Muskrat Falls: An opportunity for respect and reconciliation

This week’s writers are Dianne and Marty Climenhage, MCC representatives in Labrador.

June 27, 2016 was an historic day in Labrador. It marked the first time that all three Indigenous groups–Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut Government representing Northern Inuit and NunatuKavut Government representing Southern Inuit–stood together publicly and asked for a halt to Nalcor Corporation’s Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Project (Muskrat Falls).

It has been our privilege, as MCC workers in Labrador, to stand with Indigenous partners in their call for respect for their land and their lives.

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Sign at the blockade. MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage

Since 2011, “land protectors” have been warning the public about the potential risks of moving forward with a project of this magnitude. In 2013, the project began with an estimated price tag of $6.2 billion and was expected to go online in 2017. Due to delays, miscalculations and changes in management, the project is now not expected to go online before 2019 and with an estimated total cost of $11.4 billion in an already financially unstable province.

Prior to the start of the project, only one of the three Indigenous groups in Labrador were consulted. The Innu Nation signed an Impact Benefit Agreement, allowing construction with conditions. NunatuKavut and Nunatsiavut were not given the opportunity for involvement on decisions that directly affect their traditional territories.

There are two issues that the Indigenous leaders are calling on Nalcor and the government to consider before moving forward with initial flooding of the reservoir.  First, the rise in methyl mercury levels in the Churchill River system has been reported by Nalcor to increase to the point where consumption warnings are put in place for a minimum of 15 years.  An estimated 2,000 Indigenous people rely on the Churchill River system for their food supply. Fishing and hunting are not only traditional ways of life that must be protected, they can mean the difference between life and death in Labrador. An independent study by Harvard University indicates that if organic material is not removed, methyl mercury levels could increase anywhere from 25%-200% downstream, depending on conditions in the river. This would have devastating results, poisoning the food chain for generations in food insecure northern communities.

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Muskrat Falls will disappear when the flooding begins. MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage

The second concern is the North Spur. This is a natural barrier that will be used as a wall for the reservoir. The North Spur is made up of layers of sand and marine clay, also known as quick clay. Nalcor has used stabilization methods to reinforce the spur, but there is no precedent for building on marine clay. It is, “moving and alive” according to dam safety expert Jim Gordon. Experts from Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and Sweden have all cautioned there is a high likelihood of a North Spur breech and collapse.  This would have devastating effects for communities downstream: lower Happy Valley and Mud Lake.  Mud Lake is an island community in the Churchill River with the only access being boat or skidoo, which would not allow enough time for evacuation according to Nalcor’s emergency timeline.

The provincial government has issued permits to Nalcor allowing initial flooding, up to 25% of the reservoir, to begin any time after October 15, 2016. On that day, protesters from Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut and settlers all descended on the main gate of the Muskrat Falls Project in a desperate attempt to halt the flooding of the reservoir until organic matter is cleared. They successfully blocked workers from entering the site over the weekend and on Monday, October 17, nine protesters were arrested for defying a Nalcor court injunction. There are currently 4 people on hunger strikes from Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut. Three of them–Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister–traveled to Ottawa to take part in a rally at the Human Rights Monument on Sunday. On Monday they planned meetings with Amnesty International representatives, Indigenous and government officials.

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Brooklyn Woolfrey Allen drumming for Elders at the blockade.  Photo courtesy Jenny Gear

The number of land protectors has increased on site, communities across the country have held solidarity rallies, and Amnesty International and Idle No More have issued statements, all asking the Federal Government to step in and use this case as an example of how they will implement United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and work toward true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

In May 2016, Canada officially adopted UNDRIP. The federal government announced “unqualified support” of the document that ensures Indigenous rights are considered in every decision they make. True Nation to Nation relationships can only be built if the federal government follows through on what it promised.  Now is its chance.

Shirley Flowers, a member of Nunatsiavut and a partner of MCC, has been holding an almost daily vigil, at times alone, at the Muskrat Falls gate since June of this year.  She sees the risks to her own way of life and the consequences of non-action for her children, grandchildren and generations that follow. Shirley says, “If the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are not respected and followed, then the whole process is tokenism.”

Just as this blog post was prepared for publication, Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Government came to an agreement with all three Indigenous Governments and a plan for moving forward together. Though concerns regarding methyl mercury and the North Spur remain, UNDRIP has been considered in the agreement, and Indigenous leadership and knowledge with be part of the process.

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