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That Dam Project: Who gets to say no?

Police vehicles block the road in an attemot to assure more people do not access the site without permission Saturday.
Police vehicles block the road to the Muskrat Falls construction site. - Photo courtesy of Christina Tellez

Jail time, police presence re-enforces Indigenous elders’ feelings of oppression

After welcoming a stranger out of the rain and into her front room, Beatrice Hunter returns to the door to look up and down the street. She says the RCMP have been there often, sometimes parking, sitting in a truck outside her ground-level front door, just on the other side of the street. They're not there now.

“We believed so much in our leaders,” she says, sitting down, talking about initial agreements on the Muskrat Falls power project, including the New Dawn deal and endorsement from the Innu Nation, but also the later verbal agreement between all Indigenous leaders and the provincial government in the hopes of resolving concerns about methylmercury.

She says she started to feel early on in construction there was a lack of transparency. There was a lot of information, she acknowledges, but says that's not two-way communication with the people most affected.

Beatrice Hunter at home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Beatrice Hunter at home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

As hiring for the project got underway, she didn't see as many Innu people hired as she expected. She couldn't understand the corporation's confidence in response to local people's growing concerns about the ability to keep the North Spur stabilized. She still doesn't understand that confidence, regardless of Nalcor Energy CEO Stan Marshall recently saying he found no dissenting opinions amongst consultant engineers on the safety of the dam.

The spur is a large spit of land at one side of the Muskrat Falls dam site, being used in part to hold back the river. After the stabilization debate picked up, the community started talking about a lack of an evacuation plan to quickly notify people if, for some reason, the dam did start to fail.

There is still no early warning system as requested in the area known as the lower valley, something noted in the go-'round at the last meeting of the Happy Valley-Goose Bay town council before the fall election, where councillors, including Deputy Mayor Wally Andersen, said something should be in place. Months later, The Telegram confirmed discussions were ongoing.

“To me it's just another slap in the face,” Hunter says.

As the project progressed, she also heard accounts of racist comments and actions towards workers from the Innu Nation. There were Innu-led protests at the Muskrat Falls dam site, and a worker accused of kicking an Innu co-worker in the head was dismissed.

Then, it was methylmercury. There was new science — science that had to be sought by a concerned Indigenous government – showing a level of risk for contamination of essential country foods not mentioned before, not even known about, when the project was being endorsed.

And so she protested.

Read the entire series here

She thinks it should always be called protecting, because of a negative connotation and stigma to “protesting” when you're an Indigenous person in Canada.

Hunter said she was thinking of her granddaughter when she started. And when she was arrested and flown to the traditionally men's prison in St. John's, sitting in the dark, she said she was still thinking of her granddaughter.

She had come to the conclusion the project was a bad idea from the start.

Her son comes to the door. Before she can tell him to pass on a message that she will be by later, a bright, young face pops in.



A badge

The Indigenous people of Labrador who have been arrested and jailed as a result of peaceful but unlawful protests at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project site see it as a badge of honour now.

They have violated court injunctions, and will acknowledge as much if you ask about it.

They describe the actions as following years of getting a project below the standard promised and not having their concerns addressed. They describe the response to their actions as only adding to the distrust and lack of communication.

Marjorie Flowers pulls into her driveway and hurriedly carries shopping bags into her house. I carry in a loose bottle of what I think is shampoo and I embarrassingly nearly trip over her sealskin boots walking in through the hall.

At this point in 2017 the woman is still under house arrest. She's permitted an hour away from the house by the courts and has made it back in time.

“Initially I was not anti-project,” she says, settling onto the couch near the front window.

“It's to keep everybody oppressed." — Marjorie Flowers, on what she believes is the motivation for arresting protesters

She leans back toward partially closed purple drapes and casually pulls a panel forward, to look up and down the street. She says RCMP drive the quiet road a couple of times a day.

A Nunatsiavut beneficiary who once worked with the Indigenous government, she moved to Happy Valley-Goose Bay years ago from the largely Inuit community of Rigolet.

Getting to Rigolet means a six-and-a-half-hour boat ride across Lake Melville. It's the lake — actually an enormous estuary — that Happy Valley-Goose Bay is on, at the end of the dammed Churchill River.

Lake Melville is at the heart of regional life, and people have been told it is at a higher risk of methylmercury contamination than was originally expected.

Flowers believes in the Harvard-led study coming since the start of the project and its conclusions, as opposed to a subsequent Nalcor Energy study suggesting risks can be mitigated. Advisories, bans, are only the answer for the corporation, she explains. They're not an answer for the community.

She believes her home of Rigolet, where salmon — as opposed to say squid or blueberries — is the focus of a summer festival and people still rely year-round on country foods, will fundamentally change. She sees a future where the Inuit people do not have the freedom to hunt and make full use of seals, as per longstanding tradition, and children cannot learn to catch and taste fresh char without families wondering if it's safe, where it's safe, how much is safe. Nalcor Energy has been wrong about so much, she says. Just look at the sheer cost of the Muskrat Falls project right now.

She believes in shutting down the hydroelectric development, even attempting to return the river to its previous free flow, damn the cost.

She believes arrests in the wake of that were driven by the corporation and the provincial government's desire to quiet any anti-Muskrat Falls movement.

“It's to keep everybody oppressed,” she says.



Eyes forward

Driving the highway towards Muskrat Falls from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Eldred Davis describes years of questions and lawful challenge, including through the group known as the Grand Riverkeepers, before he started to take any direct protest actions and then risk arrest himself.

Eventually, he came to the point where it just felt like no one was really hearing him.

Eldred Davis, across the Churchill River from Muskrat Falls.
Eldred Davis, across the Churchill River from Muskrat Falls.

