Editorial note: Students from Labrador going to universities in Fredericton organized a rally in solidarity with the Innu, Inuit, Métis and Labradorians defending Lake Melville from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project on Oct. 19 at St. Thomas University. Listen to organizer Jessica Lyall here. Days before, a number of people were arrested for trespassing on the property of Nalcor, the power company behind the project. The property is located on the traditional territory of the Inuit and Innu. Rally organizers honoured the resistance of Inuk artist Billy Gauthier as well as Delilah Saunders and Jeremias David Zack who had started a hunger strike days before. The project is of concern to local indigenous people because it threatens to release methylmercury into Lake Melville by flooding the river with organic matter. Some people do not want the dam at all while others want the the vegetation and soil cleared before flooding the river occurs to prevent methylmercury poisoning. Nick Whalen, MP for St. John’s East, said those who are concerned over higher levels of methylmercury exposure, can eat less fish.
My family grew up in Labrador, and many of us occupy the land that is being threatened. My family originates from Rigolet, a small inlet town off of Lake Melville. Many of us rely on the natural resources that Lake Melville provides. I was raised by my great Aunt Shirl who was forced to attend a residential school. She taught me the importance of the land, and culture. She taught me to hold onto what I believe in. She is home fighting and I am standing with her. During the fight for Muskrat Falls she watched many protesters, whom are family members and close friends of ours, get arrested. Those arrested were peacefully protesting and the arrests have not been justified. My Aunt wrote something that she has allowed me to share with you:
“Watching the arrests this morning was like something out of a nightmare. Force was used, if not physical force (and that, sure as hell, was used ) then the force of having power and the backing of government. I felt helpless as I heard screaming and crying as someone was being dragged away, she was screaming “you’re hurting me.” The feeling was so helpless that I almost became the child watching my mother cry as her children were being taken away. Or, I immediately went back to a place when I was taken away to the dorm. This is a sad day and we can’t continue to let these sad days go on.
Systemic control should not be allowed to go on when it devastates lives like this.
My throat is paining from the desperate useless screams. My Spirit will never be broken though. Or my eyes and ears will ever turn away from the miserable truths around me and I will name them. This is just to show you how those who have already been through a large pain in their lives once by having their culture ripped away are now going through this again.”
The northern communities of Labrador rely heavily on the resources that Lake Melville provides. Especially when the one store is lacking basic necessities during the harsh winters. Our northern communities typically only have one grocery store, with limited access to food. The food is costly, and this is why we rely heavily on the foods that Lake Melville offers.
My grandmother, a respected elder of the Innu community, has tremendous concerns. During the long cold winters of Labrador, she would take a group of people to attend a walk. She taught the youth and anyone else who would like to walk for months at a time. They walked across the frozen river, living solely on the natural resources of the land, by hunting, fishing and gathering. She does this to bring awareness, to keep our land healthy and clean, and to show how important the land is to the Indigenous people.
This dam will have long-lasting effects on everyone in Labrador. The clearing of all organic material in the affected flood zone area will prevent the contamination of methyl-mercury poisoning. We want clean fish, clean game, clean water, and clean gathering. It’s not much we are asking for.
In the words of Billy Gauthier, “Take away my culture and you take away me.”
Blake Sheppard-Pardy is a fourth year student at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. She is completing a major in criminology and minor in sociology and psychology. She grew up in Goose Bay, Labrador and considers Rigolet, Labrador her home.
With audio files from Asaf Rashid.