Protecting the land in Labrador

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Jennifer Hefler-Elson. She is a member of the Labrador Land Protectors, a grassroots group opposed to the hydroelectric dam megaproject being built at Muskrat Falls. A resident of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, an Indigenous woman, and a member of the Labrador Land Protectors, she speaks about her community's struggles.

Muskrat Falls is a waterfall on the Churchill River in Labrador, not too far from the Indigenous-majority town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The dam at the falls is being built by Nalcor Energy, a provincial crown corporation. It's a project that has been in the works for many years, and so, as these kinds of projects must do in order to get this far, it has crossed many t's and dotted many i's in terms of consultations and environmental assessments and approvals. Yet, as is also often true of these kinds of megaprojects, the fact that it has met various bureaucratic requirements has not kept many of those people who will be most directly impacted from recognizing that for them the project means harm and risk and disrespect.

The most recent wave of opposition began back in 2016 with a campaign organized by the Nunatsiavut government, which represents Inuit people in Labrador, to "Make Muskrat Right." This campaign, at least at the level of its leadership, did not oppose the project in its entirety. Flooding from the project was due to begin that fall, and there was new evidence that the amount of flooding and the approach the company had proposed for preparing the territory would lead to significant accumulations of the toxin methylmercury that could contaminate downstream food supplies that many Inuit depend on. There was a major rally and then a series of other actions, including regular protests at the gate on the road leading to the construction site and a hunger strike, as well as many arrests. At the end of October, negotiations between the province, the Nunatsiavut government, the Innu Nation, and the Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut led to a protocol that would allow Nalcor to proceed with the flooding in a way that they hoped would mitigate the risk from methylmercury.

Many of the grassroots people who were involved, however, were of the view that nothing could make the project safe and it must be stopped in its entirety. They have continued to be active under the name Labrador Land Protectors. Though Nalcor had obtained an injunction constraining where and how protest could occur, demonstrations continued on a regular basis at the gates on the road to the construction site. More people were arrested in November. Many people who were arrested were prohibited from participating by release conditions and many others became wary of the risk of being arrested for participating even in the most innocuous kinds of protest activites, so numbers have dwindled somewhat since then, yet protests have continued.

The Labrador Land Protectors have many concerns with the Muskrat Falls project. Not all Indigenous peoples who are being impacted by the project have been given the opportunity to offer (or not) free, prior, and informed consent. The group has grave misgivings about the megaproject's environmental impacts, about the risk to human health from toxins and from flooding, about the serious negative impacts seen already on human rights, and also about the longer term public consequences of the project's massive cost overruns. Even the conditions of the protocol for reducing methylmercury (agreed in October) are not being met by the company. The group is also becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of what's called the North Spur -- a formation of dirt and rock that spans part way across the river and that is being incorporated into and reinforced as part of the dam construction process. Today's guest also talks about signs of unauthorized burning by the company and about a recent major flood of a nearby town that land protectors are convinced is related to the dam. And in addition to the many land protectors still facing criminal charges, many listeners will have heard of the case of Beatrice Hunter, an Inuk grandmother arrested, taken 1600 km from her home community, and jailed in a men's prison for refusing to commit to staying away from the gate to the construction site. She was still detained as of the time we recorded this interview, though she has subsequently been released.

Given all of these concerns, the land protectors are steadfast in their commitment to stopping the project. Their immediate demands include a forensic audit of Nalcor Energy and an independent study of the stability of the North Spur.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow the show on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join the show's weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for use in this post is used with permission of the Labrador Land Protectors.

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