people gathered at the Colonial Building, though a sudden downpour at about 2:15 p.m. caused some of the crowd to disperse or move to shelter. NDP leader Earle McCurdy was present and could be seen snapping photos. Signs placed against the building read "Cultural genocide at Muskrat Falls" and "100% Clearing Before Flooding," while many in attendance held "Make Muskrat Right" signs. Some people were dressed in the colours of the Labrador flag.

Flora Chubbs and Peter Roth, students from St. John's, told rabble.ca about their reasons for attending the rally and their thoughts on Make Muskrat Right.

"For me, it's mostly a family issue. It's really close to my heart and my family, obviously. But it's a human rights issue as well," said Chubbs, whose family is from Pinware and St. Lewis in South Labrador.

"I was really happy," Chubbs said about her reaction to the gate breach. "We've had a lot of people, like Dwight Ball, ignoring or walking out the other side of the room, so it's nice to get someone to look at them in the face." At a die-in protest at The Rooms, where Ball was present for an invitation-only stakeholder meeting, the premier avoided protesters who lay on the main entrance's steps by going out another exit.

"I understand why it's controversial but I applaud it because civil disobedience, ultimately, is what leads to change," said Roth.

Agreement reached at Tuesday meeting

Tuesday's 10-hour meeting between Premier Dwight and Inuit, Innu and Metis leaders ended with promises from the province for further independent assessment. In line with demands outlined in the Make Muskrat Right campaign, the province agreed to set up an independent expert advisory committee that will look at evidence-based approaches to reducing the risks of methyl mercury poisoning caused by flooding from the dam. The provincial government will also consider further clearing of the flood area.

Activists in St. John's and Labrador have expressed hope that commitments will be honoured but also significant skepticism, as the deal falls short of their goal of a commitment to fully clear topsoil and vegetation.

Cory Collins is a writer and visual artist living in St. John's. He can be contacted via Twitter @coryGcollins or corycollins.ca.

Photo by Ossie Michelin

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