Silence of the dams: Martial law at Muskrat Falls

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Muskrat Falls development in 2015. Image: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador/Flickr

This is part two in a three-part series entitled "The silence of the dams: Canada's faux-green genocide." Read part one here and part three here

Muskrat Falls became the remarkable site of sustained resistance to the megadam, and the jailing of Indigenous elders as a result sparked international outrage. Opposition was so strong that the only way the government of Newfoundland and Labrador (backed with $9.2 billion in support from Ottawa) could push the project through was to essentially declare a judicially-stamped state of martial law via a draconian injunction enforced with the firepower of the RCMP and Canadian military. For over four years, Inuit and Innu water and land defenders were delivered a clear message through the barrel of a gun: you will be indefinitely jailed if you return to protect your traditional territories.

In June 2019, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, called on the federal government to use its leverage to address concerns about lack of proper consultation with Indigenous people as well as expected methylmercury poisoning.

"I urge 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," the rapporteur said.

While colonial bean counters' main concern seems to be the doubling of Muskrat Falls megadam's cost – now at $13 billion -- those on the ground continue to raise a substantial list of objections, pointing out that governments ignored key recommendations from a joint review panel composed of provincial and federal representatives.

The project proponent Nalcor (a provincial crown corporation) submitted an incomplete environmental assessment that excluded a major downstream area, Lake Melville (a significant cultural and nutritional source sustaining Inuit life since time immemorial, Labrador's largest body of water and one designated an Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat).

A major source of worry is the documented concern from a four-year Harvard University study that a failure to clear the 101 square km reservoir impoundment area of vegetation, trees, brush and topsoil would exacerbate the already significant risk of the neurotoxin methylmercury bioaccumulating in the Indigenous country food web, rendering it unsafe for consumption for 30-35 years.

This was followed by a failure of the federal and provincial governments, as well as Nalcor, to abide by the majority recommendation of their own Independent Experts Advisory Committee to mitigate methylmercury poisoning by requiring that:

"Nalcor undertake targeted removal of soil and capping of wetlands for the reduction of both the amount and duration of methylmercury production in the Muskrat Falls Reservoir."

Additional concerns include the worry about mass-casualty flash flooding from a catastrophic dam break. The conclusion of a study by Swedish quick clay expert Stig Bernander on the North Spur (an unstable natural formation being relied upon to hold back the full reservoir) cautions that "the safety and reliability of the Muskrat Falls dam have not been demonstrated."

Were such a flash flood to occur, it would also have longer-term effects that would poison the area for centuries, given it would dredge up and spread toxics from already existing contaminated sites.

A Failure to Seek Consent

Ultimately, as at Keeyask and other major megadams, Muskrat Falls proponents failed to engage in the process of free, prior and informed consent with all Indigenous peoples affected, as prescribed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

From the very beginning, project proponent Nalcor and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador have also sought to downplay the threat of methylmercury poisoning in the traditional country food web of Indigenous peoples affected. The issue has always been addressed by project proponents and funders through the language of mitigation -- containing or avoiding a risk that will result from the dam's construction and operation -- instead of asking whether the risk is too great to begin with.

Last fall, one of the authors of the Harvard report, Ryan Calder, who has continued to monitor the project's effects, found that the methylmercury levels were rising, as expected, to concerning levels, but Muskrat Falls defenders again downplayed the threat posed to the Inuit and Innu who, as austerity is imposed on Labrador, will need to rely even more on their increasingly poisoned traditional country foods.

Despite the ongoing disaster of Muskrat Falls -- which has saddled the province with such a crushing debt that there are now recommendations to impose austerity on the residents who are also facing a doubling or tripling of hydro bills -- there are disturbing signs that the federal and provincial governments are teeing up yet another megadam that would further desecrate Labrador.

The proposed Gull Island Megadam project on the Grand (Mistashipu) River is slated to be three times the size of Muskrat Falls, flooding 232 square kilometers of pristine boreal forest and exposing  communities to the third highest levels of methylmercury of 22 proposed new dams across the land. Gull Island's primary purpose would be to meet the "green energy" demands of the northeast U.S. and will require controversial new transmission corridors that have prompted significant protest south of the border. A reference in last fall's throne speech to a so-called Atlantic Loop (a hypothetical regional electricity grid ) is a worrying sign that Gull Island, despite opposition from Indigenous people and many settler residents, is going to be forced through in the same brutal manner as Muskrat Falls. 

Where colonial judges sit

As if to pave the way for Gull Island, the last of the arrested Labrador Land Protectors -- Indigenous and non-Indigenous land and water defenders -- were sentenced for "civil contempt" in January.

The same colonial judge who had issued the draconian injunction in 2016 expressed his incredulity that those trying to maintain their lives, their livelihood, their culture, their very identity, would somehow thumb their noses at the so-called "rule of law" that allegedly undergirded the prohibition on trying to stop the impending disaster.

To ensure the continued operation of Muskrat Falls -- what many have called an act of genocide in the making, one similar to the mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows -- the judge demanded undertakings that all would continue to obey the draconian terms of the injunction for an additional two years, on top of the four years that this group had already been under strict conditions.

Like the Manitoba Hydro PR team that insisted the destruction of Indigenous territories at Keeyask was done in the spirit of reconciliation, so the judge in Labrador echoed such rhetoric.

As CBC reported, the judge:

"said the protesters did not seem to understand that the contempt of court was nothing to do with Muskrat Falls, the environment, Indigenous rights, reconciliation or ownership of land -- issues he said that are very important to the court and to society -- but rather, the charges had to do with the actual actions, not the motivations of the protesters."

But as one of the protectors, Denise Cole, responded: 

"That's not reconciliation; that's like a tap on the head saying, 'I appreciate that you think that you're right. I'm here to tell you you're wrong and in my era of reconciliation I won't punish you as much as I could.' That's really the breakdown of it. I'm not arrogant, but I'm aware this is a very broken system and there's still a tremendous amount of work for us to do."

Cole told CBC that "two worlds collide" when a colonial court feels threatened by Indigenous people trying to protect themselves from genocidal projects.

"We all sort of go under the belief that we have these constitutionally protected rights as Canadians, and then we realize that there's a lot of ifs or buts. From him, it's that I don't respect him and the court enough, but for me he's talking about my creator who has given me a responsibility to next generations and to my culture, to the land and to the water -- there's a responsibility that I hold there, and it tells me that he still doesn't get that. Which is a shame."

In the same manner genocidal actions are ongoing with the complicity of Labrador's colonial courts, the government of Manitoba is following in the footsteps of draconian legislation passed in Alberta.

Legislation is being considered that would criminalize Indigenous land and water defenders and supporters when they raise their voices against the green genocide of Manitoba Hydro. Bill 57, the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act, broadly defines as infrastructure anything that makes a "significant contribution to the health, safety, security or economic well-being of Manitobans" and can include projects under construction.

To prevent protests, megaproject profiteers can get a "critical infrastructure protection zone" declared from any provincial court that would prevent access to the sites or blockades while creating the infamous and useless protest bubble that has a history at various sites across North America.

"[Bill] 57 would silence our voices and just make us conveniently protest over there in the corner far away from where the heart of the issue is," said Lisa Currier, with Idle No More and an organizer of a protest against the legislation. 

Notably, members of Tataskweyak Cree Nation blockaded access to Keeyask earlier during the pandemic out of concern that 1,000 outside workers coming into the region would be spreading COVID-19.

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.

Image: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador/Flickr

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