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'We were lied to': Muskrat Falls hunger striker confronts justice minister

Billy Gauthier confronted Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons outside the Labrador Justice summit Monday and did not hold back.

Gauthier says government lied about promised remediation measures at Muskrat Falls

Billy Gauthier confronts Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons outside the Labrador Justice Summit Monday. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

It's been one year since Billy Gauthier ended his hunger strike in protest of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, but he is still dissatisfied with what he views as government inaction.

Gauthier, who was instrumental in bringing Muskrat Falls protests to a fever pitch last year, confronted Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons during the Labrador Justice Summit on Monday.

The minister had come out of Hotel North 2 to speak with a small gathering of members of the Labrador Land Protectors group.

"The only reason why we started eating again was because we were told that the scientific studies that need to be done, that have to be done, will be done," Gauthier told Parsons. 

He called off his hunger strike on the promise government would look into methylmercury, but says so far, he's heard nothing 1:46

"We were told that we didn't have to worry about it anymore. Isn't that unjust?"

Nalcor did begin to lower water levels at the Muskrat Falls reservoir in June, an action it agreed to at the height of last year's protest, but it was never lowered beneath 20.3 metres because of fears of riverbank erosion

Gauthier echoed a concern from the Nunatsiavut government that the provincial government and Nalcor are not holding up its end of the bargain when it comes to methylmercury mitigation in the Muskrat Falls reservoir.

"We were lied to by our provincial government and we had our backs turned on us by our own federal government," Gauthier said.

Inuk artist Billy Gauthier is on a hunger strike until NALCOR clears all vegetation from an area to be flooded for a reservoir for the Muskrat Falls project. 2:40

The provincial government did assemble an independent expert advisory committee, with representation from all three Indigenous groups, all levels of government and Nalcor, but Gauthier doesn't like the direction it's been going in either.

"We were also told this independent expert advisory committee was going to oversee the project [and] not just give recommendations," Gauthier said. "Now I find out from actually a member of the committee that they can actually only give recommendations."

Nalcor did lower water levels at Muskrat Falls this year, but not as much as Indigenous leaders had hoped for. (Nalcor)

Parsons told Gauthier he was not part of the talks that led to the agreement between the Indigenous groups and the provincial government last year but that he would take his concerns back to St. John's.

"You at least deserve that," Parsons told Gauthier. "I know what you went through."

Protesters in court

The justice summit was taking place at the same time more than 30 people involved in protests at the Muskrat Falls work site were scheduled for an appearance at Supreme Court.

"Minister Parsons, with your signature, hundreds of RCMP officers have come to Labrador to defend your government's project on our land," Denise Cole read from a prepared statement to the minister.

More than 30 people were making an appearance in Supreme Court facing contempt charges connected with protests at the Muskrat Falls site while the Labrador Justice Summit was taking place. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Cole was referring to an extra presence of police at the site during protests last year. Hundreds of officers were also brought to Labrador this summer to help facilitate the move of some heavy transformers from Cartwright to the project site.

"I don't direct police in any way shape or form in operations," Parsons told the group.

"I respond to a request that they make based on their experience and based on their expertise ... When it comes to the letter that I did sign, it was based on a request that [said], 'Look, we need a greater presence here because we fear for the safety of people.'"

Gauthier launched his hunger strike on Oct. 13, 2016, and did not eat for 13 days.

It came to an end after Indigenous leaders met with Premier Dwight Ball for 11 hours on Oct. 25 and came to an agreement that led to the advisory committee, among other concessions.