Thursday, November 23, 2017
As Justin Trudeau apologizes on November 24 for one instance of cultural genocide in Labrador, his government risks a similar act of genocide with a hydro megaproject at Muskrat Falls
(From far left, hunger strikers Delilah Saunders, Jerry Kohlmeister and Billy Gauthier, along with Mitzi Wall, brought their Muskrat Falls message to Ottawa in October 2016
By Matthew Behrens
Residential school survivor Marjorie Flowers has mixed feelings about the November 24 visit of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who will be saying sorry to Labrador residents left out of Stephen Harper’s 2008 Parliamentary apology.
Flowers, who lived at the North West River school during the 1970s, views the apology through the lens of ten days she spent last summer in maximum security lockup at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s for trying to stop the massive Muskrat Falls hydro project. The controversial $12.7 billion dam initiative, begun in 2013, has received successive blessings from Harper and Trudeau ($9.2 billion in federal loan guarantees) despite growing evidence that negative impacts on Labrador’s Indigenous population could well finish off the residential schools’ original mission of cultural genocide.
“I have been deeply scarred by the intergenerational trauma that affected my family with residential schools,” Flowers says from her home in Goose Bay, Labrador. “I feel it every day. I won't discredit the value in an apology, but I’m puzzled at how the same government is perpetrating a disaster against the environment and our culture. This Muskrat Falls project is putting our lives in peril. There is a huge contradiction.”
Lesser known than its west coast megaproject cousin – B.C.’s Site C dam, currently the focus of a rethink by the recently elected NDP coalition government – Muskrat Falls is rapidly crystallizing as an issue that belies federal Liberal campaign promises on the environment, science-based decision-making, transparency, press freedom, and respectful nation-to-nations relationships.
Indeed, the Labrador Land Protectors, a grassroots coalition of downstream Indigenous people and settlers, have led years of peaceful actions demanding that all parties at Muskrat Falls engage in a fulsome consultation to receive free, prior and informed consent, as mandated by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). While the Liberals have pledged to respect UNDRIP, those on the ground in Labrador are more likely to face a pair of handcuffs and a prison sentence when they show up at the Muskrat Falls gates demanding accountability. Even two media representatives were charged in the course of covering the issue.
David Vardy, an economist who once worked as Secretary to the Newfoundland and Labrador Cabinet and served as chair of the provincial public utilities board, recently submitted a detailed, 50-page brief warning the BC Utilities Commission of the dangerous lessons being learned in Labrador. Vardy calls the Muskrat Falls project a huge mistake that “has spiraled into a major economic and environmental catastrophe,” adding the “risks of operating the project may be just as daunting as those of building it,” while the projected doubling of hydro rates for residential customers could provoke an exodus from the province.
Even Stan Marshall, CEO of Nalcor, the provincial energy firm behind Muskrat Falls, labeled the project a “boondoggle” and famously declared it “should never have been built.”
A key factor motivating opposition to the project is the threat of neurotoxin methylmercury poisoning the traditional food web relied on by Indigenous people. The future at Muskrat Falls, many fear, could well look like the present in Grassy Narrows, the northern Ontario Indigenous community where 90% of the population suffers the ravages of methylmercury, from numbness in fingers and toes to tremors, cardiovascular problems, endocrine disruption, neurocognitive delay, and damage to hearing, eyesight and speech.
In 2011, a joint federal-provincial panel called for “a precautionary approach particularly because no feasible adaptive management measures have been identified to reverse either long-term adverse ecological changes or mercury contamination of renewable resources.” Nalcor claimed that there would be “no measurable effect,” concluding that clearance of trees, vegetation and soil – whose decay while under reservoir water produces the neurotoxin – “would not be cost effective if carried out strictly to reduce fish mercury levels.”
Indigenous leaders did not accept Nalcor’s unsubstantiated claims, and when the provincial and federal governments greenlit the project in the absence of the comprehensive downstream impacts assessment that their own joint panel had recommended, leaders in Nunatsiavut (formed in 2005 as the first Inuit self-government body in Canada) contacted Harvard University to conduct an independent study. Their 2016 report was a bombshell, illustrating how methylmercury levels would rise dramatically above both American and (the more lax) Canadian health guidelines.
When the Harvard report was released, it ignited a round of peaceful protests that led to criminal charges, a court injunction, and a 5-day occupation of the work site that completely shut down operations. It also provoked a 13-day hunger strike by renowned Inuk sculptor Billy Gauthier, as well as Indigenous activists Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister. The uptick in public action forced the provincial government to commit to reservoir land clearance to reduce methylmercury accumulation. However, 11 months later, Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe issued a statement saying “we have been informed that the major commitment to lower water levels in the reservoir to allow for further mitigation measures will not be honoured.”
Equally vexing for those living downstream is the fear of catastrophic dam break at the North Spur, a neck of land containing quick clay, a substance that is subject to liquefaction and movement. It is not uncommon for downstream residents to go to sleep with life preservers under their bed after reading the chilling finding of the world’s leading quick clay expert, Stig Bernander, who produced a detailed report declaring “the safety and reliability of the Muskrat Falls dam have not been demonstrated.”
The growing body of science questioning Muskrat Falls has been dismissed in Ottawa. While acknowledging that Muskrat Falls “has been beset by difficulties, cost overruns, and delays…the project has been in trouble,” Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr insists that the project will continue to receive Ottawa’s support as “part of the government's strategy to make sure that we are producing non-emitting sources of electricity.”
But playing the green energy card fails to address the dangerous greenhouse gas emissions of large hydro projects like Muskrat Falls, which produce significantly greater amounts of methane than previously thought. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies methane as a global warming accelerant which, measured over a 20-year time frame, is 84 times more potent than CO2.
Carr’s insistence that Muskrat Falls is a viable green alternative infuriates Kelly Morrissey, a Nunatsiavummiuk Inuk woman who’s especially worried about family members in Rigolet, a Labrador community where methylmercury levels could skyrocket as high as 1400%.
“Do we have to have a sacrificial population in order to meet green energy targets, and if so, how do you decide who is that population?” asks Morrissey, who turned down a lucrative offer to work on the Muskrat Falls project. “You cannot put a cost on the loss of culture, of communing with each other on the land, of sharing food together as people have done since time immemorial.”
Police arrest a land protector at the gates to Muskrat Falls (Janet Cooper photo)
While Trudeau will likely stay in Labrador for less than a day, he will no doubt receive an earful from land protectors who are calling for the suspension of operations at Muskrat Falls until a properly independent, mutually agreed upon, and transparent process has been undertaken that addresses, among other issues, the requirements of UNDRIP, proper clearance of the reservoir area, the huge debt load expected to be carried by local residents, and affordable, environmentally harmonious alternatives to the Muskrat Falls project.
For Gauthier, it’s the least that can be done. “This project can't exist without causing harm,” he says. “I’m not sure it can be completely stopped, by I know they can do a lot more to protect the environment and at least keep our cultural practices alive by allowing the waters to be clean enough to harvest from.”
(an edited version of this story appears in the November 23 edition of NOW Magazine in Toronto)
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh receives a bottle of "Muskrat Falls Methylmercury Water" from Angus Andersen on November 14. Andersen asked Singh to take the message back to Ottawa, which supports the project with $9.2 billion in loan guarantees. While Singh says he feels "concerned and uncomfortable" about the project, it would appear he needs to hear from New Democrats calling on him to support calls for a suspension of construction until a proper, mutually agreed upon review subject to a number of conditions has taken place, including free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous populations directly affected.