Hunger strike enters Day 5

Derek Montague
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Métis elder says starving to death is a possibility

Jim Learning is arrested during last Friday’s Muskrat Falls protest on the Trans-Labrador Highway. — Photo by Derek Montague/The Labradorian

Jim Learning is on the fifth day of his hunger strike in the Labrador Correctional Centre (LCC) in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

The 74-year-old Labrador Métis elder was arrested Friday morning, along with seven others, while protesting the Muskrat Falls project.

The demonstrators, led by NunatuKavut President Todd Russell, were blocking traffic headed to the Muskrat Falls worksite on the Trans-Labrador Highway.

They were arrested after refusing a police order to move aside and allow the traffic to proceed.

Learning hopes his hunger strike will draw more attention to the cause, and force Nalcor and the provincial government to negotiate with the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) in regards to the Lower Churchill development.

“(My goal is) to get my group, the NCC, NunatuKavut, Inuit Métis … whatever you want to call us, to Nalcor’s table so we can have some say in the Muskrat Falls decision,” Learning says.

The NCC has claimed the government has not fulfilled its obligation to consult with the Labrador Métis prior to starting the Muskrat Falls development.

“It is a stupid, mixed-up system. We’re under the Newfoundland government,” says Learning. “Nothing could be more confusing. Nothing could be more erratic. Nothing can be more wrong than the way they do things. Every time the Newfoundland government decides to do something, it backfires; whether it’s to balance a budget or develop a project.”

Seven of the eight protesters were released the same day of their arrest. But Learning was remanded to the LCC when he refused to sign the conditions of his release.

Learning faces charges from a prior Muskrat Falls demonstration. Back in December,  he and two others were arrested crossing through the gate into the Muskrat Falls worksite. Learning signed the conditions after that arrest but, violated them when he was involved in Friday’s demonstration. He says he feels guilty about breaking the promise he signed.

“They gave me an undertaking to sign, which I could have signed and walked away. But I did that the first time I was arrested … as long as I signed that, I was saying I wasn’t getting involved and I would behave myself. But I didn’t behave myself. That’s still with me, that I broke my promise.”

Learning says he’s due back in court on April 12. It’s not clear whether Learning will be released following that appearance.

Learning isn’t sure when, or if, he will end his hunger strike. But he is almost certain that it will continue as long as he is incarcerated. He said it is possible he will starve himself to death.

“If I don’t get out, that’s a possibility,” says Learning. “Yeah, I fear death, of course, but there’s a point where you get so old and so sick it doesn’t matter any more.”

Learning had breakfast Friday morning after his arrest, but hasn’t eaten solid food since. His diet has consisted of water and juice.

“The doctor suggested that I go to a multi-vitamin, so I might consider that,” says Learning.

Learning may feel strong in his convictions about the Muskrat Falls project, but he is feeling conflicting emotions over the hunger strike. He is aware of the concern that friends and family have for his health, and he doesn’t like people worrying.

“(Todd Russell) asked me to stop,” says Learning. “That’s a little stressful.”

Learning says that he is segregated from the rest of the prison population. He spends all of his time in a cell where he sleeps, drinks his beverages, or reads a book. He is allowed just two visitors a week. Despite his restrictions, Learning understands why he was placed in segregation.

“I have to be watched because I’m on hunger strike,” says Learning. “I understand where they’re coming from. I would do the same myself if someone came in who wasn’t behaving normally.”

Learning claims that since his incarceration, he’s only left his cell once to watch TV for an hour. Before returning to his cell, he had to be strip searched.

“They didn’t tell me that was going to happen, but I don’t blame them. They’re workers, they’re not trained in psychology. I wasn’t really upset, because that’s their policy, it’s no big deal.”

Learning says there is a light on in his cell 24/7, which gets dimmed but is never completely off. But, overall, Learning thinks the correctional officers at the prison have treated him very well.

