Five Canadian senators are calling for the release of three people who were jailed earlier this month after refusing to promise not to protest at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project site in Labrador.
In an open letter to Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball, the senators — Wanda Thomas Bernard, Lillian Dyck, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, Murray Sinclair and Kim Pate — also support the protesters' demand for a full forensic audit of the project.
Marjorie Flowers, Jim Learning and Eldred Davis were taken into custody July 21 and jailed at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's after refusing to obey a court injunction ordering them not to interfere at Muskrat Falls.
The letter from the senators says the protesters — who refer to themselves as Land Protectors — refused a Supreme Court order to stay away from the site because their concerns about the impact of the hydro project on the way of life and well-being of the Labrador Innu and Inuit peoples.
"We are shocked and disappointed that the province's response to these concerns, and the flaws in the consultation process, has been to jail those who raise them," the letter read.
'It's totally inappropriate to leave this to the courts, we need political leadership.' - Senator Kim Pate
The senators went on to call the decision to imprison the protestors "particularly abhorrent" given the history of colonial treatment of Indigenous people in Canada, and the fact that the province has commitment to supporting the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation process.
"We call on the province to release these three Land Protectors and to create effective spaces for them to address their concerns, in particular their demands for an immediate forensic audit of all aspects of the Muskrat Falls project," they wrote.
Need for political leadership
In an interview on CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show, Pate said they wrote the letter out of frustration that the provincial government hasn't done enough to stop the situation from escalating to the point where people are being jailed for protesting.
She also doesn't buy the explanation from Justice Minister Andrew Parsons that he shouldn't interfere with the court's decision.
"It's totally inappropriate to leave this to the courts. We need political leadership," she said.
She said she and the other four senators feel that the protestors, as well as the people of the province, have legitimate concerns about the adequacy of consultations regarding Muskrat Falls. She said they don't blame the court for enforcing the injunction, which is why their letter is aimed at the premier.
Given that Ball himself spoke out against the project in 2012, Pate said, the provincial government should do more to prevent protestors from being jailed.
"Every person, not just the Land Protectors, should be concerned about how the situation arose that you have the provincial government supporting something where the environmental, human, social and financial costs are increasing astronomically," she said.
Read the senators' full letter to Premier Ball below:
We write to join the outpouring of support for Labrador Land Protectors James Learning, Eldred Davis and Marjorie Flowers, and to call for their immediate release from Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's Newfoundland.
The refusal of these three Land Protectors to undertake to stay away from the Indigenous land on which the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project is being developed was motivated by their ongoing concerns about the impact of the project on their traditional lands and on the way of life and well-being of Labrador Innu and Inuit Peoples. These concerns have been raised again and again by Indigenous Peoples who have found their voices ignored and their concerns left unaddressed by the Muskrat Falls consultations that were supposed to protect their constitutional rights under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, rights echoed in article 32.1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which the federal government has recently reaffirmed its commitment to adopting.
Once again, we are shocked and disappointed that the province's response to these concerns, and the flaws in the consultation process, has been to jail those who raise them. Like Beatrice Hunter a few weeks earlier, Ms Flowers has been incarcerated in a men's prison and all three Land Protectors have been moved 800 kilometres away from their homes, families, communities and support systems in order to be jailed. We are appalled that this has been allowed to happen again.
Our country is struggling with a colonial legacy that continues to disproportionately marginalize, criminalize and deprive Indigenous Peoples of political agency. This context makes decisions to imprison Indigenous men and women for using protest to assert their right to determine how their traditional lands are used particularly abhorrent. Their incarceration flies in the face of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, which the province has committed to supporting, and the duty of our country as a whole to work toward a nation-to-nation relationship, grounded in respect, between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.
We call on the province to release these three Land Protectors and to create effective spaces for them to address their concerns, in particular their demands for an immediate forensic audit of all aspects of the Muskrat Falls project. We call on the province to do its part to uphold the Indigenous and constitutional rights of the Labrador Innu and Inuit Peoples by ensuring that protest, with a risk of criminalization, is not the only means available to Indigenous Peoples to make their voices heard in decisions regarding their lands.