Nfld. & Labrador

'A year lost': Muskrat Falls opponents reflect on a year of protest

This time last year, roughly two dozen protesters were walking onto the North Spur demanding answers about it’s stability and voicing concern about methylmercury in the Churchill River.

Labrador residents organize Tuesday night walk to mark anniversary of when protests ramped up

Protesters walked from the Friendship Centre to the Birch Island lookout in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Tuesday evening. (Katie Breen/CBC)

A year after Labrador residents began ramping up their protests against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, some fear they have lost ground. 

So, there were mixed feelings during a walk Tuesday night in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to mark the anniversary of when protests escalated in October 2016.

That's when roughly two dozen protesters walked onto the North Spur, the area which will support the weight of the Muskrat Falls reservoir, demanding answers about its stability.

Their other big concern — how flooding the reservoir would increase methylmercury levels in fish and game eaten by people living near the Churchill River.

Within three weeks, hundreds were on side. Some broke into the main Muskrat Falls site, stopping construction, moving into workers' quarters.

There were two court injunctions and nine arrests. Three Muskrat Falls opponents went on a hunger strike.

Kirk Lethbridge led people onto the North Spur a year ago and organized a walk in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Tuesday evening to mark the anniversary. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"Last year the settlers and the natives all started to walk together," said Kirk Lethbridge, who helped lead people onto the North Spur a year ago and organized Tuesday's anniversary walk.

"We had never really done anything like that before," he said.

"As we walked the movement grew and became stronger and it became something that seemed to inspire people around the world and in Labrador."

A year behind

Protests ended when Indigenous leaders made a deal with the premier promising the creation of an independent expert advisory committee and possible methylmercury mitigation measures including emptying the reservoir to facilitate the clearing of some vegetation.

Debbie Michelin is from Birch Island but now lives in New Brunswick. She joined other walkers on Tuesday. (Katie Breen/CBC)

It was announced in mid-September that water levels in the reservoir would not be lowered to promised levels because of the potential for slope erosion.

"When the leaders went in there to talk about negotiating some kind of agreement and came out and told everybody to go home, thinking that they had our best interests at heart, everybody went home," said Debbie Michelin as she walked alongside two dozen others Tuesday night.

"The fact of the matter is they didn't have our best interests at heart. And now we're a year behind the eight-ball because a year has been lost."

A year has been lost.- Debbie Michelin

Michelin is not sure whether the momentum can be built back up again to where it was, but she isn't giving up.

"I want to be one of those people at the end of the day that they can say, 'You know what? She did. She stood up,'" Michelin said.

"And yeah, it mightn't save the river and it might never be stopped but I can tell you I'll never give in."