A sense of uneasiness can be felt in parts of Labrador after the arrest and jailing of two Inuit elders and an Inuit woman, the latest action taken by officials toward those who have demonstrated against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
On July 21, Jim Learning, Eldred Davis and Marjorie Flowers were taken into custody in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and flown more than 800 kilometres to St. John's, where they have been in jail for a week at Her Majesty's Penitentiary, the province's all-male prison. Mr. Learning, 79, and Mr. Davis, 66, who are both NunatuKavut elders, along with Ms. Flowers, 50, an Inuit woman of the Nunatsiavut territory in Labrador, were arrested after refusing to sign a court order preventing them from going within a kilometre of the Muskrat Falls job site. They were being made to sign the official court order after attempts to prevent them from protesting under an injunction had proved ineffective.
That injunction was requested from the courts by Nalcor, Newfoundland and Labrador's Crown-energy corporation, after a series of blockades and protests at the Muskrat Falls construction site that impeded construction in October of 2016.
"Following the occupation of the work site by protesters, the Supreme Court required [them] to appear in court and eventually some individuals had to sign undertakings to stay away from the site," said Nalcor's Karen O'Neill in a statement to The Globe and Mail.
But the injunction and now subsequent court order are being ignored by some of those who oppose the project. It's a way to protest restrictions they say government and the justice system are putting on them regarding what they believe is their ancestral land.
"We have Indigenous, downstream people who are gravely concerned about their health, their lives, their culture, and government has chosen to answer with police, court and laws while removing us from our communities," said Denise Cole, who is a part of the Labrador Land Protectors protest group. "I don't know how you could get a much clearer picture of modern-day colonization than that."
Sanctioned in 2010, the power project involves the construction of a hydroelectric dam at Muskrat Falls, a waterfall on the Lower Churchill River 25 kilometres west of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Once operational, the energy created will supply Newfoundland and Labrador, and, through the construction of the Maritime Link cable across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, will supply Nova Scotia and other provinces or New England states willing to purchase the energy.
Seven years ago, it was estimated that the cost to build the Muskrat Falls project would be about $6-billion. However, cost overruns and delays have the total price tag now approaching $12-billion. The initial plan called for Muskrat Falls to produce energy by 2016. It is now expected not be online until 2020. The project was sold as the best way to wean Newfoundland and Labrador off its oil-burning, power-generation plant in Holyrood, on the Avalon Peninsula. In the years since, the delays and cost overruns are just two controversial elements of the development that has led to political and social unrest. The project has also been dogged by accusations that successive provincial governments have not listened to the concerns of Labrador's Indigenous. This has fuelled the belief among people that their living, hunting and fishing grounds are going to be flooded by water and poisoned by methylmercury, an environmental toxin that can increase in concentration after the flooding of ecological areas.
Opposition groups would like to see the project – now more than half built – cancelled. And they're calling for more review and assessment of the dam's effects as well as for a forensic audit of Nalcor energy.
In addition to the three now jailed, the Labrador Land Protectors say 50 others are facing criminal and civil charges for demonstrating. Protesters also want all charges to be dropped and the conditions of the injunction lifted.
"The injunction is telling me that, as an Aboriginal woman, I can't protect my cultural rights around traditional foods," Ms. Flowers said outside the courthouse in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the morning before her arrest.
"Any reasonable Canadian would say to themselves, 'How is it that a person can go from protesting something on their lands to ending up incarcerated?' It is excessive, it is unreasonable and it should never happen in a country like Canada," said Todd Russell, the NunatuKavut president. He is also calling on the province's Attorney-General to order the release of the three behind bars.
But Attorney-General Andrew Parsons, who is also the province's Minister of Justice, said he doesn't have the authority to release them.
"If I started [saying] what judges should be doing in their courts, I would very quickly be called out for interfering with judicial independence," Mr. Parsons said.
When asked about an extra police presence in parts of Labrador, Mr. Parsons confirmed that he was aware that extra officers had been assigned to the area. RCMP spokeswoman Laura Hepditch said the extra officers are to help the transfer of seven 200-tonne transformers that are headed for Muskrat Falls along the highway from Cartwright to Happy Valley-Goose Bay. However, members of the Labrador Land Protectors believe the extra police have been ordered to intimidate them.
"All of a sudden in these small, rural communities, there is all of these police officers everywhere now," Ms. Cole said.
While the RCMP would not confirm how many additional officers were being assigned to the area in an effort to keep their operational efforts protected, Ms. Cole says the demonstrations that the Labrador Land Protectors engaged in have been and will continue to be peaceful and that the extra police in the area are being viewed as excessive and heavy-handed.
Meantime, Mr. Learning, Mr. Davis and Ms. Flowers will remain behind bars until their next court appearance on July 31.