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Dam protest escalates with arrests, hunger strike


By David P. Ball Windspeaker Contributor







Opposition to the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador continues with Innu workers shutting down the construction site alleging racism, two weeks after the arrest of eight Inuit leaders at another protest against the dam.

The latest setback for Crown Corporation Nalcor came at the end of the workday on April 18 when Innu employees blocked other staff from leaving the project claiming they had faced racial slurs from a project manager.

A company supervisor reportedly stormed off the site shouting, “Bunch of f—king Indians on the site; can’t do no f—king thing,” said Amanda Benuen, an Innu cleaning employee who told CBC News she overheard the racist comments. Within a day, the company had apologized to Innu leaders.

“Nalcor undertook an immediate investigation of the allegations,” the firm said in a statement. “As a resolution to this issue, Nalcor has removed the person from the work site. We are committed to a positive and respectful partnership with the Innu of Labrador and we look forward to moving ahead together with this important development.”

The incident came only two weeks after RCMP arrested eight Inuit who were blocking a major highway leading to the dam site on April 5, one of them an elder with cancer who launched a nearly week-long hunger strike in custody.

Jim Learning, 74, said signing his undertaking conditions barring protest would trump his Inuit treaty rights. The dam site lies on territory claimed by the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC), an Aboriginal group not recognized by the government.

“It is tragic that our father has had to risk death through hunger to protest the destruction of his homeland and culture, of NCC territory and culture,” said Learning’s daughter, Carren Dujela. “How do you tell your children their grandfather is in jail and on a hunger strike? With tears in your eyes and pride in your heart.”

But RCMP said that the protesters were uncooperative and disrupting traffic–snarling vehicles on the TransLabrador Highway for up to a kilometre, it said–and preventing workers from accessing the Muskrat Falls project. Police charged them with obstruction. Learning was eventually released from custody, but those arrested must still face their charges in court; they have vowed to continue protesting until government recognizes their claim to the land and enters negotiations.

The arrests are the latest development in a series of protests attempting to open talks with the Newfoundland and Labrador government over the $7.7 billion hydroelectric dam, which remains popular in the region, supplying power to major urban centres in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, despite the lack of consent from NCC.

“The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric development and transmission lines are in the heart of our traditional territories,” Todd Russell, NCC president, told Windspeaker. “It’s the area where we hunt, where we fish, where we have built homes, where our people have trapped.

“People have serious and very fundamental environmental concerns with the dam. It is in an area that is very close to many of our people. People have concerns about the impacts on fish and wildlife, and the fact that it will destroy our river. People are also concerned, of course, that this is being done without any regard for our Aboriginal rights. There’s laws in this country that are supposed to protect our rights, as well as those who want to move ahead with development.”

The Aboriginal group was once known as the Labrador Métis Association. But in 2006–after new scholarly research proved their long-held insistence that they were direct descendants of Inuit communities that interacted with European settlers on the Atlantic coast since at least the 17th century–the group changed its name to the NunatuKavut Community Council, fuelling its decades-old land claim over sizeable territories in the province.
NunatuKavut means “Our Ancient Land,” but the group’s territorial claim remains unrecognized by the government, which hopes to develop lucrative industrial projects in the area, such as Muskrat Falls. The community is asserting its land claim under the Labrador Inuit treaty signed in 1765, as well as Aboriginal rights based on the community’s long presence in the region, and “cultural continuity with our Inuit ancestors,” Russell said.

“We’ve always been Inuit descendants. That’s a fact that’s never changes,” Russell explained. “We’re mixed-bloods, just like many populations in Canada, the United States or around the world.

“We are the ancestors of the historical Inuit that existed along the coast of Labrador–the same blood that flowed in the veins of our ancestors is the same blood in us today. Nothing has changed in terms of the people; the people are still here, we still occupy this land... They have no regard for the Aboriginal peoples that live here.”

One prominent supporter of the Muskrat Falls project is former lieutenant-governor John Crosbie, who argues that, despite some opposition to the project, the province should advocate for it as an important revenue source.

“I don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks about it,” he told CBC. “I think this is a risk worth taking.

“Now that I’m out of the lieutenant-governorship and have the right to express my own views, I’m going to be very supportive.”

Despite the arrests, the NCC released a statement on its Web site promising it was undaunted in its opposition to the Muskrat Falls dam.

“On behalf of all the people of NCC, we thank everyone for their commitment and participation in this weekend’s protest,” the group stated. “It was a great show of solidarity, strength and determination. We should all be very proud. This fight for rights continues.”