Muskrat Falls protesters 'fighting for land and food'

Protesters who broke through a gate and entered the Muskrat Falls work site in central Labrador Saturday night say they were proud to make their voices heard on environmental issues.

Some workers on site cheered demonstrators worried about potential contamination of their water

Toby Williams says he protested to 'keep his culture safe.' (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Protesters who broke through a gate and entered the Muskrat Falls work site in central Labrador Saturday night say they were proud to make their voices heard.

Toby Williams was one of the protesters who walked into the site of the hydroelectric project with a group of others on Saturday. He said he grew up living off the land, and still eats food that he hunts and gathers from the land. 

"I want to keep my culture safe," Williams said. 

He and others were voicing their concerns about the flooding of the reservoir as part of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.

The flooding could increase the potential for mercury contamination in traditional food sources like fish and seal downstream in Lake Melville, according to a study conducted by researchers from Harvard University.

Protesters are demanding Nalcor clear the reservoir of vegetation and topsoil before flooding begins to reduce that danger, and about 50 protesters remain on site Sunday, according to a statement released by Nalcor.

Williams said some of the workers at the site supported the protesters.

"They chanted with us almost, they were giving us thumbs up, they understood what you were there for, and they agreed with it," said Williams.

He said the protest was peaceful, with someone playing piano for those gathered inside the camp, but he was intimidated by the police presence while entering Muskrat Falls. 

"I thought I was getting arrested, but they let me through," he said. 

'We got in ... I'm proud.'

Pauline Williams says she felt it was important to join the protest at Muskrat Falls. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Toby's mother, Pauline Williams, has diabetes and left the site Saturday for medical reasons, but felt it was important to be a part of the protest.

"We're fighting for our land and our food … we got in there, we made it in there, we got in to the building, so I'm proud," she said.

Pauline Williams said she heard the cheers from workers but there was also a more negative reaction.

"Some of them cheered us on, some of them [weren't] so happy."

Ten buses arrived at the hydroelectric project late Saturday to remove workers from the site. A number of unscheduled flights have since arrived at the Goose Bay Airport, the closest air strip to the site 

Nalcor, the provincially owned company developing the project, had said flooding could begin by the end of this month.

Against road closure

Adam Pardy also attended the protest Saturday, accompanied by his daughters. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Adam Pardy attended the protest with his daughters and said it was a bit cold but he too was proud to protest. He arrived just before the road closed.

On Saturday, RCMP closed Route 510, the Trans-Labrador highway, in response to the protests.

"I think it's completely against the law, what they're doing," Pardy said. "They can't just block the road and not let people through for a peaceful protest."

The RCMP reopened Route 510 Sunday morning to traffic both north and southbound. Police also asked motorists to continue to drive with caution as some pedestrians may be near the highway. 

National protests

Demonstrations in support of the protesters on site at Muskrat Falls are also being held across Canada on Sunday.

Protests in St. John's, Ottawa and Edmonton called for the province and Nalcor to "Make Muskrat Right," advocating for further land clearing before flooding begins.  

With files from Jacob Barker