“I have to say (the staff) are really phenomenal,” says Learning. “They’re concerned that, if anything happens to me, they’re going to be the last lines of defence and they’re the ones who will be blamed. I get that, but the blame is not on them. The blame is on the politicians.”

Despite not eating for several days, Learning seemed to be in good spirits, and claimed his appetite has not tormented him.

“It’s amazing. I feel good, I really feel good,” says Learning. “Food isn’t tempting me in here, not in the least.”

Learning says he might sign another undertaking if it’s presented to him. But if he signs, he claims he will not break the conditions anymore.

“There is an avenue opening up to me now that’s giving me a better opportunity to fight this from a different direction,” says Learning. “That will be advocating to get people involved in the fight.”


The Labradorian




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Recent comments

  • drew
    April 10, 2013 - 14:10

    Here's a quarter Learning, call someone who cares.

  • david
    April 10, 2013 - 13:05

    What's with all these hunger strikes? I say hold your know, like whiny children do. Exactly like it.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    April 10, 2013 - 11:39

    Calvin, as I understand it, the Supreme Court of Canada recently made a significant ruling in favour of the country's Metis. And while Muskrat Falls is within the land claims area of Nunatukavut, the Province of NL has not reached an agreement with Nunatukvut on its land claim..... Would you put billions of dollars into a project whose footprint covers a land area whose ownership is in dispute (and where a recent Supreme Court ruling has strengthened the position of the aboriginal group whose land claim area includes Muskrat Falls)?.......... Times have changed. Being the principal beneficiary of resources on and adjacent to your province, land area (and even our offshore area) is what we ourselves expect from our government (both provincial and federal), and the same right, expectation and entitlement is critical to the economic, social and cultural sustainability and growth of the people adjacent to the resource. Let's not not repeat the errors of our own ancestors. It is time (well past time) for an attitude adjustment.

  • carogers
    April 10, 2013 - 11:15

    Hey Herry, apparently YOU, you cared enough to state you find the subject boring. So why bother to read the article or comment? Unless you have something to contribute don't bother. Canadians have a democratic right to peaceful protest protected by the Charter.

  • coco
    April 10, 2013 - 09:23

    Hey Calvin, maybe you need to educate yourself a bit more on land rights and Muskrat Falls. The Minister of Justice has a background at the School Board. I don't believe any person can have their liberties removed from them without due open process of the law so I would probably sign the paper if I were in Mr. Learning's shoes. It's just a piece of paper and his family and supporters would probably rather he be with them than interned without trial.

    • Jay
      April 10, 2013 - 10:46

      The Nunatukavut Community Council is not recognized by the Federal Government as a legitimate aboriginal group with a legitimate land claim. Their leader, Todd Russell, certainly didn't accomplish anything for them when he was their Member of Parliament. Now he's trying to create a red herring to cash in on the project, which despite our dislike, is going ahead. This whole protest is only about getting money from the developers. Yvonne Jones was pragmatic enough to see the economic benefit for Labradorians, Russell is just trying to raise the ante.

  • Calvin
    April 10, 2013 - 08:20

    And what just cause would that be Maurice? All the NunatuKavut are trying to do is cash in here, nothing more. Nalcor has already settled with the rightful, legal land owners. Why should they also settle with another group who holds no legal rights to the land? We all know you are opposed to the Muskrat Falls project, time to get over it.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    April 10, 2013 - 07:33

    Stay well Mr. Learning, follow that avenue that is now opening up for you, and continue advocating for what you know to be a just cause.

  • Herry
    April 10, 2013 - 07:27

    who cares. yawn !

  • C
    April 10, 2013 - 07:23

    Honestly, starving, such an extreme measure?? To prove what exactly? Do you think it will make a difference?....Maybe all the people whose livelihoods have been affected by the Goverment cuts, layoffs, etc should starve. Is that the way to solve the ongoing issues? Right now no one agrees with any decisions in our province!