Criticism of the Muskrat Falls hydro megaproject is hitting close to home for Labrador MP Peter Penashue, the minister of intergovernmental affairs.
His mother, respected Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue, says she's heartbroken that Newfoundland and Labrador approved the $7.7-billion plan to create another dam on the Churchill River with Ottawa's backing.
A new power station would harness energy from the scenic falls surrounded by traditional hunting and trapping grounds. The energy would then be sent to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia using vast transmission lines and subsea cables.
"It's a long time — many, many months I wanted to say something," Elizabeth Penashue said Friday from the tiny Innu community of Sheshatshiu near Happy Valley-Goose Bay. "I'm very, very concerned (about) what's going to happen.
"It's not only the fish that are going to die," she said of flooding that will result from another dam on the mighty waterway the Innu people call the Mishta Shipu or Grand River.
"I don't know how many animals are going to die."
Concerned about cash influx
Penashue said she is also concerned about the influence of more cash flowing into Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, Labrador's two main Innu communities with a total population of about 3,000 people.
"What's going to happen (to) our children and our grandchildren? There's going to be more drugs. There's going to be more alcohol," she said.
Penashue has led canoe trips along the river for almost 20 years to raise environmental awareness and has held walks in protest of the Muskrat Falls project.
Still, the Innu people strongly ratified a land deal that offers compensation for flooding from the Upper Churchill dam and hydro station in the 1960s. It also includes hunting and fishing rights over a huge swath of territory, plus a share of Muskrat Falls profits.
She declined to speak about her son, who has been criticized for overspending in the last federal election. He has also denied any role in the awarding of Muskrat Falls contracts that would benefit his family members.
In an email Friday, the Labrador MP said the hydro development had "an extensive environmental assessment" by a joint federal-provincial review panel.
"Our government believes that by implementing the extensive recommendations received from the independent panel, we can mitigate environmental effects while creating significant economic opportunity for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians," he wrote.
Those benefits include income for labour and business interests worth an estimated $1.9 billion along with jobs for up to about 3,100 people, Penashue said.
The review panel found that Muskrat Falls had not been proven to be the cheapest or even necessary option for meeting provincial energy needs.
'A sense of fear and trepidation'
Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut Community Council representing the Inuit-Métis of southern Labrador, said Elizabeth Penashue's concerns about Muskrat Falls are widely shared.
"A lot of people are torn up about it," he said in an interview Friday.
"They don't feel it's right for the land, for the water, for the animals and certainly not for Labrador. So I think she's certainly symbolic of a lot of what I hear every day in my job. But not a lot of people are voicing that concern."
Russell, whose group is appealing a court injunction limiting its ability to protest near the Muskrat Falls site, said there's "a sense of fear and trepidation about speaking out."
"Some people are desperate for work and they feel like they have little alternative," he said.
Russell said his group will continue to make its presence felt on the ground as it did a week ago by slowing traffic for six hours on the Trans-Labrador Highway in support of the Idle No More native movement.
"Muskrat Falls is one part of the development and we will be attacking as well the transmission lines which wind down through the heart of our territory," he said. "We're looking at our legal options."