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.”