A 74-year old Inuit elder has ended a hunger strike and been released from jail after being arrested along with seven others protesting the controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam on the Churchill River in Labrador.
But another of the arrestees says the protesters, who have been fighting for decades to gain full national recognition as Inuit descendants in Canada's easternmost province, are undaunted.
“We've been pushed around for generations,” said Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut Community Council (formerly the Labrador Métis Association), who was taken into custody along with Elder James Learning for blocking roads to protest the controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. “We will defend ourselves in the court system, but we will continue to assert our aboriginal rights to our traditional territory, and we will continue to mount protest after protest if that's what it takes to have our views known and our rights respected.”
At issue is the Muskrat Falls power project, a $7.7-billion plan to build a hydroelectric power station and a new dam on the Churchill River. The project would also see massive transmission lines installed to supply power to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
Several months after a judge issued an unusual permanent injunction against disruption of dam construction, members of the community blocked the Trans-Labrador Highway on April 5 in protest over what they see as being shut out of any negotiating processes, the community council said.
“It's the area where we hunt, where we fish, where we have built homes, where our people have trapped,” said Russell, a former Liberal Member of Parliament. “There are areas of a sacred, and very special, nature there. The government will not recognize that there are overlapping and conflicting interests with this hydroelectric development.”
During his arrest Russell was dragged by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) after he lay down alongside the other protesters, all arrested on obstruction charges. Though seven were released on bail the same day, Learning refused to sign a written promise to stay off the land on the grounds that doing so would extinguish his aboriginal title and rights to his people's traditional territories.
Learning's family released a statement expressing concerns over his incarceration, not only because he has been on a hunger strike since his arrest on April 5 but also because the Inuit elder has prostate cancer that has spread to his bones. Learning was imprisoned at Labrador Correctional Centre, in Goose Bay. He was released on April 9.
“It is tragic that our father has had to risk death through hunger to protest the destruction of his homeland and culture, of NCC territory and culture,” said Learning's daughter, Carren Dujela, in a statement before his release. “How do you tell your children their grandfather is in jail and on a hunger strike? With tears in your eyes and pride in your heart!”
The community council has been locked in a battle for government recognition for years. Also known as Inuit-Métis or Labrador Métis, the community traces its lineage to Inuit people living along the Atlantic coast in Labrador who signed a treaty with Europeans in 1765. When research revealed in 2006 that the Labrador Métis, though mixed blood, are direct descendants of the Inuit, the Labrador Métis Association renamed itself the NunatuKavut Community Council, meaning “our ancient land.”
Now, the community council wants the government to enter talks over development on lands claimed as traditional territories. In Canada, though the courts have not granted Indigenous Peoples a veto over industrial projects, they have generally upheld the right to be consulted and accommodated. But the country is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which guarantees aboriginal communities the right to “free, prior and informed consent” over development on their land.
“You can't keep putting our people in jail, or keep arresting our people, or forcing our people to go on hunger strikes to have our rights recognized,” Russell added. “We know, and the government knows, that all of these things end in negotiations. It's about time the government realized it's better to do that now than put our people through these terrible experiences of being incarcerated.”