He is challenging the injunction he was ultimately imprisoned for violating.

“I gave several submissions on different topics,” he says of the early reviews of the project, looking out at a road that quickly moves from still-frontier town to only trees on either side.

About 20 minutes into the drive, he turns off and onto a woods road, where the speed is cut to under five kilometres an hour and the truck rolls itself in and out of potholes, tilting up on one side and down on the other, then the opposite.

He pulls up to a laneway where someone cleared the brush back once, but the brush is moving back in. We leave the truck and walk, coming to a cabin, apparently abandoned. At the back, there is a deck facing the river. Across the river is Muskrat Falls.

Davis takes out a pair of binoculars and brushes away swarming flies. Standing next to an old picnic table stripped to a faded two-tone of red and green by the weather, he looks out to the construction site.

He's been watching the progress in construction from here, noting details — when the land was stripped, when the river was diverted and, today, if the spillway gates are positioned up or down. He provides information to the Labrador Land Protectors, given they don't trust information coming from Nalcor Energy.

“The thing is such a scar in the wilderness that it should never have been started. It has really nothing going for it except a lot of rich white men are making a lot more money,” he says.


Mega Dams, mega damage

With a house a bit outside Happy Valley-Goose Bay, closer to neighbouring North West River, Roberta Benefiel offers a pick-up.

Her four-by-four shows its mileage and the seatbelt in the front passenger seat has a trick to it, but it's expensive to get it replaced — and she's not making embedded contractor money.

There are dog runs beside her driveway and, on this day, a pair of toy dogs are at her heels inside, as part of a casual sitting service she provides for locals living off megaprojects elsewhere, spending time further North, or travelling to medical appointments. 

Surrounded by trees, with a red roof and siding styled like a log cabin, the home is warm inside. She offers slippers and hurries to a pot on the stove, where soup is boiling, made with wild meat of some variety pulled from the bottom of the freezer.

Roberta Benefiel at home.
Roberta Benefiel at home.

A founder and vice-president of the Grand Riverkeeper Labrador, Benefiel has been a voice against hydro development on the Lower Churchill River since it was being proposed under Brian Tobin and Lucien Bouchard in the 1990s. At the time, she and a friend had looked at the project as part of environmental studies course work.

“The Innu stopped that process, but then there was always scuttlebutt going on. Every politician who has come into power out in Newfoundland, at the Confederation Building, has always talked about doing the Lower Churchill Project,” she said.

“And when Danny Williams finally said, ‘We're doing it,' we said, ‘Oh no. Now we really have to get involved.' And that's when we did.”

The local Grand Riverkeeper worked to raise awareness of what they viewed as environmental and cultural impacts poorly understood by the provincial population at large. They tried to halt the build at Muskrat Falls based on the points made — through the joint provincial-federal environmental review and limited review at the Public Utilities Board.

Her group received financial support as an intervener for the environmental review, but was still unsure of how to fully review and respond to the thousands of pages of documentation and expert opinions. They managed, but they didn't achieve what they were hoping to. The project continued forward.

Benefiel said in a late summer interview that while at that point she believed construction could and should stop, there are three things required: completion of an independent review of methylmercury by a third party everyone can agree to as independent; a similarly independent review of the North Spur; and a forensic audit with the formal inquiry into the project's sanctioning and development.

Since we spoke, she has been on a U.S. tour — to Vermont, New Hampshire, New York — calling for a rejection of Newfoundland and Labrador hydro by the southern markets in a campaign with the tag line: “Mega Dams = Mega Damage.”

She's not alone.



“I was coerced,” says Jim Learning with a laugh, after coming down over the stairs to see what Benefiel has in the pot.

Jim Learning at home.
Jim Learning at home.

“I watched people like Eldred and Roberta and people they brought into the Grand Riverkeeper and brought in to fight this thing during the Joint Review Panel hearings. I kept thinking well, this makes a lot of sense. They're pushing back in a systemic way. For that reason, it's time for me to step up or go away from this,” he says.

One of the more famous faces for anyone following the dispute over the Muskrat Falls development, Learning has been imprisoned for his actions in protest of the project.

He believes the Newfoundland and Labrador government isn't concerned the way they should be for the well-being and peace of mind of people in the area.

“That's why I got involved. Mostly because the Newfoundland government is wrong, always wrong in everything they did, and I said is going to be wrong again. Can't help but point that out,” he says.


Ready for change

At the new NunatuKavut building in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, president Todd Russell isn't about to gloss over his past encounters with Nalcor Energy and the provincial government on Muskrat Falls.

“There's been so many mistakes made,” he says, in an office with mementoes from a community of supporters.

But Russell has gone from face down on the pavement — RCMP officers placing him under arrest, an event he placed at the feet of the province and the project's proponent — to now promoting a new relationship with all concerned.

There has been a new community development agreement between Nalcor Energy and the NunatuKavut Community Council, a deal he was still just hoping for when he sat down with The Telegram, but his new position didn't start with the deal.

It has come about through steps forward — victory in the courts to alter the injunction he was arrested under, a landmark meeting between Indigenous leaders and the provincial government in October 2016 in response to the site occupation, the creation of the independent expert advisory committee to examine methylmercury.

“It is, in my view, a ground-breaking type of approach,” he said of the committee, confident it will ultimately help to provide assurances for the people who aren't in a position to trust the corporation.

He sees room for more to be done to address North Spur concerns. And NunatuKavut continues to pursue a land claim with the federal government.

But it's a start.

“We have to find ways of connecting,” he said.

“It's very unfortunate this approach wasn't undertaken years ago.”

Read the entire series here

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