Muskrat Falls fight shatters reconciliation hopes

PM not living up to promises, indigenous advocates say


Published on October 21, 2016

From left, Tracey Bird of Happy Valley Goose Bay stands with writers Lisa Moore, Megan Coles and Eva Crocker during a protest against the Muskrat Falls project Friday at Nalcor Energy’s offices in St. John’s.

Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

As she participated in the occupation of part of a Nalcor Energy building in St. John’s, Denise Cole talked about the stakes for aboriginal people with the Muskrat Falls project.

“Any belief or faith that we would have in this federal government for reconciliation would be shattered with them allowing this project to be rammed through,” said Cole, who identifies as southern Labrador Inuit.

“Right now, (Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau should be talking publicly about this.”

Over the past week, the issue of Muskrat Falls has reached a fever pitch as flooding of the reservoir threatens to contaminate the water in the Churchill River with methylmercury, a chemical hazardous to human health.

A Labrador artist is engaged in a hunger strike, and protesters have been blockading the Muskrat Falls worksite in Labrador. The RCMP has arrested people, enforcing a court injunction against the indigenous protesters.

Much of the anger has been directed at Nalcor Energy and the provincial government over whether full clearing of plant material and soil from the reservoir will be done as a mitigation measure to reduce methylmercury contamination.

The provincial government has attempted to compromise with increased clearing of trees from the reservoir site, but indigenous people in Labrador have said it’s not nearly enough.

Pam Palmater, chair of indigenous governance at Ryerson University and a national advocate for aboriginal issues, said that across Canada the relationship between indigenous people and the federal government is souring again.

“It’s superficial. What they want is to have some dancers open up the Olympics. They want to have an elder come and give an opening prayer at some federal announcement,” Palmater said. “But they don’t want to do any of the substantive work.”

Palmater said Trudeau has been particularly disappointing, because he talked so effusively about reconciliation and co-operation with aboriginal communities. But a year after the Liberals were elected on promises of ending former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s combative style, very little of substance has happened, Palmater said.

“He literally put that saying — ‘there’s no relationship more important to me than the one with indigenous people’ — in mandate letters of the majority of his ministers,” she said. “He mandated them all to do things differently, and nothing is being done different in Muskrat Falls.”

The Telegram requested a comment from the Prime Minister’s Office for this story, but did not receive a response by deadline.

Palmater said the battles with the government have real consequences in indigenous communities.

“Canada’s first nations have the highest suicide rate in the world. Our kids are killing themselves as young as eight years old,” she said.

“The message that Canada is sending to first nations is that we’re literally going to send in the bulldozers, the military, the RCMP every time you try to defend your aboriginal treaty rights, and this sends a message to kids that nothing is going to change, despite all these nice words.”

jmcleod@thetelegram.com

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