Nfld. & Labrador

Senior bureaucrat says Indigenous groups heavily consulted on Muskrat

N.L. went to extreme lengths to consult with Indigenous groups before the sanctioning of Muskrat Falls, an official has testified.

Aubrey Gover says 10 groups, regardless off their status, received ‘essentially the same’ treatment

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

The Newfoundland and Labrador government went to extreme lengths to consult with Indigenous groups in the lead-up to sanctioning of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, says a senior bureaucrat who helped lead that effort.

"All 10 indigenous organizations, regardless of their strength of claim, got essentially the same consultation process," said Aubrey Gover, deputy minister for Indigenous Affairs.

Gover testified Wednesday at the Muskrat Falls commission of inquiry, which is trying to determine why the project has gone so wildly over budget and behind schedule.

All 10 indigenous organizations, regardless of their strength of claim, got essentially the same consultation process.- Aubrey Gover

The focus of testimony has shifted to the level of consultation with Indigenous groups, what their concerns were, and what efforts were made to address those concerns.

Concerns 'fully and fairly considered'

A federal-provincial joint panel led the environmental review, with the project released from further environmental assessment in early 2012.

Gover said consultations with Indigenous groups — three in Labrador in seven in Quebec — occurred at every step of the process.

This is a recent aerial view of the Muskrat Falls project in central Labrador. The project is more than 90 per cent complete, with first power forecasted for late 2019. (Nalcor)

He added that every concern was "fully and fairly considered," and the attitude was that "any reasonable measure which can mitigate those concerns should be taken."

He added: "I have no reason to believe that reasonable measures were not taken to address the concerns … of every group."

Innu Nation and the review panel

Gover said government was obligated to afford maximum consultation rights to groups with established land claims, such as Nunatsiavut, and the Innu Nation, which signed a tentative land claim with the province in 2008.

That duty to consult was not so onerous for groups with so-called "asserted" rights such as the Nunatukavut Community Council.

However, Gover said government went further.

"Those that deserved the highest levels of consultation received it. Those that would be deserving of a lower level of consultation, received more than they would have deserved at law. But so be it," said Gover.

Gover said the only exception was afforded to the Innu Nation, which was permitted to appoint a representative to the joint review panel, while other groups were invited to only nominate a representative.

Outside of the environmental consultations, the Innu Nation also signed an impact benefits agreement, and receives compensation for the impacts of hydro development on the Churchill River.

Gover said the provincial and federal governments also provided a total of $1 million to help Indigenous groups fund the consultation process.

Quebec Innu overlooked for jobs, says lawyer

But that assertion of fairness by Gover was challenged by lawyer David Schulze, who is representing the Quebec Innu at the inquiry.

Schulze said Innu in Quebec were not consulted until 2008, years after groups in Labrador were engaged in talks.

And in a testy series of exchanges, Schulze questioned the hiring protocols for construction jobs at Muskrat Falls.

First preference is given to members of the Innu Nation in Labrador, followed by residents of Labrador, residents of Newfoundland, and then residents of Canada.

"The actual employment opportunities is (Quebec Innu) can take a place fourth in line, even though they're closest to the project," Schulze said.

But Gover defended the hiring policy, saying the project is located in Labrador, and is being funded by ratepayers and taxpayers from the province.

It's only natural that the government of Newfoundland and Labrador would expect, argue, fight for tooth and nail, (for) the primary benefits of the project ... I'm sorry if that is not satisfactory to you, but that is that.- Aubrey Gover

"It's only natural that the government of Newfoundland and Labrador would expect, argue, fight for tooth and nail, (for) the primary benefits of the project to be delivered to the residents of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I'm sorry if that is not satisfactory to you, but that is that," Gover retorted.

Methylmercury concerns ongoing

Meanwhile, Gover said "the only issue that remains controversial" from an Indigenous standpoint at Muskrat Falls are concerns about methylmercury, with opposition coming primarily from the Nunatsiavut Government.

There are fears that the toxin will contaminate traditional food supplies in the Lake Melville area once the Muskrat Falls reservoir is flooded.

The joint review panel recommended that Nalcor remove all trees from the reservoir before flooding, but the province rejected that and allowed for a partial clearing.

But Gover questioned the action, saying "there are not a lot of mitigation measures you can take. The full clearing scenario may not have produced a significant reduction."

Nalcor has agreed to implement a methylmercury monitoring program, and compensation will also be considered should the risks increase, said Gover.

Gover said an independent expert advisory committee is also exploring mitigation measures, and is expected to release its recommendations soon.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

now