Ten Muskrat Falls protesters have had their provincial court hearing postponed after it was determined that nine of the defendants had no legal counsel.
At a court hearing Monday, the case was set over until May 21 in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Eight of the 10 defendants — NunatuKavut Community Council president Todd Russell, Garfield Bessey, Dorothy Earle, Marjorie Flowers, Edwin Heard, James Holwell, James (Jim) Learning and Lloyd Pardy — face three charges stemming from a demonstration at Muskrat Falls that took place on April 5, 2013.
During the protest, Russell and about a dozen other NunatuKavut demonstrators formed a traffic blockade in the early morning, preventing workers heading to Muskrat Falls from entering the South Coast turnoff on the Trans-Labrador Highway.
Two RCMP officers arrived and told the protesters they couldn’t stop people from going into work and that the highway would have to be reopened. The officers informed Russell and his group that refusing their orders would result in charges of obstruction.
A couple of hours after the RCMP’s first warning, a half-dozen more officers arrived on the scene. They officers asked protesters one more time to step aside and let the Muskrat Falls traffic through.
Eight of the protesters, led by Russell, responded by linking arms and lying down on the road. One by one, the protesters were dragged away by police. In some cases it took four officers to carry away a single protester.
Eight of the protesters were subsequently charged with resisting or obstructing a peace officer, mischief by interfering with the use of property, and unlawfully disobeying an order of the court.
Jim Learning also has four other charges pending from two other Muskrat Falls demonstrations he participated in.
The other two men who appeared in court Monday — John Learning and Ken Mesher — face one charge each for disobeying a court order, as a result of a December 2012 incident, when the two men, along with James Learning, walked onto the Muskrat Falls worksite as a form of protest against the project.
John Learning and Mesher were not involved in the April 5 arrests on the Trans-Labrador Highway.
During the court hearing, lawyer Stacey Ryan, who is also the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area director for the Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission, told the court the protesters tried to apply to Legal Aid as a group. Ryan said the request had been denied, leaving all but Ken Mesher without legal representation.
“People have to apply individually and be assessed … individually,” said Ryan.
After the hearing was adjourned, Todd Russell expressed his frustration with the process. He believed the group would be able to get representation through Legal Aid’s Aboriginal Justice Project.
“I’m extremely disappointed. I was told by the Legal Aid Commission that, under the Aboriginal Justice Project, we would be afforded legal representation,” Russell said.
“There was a board meeting of the Legal Aid Commission on Jan. 18 and subsequent to that … they had informed us that they had denied our request.”
Russell speculated there might have been political pressure for Legal Aid not to represent them.
“We were told that we’re 99 per cent (sure) that they were going to fund us. So we’re wondering now if there’s not some politics involved,” he said.
A phone message left with the Legal Aid Commission was not returned by The Labradorian’s deadline.
Russell and the other eight protesters must now find legal counsel. Russell doesn’t know whether they can avail of lawyers retained by the NunatuKavut Community Council.
“Right now, we got to go back and assess what our options are,” Russell said.