By Derek Montague
Former Labrador MP, and current NunatuKavut president Todd Russell was arrested Friday during a protest on the Trans-Labrador Highway.
Russell and about a dozen other NunatuKavut protesters, formed a traffic blockade early Friday morning, preventing workers heading to Muskrat Falls from entering the South Coast turnoff. Out of a dozen demonstrators, eight were arrested.
Later, Russell and six of the other detained people were released and quickly rejoined protesters left at the scene.
Russell insisted he and the other arrested protesters weren’t blocking traffic and shouldn’t have been arrested.
“Traffic was going both ways this morning,” claims Russell. “The RCMP moved prematurely. I can only think that they moved with haste, because it was politically motivated. They got the orders from above.
“We’ve done nothing wrong. These were, obviously, politically motivated arrests. They’re about power and control. They’re not about justice at all.”
NunatuKavut has long been opposed to the Muskrat Falls project. It says the provincial government has not made an effort to negotiate and consult with the Labrador Métis in regards to the hydroelectric project.
““We have made every attempt to sit down with government,” said Russell, early on in the protest. “We have always indicated that we were going to take to on-the-ground-action, and this is a continuation of that commitment.”
“What you will see though, is a more sustained, and greater presence on the ground, starting today and in the course of the weeks and months to come.”
Two RCMP officers arrived on the scene and told the protesters they couldn’t stop people from going to work, and the highway would have to be reopened. The officers warned Russell and his group refusing orders would result in obstruction charges .
“The fact that you guys are out here, standing up for what you believe in, I’m fully supportive of that completely,” one RCMP officer said to Russell and the other protesters. “The problem is, that I can’t have vehicles stopped on the highway.”
Russell defended his group’s right to protest on the highway.
“When people took our land over here, no one was protecting our rights, were they?” Russell asked the officers. “We need protection of the law, too. We have aboriginal rights.”
Several hours after the RCMP’s first warning, six more officers arrived on scene, with a paddy wagon. The officers asked the protesters one more time to step aside and let the Muskrat Falls traffic through.
The protesters responded by linking arms and lying on the road. One by one, the protesters were dragged to the paddy wagon and the other RCMP vehicles. Some of the protesters went completely limp, forcing the police to carry them.
Russell was one of the protesters who refused to stand when being escorted by police. At one point his legs were dragging across the pavement, and his shirt was almost lifted over his head.
But before Russell was taken into custody, the RCMP grabbed the protester who was lying to Russell’s right. Russell kept trying to reconnect arms with the woman, prompting an officer to warn Russell that he could be charged with assault, along with obstruction.
Jim Learning ,74, was also among those arrested for obstruction. Learning already faces charges from a protest last December, where he and two Métis elders crossed the gate into the Muskrat Falls worksite.
Learning was kept in custody. According to two other protestors who were arrested, he refused to sign the conditions of his release and was sent to the Labrador Corrections Centre.
Hours after Russell and company were arrested for obstructing police officers, the crowd of protesters continued to grow on the Trans-Labrador Highway. At one point there were at least 50 people at the site.
Both young and old turned up to demonstrate. Some came from the South Coast of Labrador to wave signs and delay traffic coming to and from Muskrat Falls.
“We want to get our point across and show that everyone has rights, and stand up for what we believe in,” says Ricki-Dawn Webber, who drove from Cartwright.
The reasons for joining the protest are as various as the people themselves. Some want the Labrador Métis to be consulted and compensated in regards to the Muskrat Falls project. Some want the project stopped, citing the environmental impacts the hydro dam will have; while many chose to demonstrate their frustration over the perceived lack of Labradorian workers at Muskrat Falls.
“I’m here to support the Labrador people and try to bring this to the forefront of what’s actually going on,” said Shawn Holwell, a Labrador Métis who is part owner of Big Land Geomatics. “Once again, Labradorians are being put on the back burner and no one is doing anything, so we need to stand up for ourselves.”
Around noon, the crowd took a page from Russell’s book, and stood in front of transport trucks getting on and off the south coast turnoff. Police reminded the protesters they couldn’t block traffic on the highway while they protested. So they decided to stand in front of the trucks and walk an inch at a time. The trucks were allowed to move, but very, very, slowly.
“We have numbers now, but we didn’t have numbers this morning,” said protester John Learning about the size of the crowd blocking traffic. “They (the police) can’t touch us now.”
The police officers stood behind the crowd, urging them to keep walking.
MHA Yvonne Jones visited protesters and offered some support. “If you want to be a leader in Labrador, you need to listen to what everybody has to say,” she said. “I think that every politician wanting to represent Labrador today, they should be down here. Show some respect to people who have issues and concerns, and talk to them.”