Nfld. & Labrador

Indigenous tensions spill over as Muskrat Falls inquiry deals with translation, other issues

"My language, my life and my culture are not being respected," says Jean-Charles Piétacho over translation services being available only for French, not Innu, for his testimony.

'I would like to speak in my language. My second language, French, is not my language'

Jean-Charles Piétacho left the commission without testifying because Innu translation services were not available. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Quebec's Innu chief left the Muskrat Falls inquiry without testifying Thursday morning, levelling harsh criticism because Innu translation services were not arranged for his testimony.

"My language, my life and my culture are not being respected," Jean-Charles Piétacho said through a French translator after the dramatic incident.

"I would like to speak in my language. My second language, French, is not my language. What I'm going to say here will not come from my heart."

Inquiry commissioner Richard LeBlanc offered an apology before Piétacho left, and offered to delay the chief's testimony until Innu translation services are available.

The inquiry was paused for a brief recess and discussions happened behind closed doors, but Piétacho ultimately decided to leave. 

'Error made'

Inquiry co-counsel Barry Learmonth said attempts to arrange Innu translation services were unsuccessful, so the decision was made to use the chief's second language, French.

Inquiry commissioner Richard LeBlanc said he 'understood the position of' Piétacho, who was upset Innu translation services were not available. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

LeBlanc said there was an "error made" in not being able to arrange Innu translation.

"We understood French could be used" for Piétacho's testimony, LeBlanc said, but added, "I appreciate the position of the witness."

LeBlanc said arrangements will be made to hear his testimony, with Innu translation services.

Consultations under the microscope

The tension and confusion was part of another revealing day at the inquiry, which is trying to find out why the hydroelectric project is so far over budget and behind schedule.

The focus on Wednesday and Thursday turned to the level of consultations held with Indigenous groups in the lead-up to the sanctioning of the project, and what action was taken to address any concerns.

Testimony on the subject began Wednesday with Aubrey Gover, deputy minister for Indigenous Affairs, telling the inquiry that 10 Indigenous groups in Labrador and Quebec received "essentially the same" level of consultation, regardless of whether they had a recognized land claim or had "asserted" land rights.

Gover used the analogy of a luxury car versus an economy car, saying all groups received a "Cadillac" level of consultation.

Aubrey Gover is deputy minister of Indigenous Affairs with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

That comment from Gover drew a sharp rebuke from the president of the NunatuKavut Community Council when he testified on Thursday.

"I certainly disagree with that statement," said Todd Russell, adding that "from my observations, nine say that it was inadequate, that it wasn't appropriate, that it wasn't fair."

Some $1 million was shared among 10 Indigenous groups — three in Labrador and seven in Quebec — to help with the cost of consultations.

He said one group received as much as $500,000, while others, including NunatuKavut, received much less.

"$100,000, or whatever the amount was, was gonna go nowhere," said Russell.

No progress made, says Russell

When asked if NunatuKavut was able to make any progress during the consultation process, Russell said "I would have to say … almost 100 per cent no."

Todd Russell is president of the Nunatukavut Community Council in Labrador. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

He added: "When you look back and you can hardly point to one mitigation measure, one accommodation measure … it's remarkable really, isn't it."

Russell criticized the fact that millions of dollars is being spent on a public inquiry, yet so little was funding was made available to Indigenous groups.

Meanwhile, officials from the Nunatsiavut Government also complained about the level of financial assistance to help with consultations.

But former assistant deputy minister Carl McLean said concerns were so high about the threat of methylmercury contamination in the Lake Melville area that Nunatsiavut "expended a lot of resources and time" on the issue, including commissioning studies by leading international methylmercury experts.

Carl McLean is the former minister of lands and natural resources with the Nunatsiavut Government. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

"That was and still is a huge concern to us," McLean said of methylmercury.

McLean also criticized some top Nalcor officials for their reaction to the methylmercury issue, describing it as "dismissive."

With files from Terry Roberts

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