The phones at the Happy Valley-Goose Bay office of the NunatuKavut Community Council did not stop ringing when The Telegram visited this past month to talk about the Lower Churchill development.
A receptionist spoke to post-secondary students and their parents about the limits on funding for school this semester. In an office tucked halfway down the hall, a more heated call focused on federal funding cuts to aboriginal health programs and what it will mean for diabetes prevention and management projects.
Todd Russell’s office is at the back of the building. The leader of the NunatuKavut Community Council, Russell is tasked with protecting the rights of the descendants of the Inuit of southern Labrador. The community has claimed, in court filings, about 6,000 members.
Sitting with The Telegram, he said a top priority, in addition to moving forward with a NunatuKavut land claim, has been dealing with the Lower Churchill development.
“I’m absolutely against this project,” he said, adding he sees no benefit for the Inuit-Métis people living in the area.
He said the provincial government has refused to consider any “accommodations to the asserted rights or interests” of the people of NunatuKavut.
“They have only seen fit to include when it suits their purpose, or when they are faced with criticism, and I think that that approach has resulted in problems for this particular project,” he said.
“I’m prepared to look at every legal option that is available to us. I’m prepared to call our people in to reassert our presence on traditional lands, and that means in the vicinity of Muskrat Falls where we have historically had a presence and continue to have a presence. … But I’m also prepared — and I’ve offered — I’m prepared to sit at a table. I’m prepared to sit down and talk.”
He called for a formal process to allow for meaningful consultation.
Objections and responses
“Socially, with major developments like this, many times the local population, particularly aboriginal people, gets shunted to the side,” Russell said.
He pointed to locations such as Mud Lake, North West River and communities further out on the Labrador coast, all including people of NunatuKavut, saying the areas will not be served by the multibillion-dollar Muskrat Falls power project under current startup plans, but will have to deal with any environmental effects.
A joint federal-provincial environmental review panel found the dam at Muskrat Falls, if developed as proposed, would have no significant effects.
“The joint review panel also concluded that many land and resource use locations reported to be frequented by NunatuKavut Community Council members are outside of the project area, and would remain unaffected and accessible by (NunatuKavut) members,” stated Nalcor Energy vice-president Gilbert Bennett, a leader on the project, in an emailed response to questions based on Russell’s comments.
Bennett stated Nalcor staff are “confounded” by the leader’s claims there was a lack of proper consultation.
Staff with the provincial Department of Natural Resources stated the NunatuKavut council has received funding from both the government and the Crown corporation to participate in the environmental reviews.
The NunatuKavut leadership has also been consulted on permits issued in relation to dam construction at Muskrat Falls, and provided all documentation on the proposed Lower Churchill work, stated an email response to questions.
“The consultation on the (hydroelectric) generation project was challenged by the NunatuKavut Community Council in court but upheld,” the statement adds.
Russell acknowledges receiving funding for the environmental reviews, but said he views the money as something provided so the province and the Crown corporation might “trump it up” later as evidence of acting in good faith.
The New Dawn agreement, signed in November 2011 with the Innu Nation, provided redress for the Upper Churchill project and benefit terms for the Lower Churchill project and paved the way for the development of Muskrat Falls in the eyes of the Innu leadership.
The Inuit-Métis of NunatuKavut were not party to a similar agreement.
That said, the Innu Nation has an accepted land claim overlapping the project area, while the NunatuKavut Community Council’s asserted land claim has yet to be accepted by the federal and provincial governments.
According to the provincial government, the people represented by the NunatuKavut council will be able to benefit from the Labrador Aboriginal Training Partnership and from both Nalcor’s diversity plan and Labrador-first hiring policy for the development.