Indigenous

Fight against N.L.'s Muskrat Falls project comes to Toronto

A conversation around the events transpiring at Muskrat Falls will take place in Toronto Sunday evening, with a panel discussion and a peaceful demonstration vigil planned the following morning.

Local communities worry flooding of Muskrat Falls area will release methylmercury into water supply

An aerial view of the Muskrat Falls construction site in Labrador showing progress on the powerhouse in July. (Nalcor)

Muskrat Falls was always a place where Kelly Morrissey was able to find solace.

"There was a path you could walk down there and go and sit right on the falls. It was very beautiful, but of course that's all underwater now," Morrissey said.

Morrissey's favourite sitting place was flooded after the Innu Nation of Labrador signed an agreement with Nalcor Energy, Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial energy corporation, to develop a hydroelectric dam at the falls. The deal was sanctioned by the province in 2012.

In order to build the dam, the land surrounding the falls needed to be flooded, eventually creating a 41-square-kilometre reservoir. But despite assurances from Nalcor that the environmental impacts would be minimal, local communities were worried the flooding of the area would result in methylmercury being released into the local water supply.

Morrissey is one of the people who will be part of a panel discussion, described by organizers as "an urgent discussion on the struggle at Muskrat Falls," slated for Sunday evening in Toronto, with a peaceful demonstration vigil planned for the following morning.

The event is sponsored by the Peace and Social Action Committee of Toronto Monthly Meeting, Homes not Bombs, Toronto Action for Social Change, and the Ottawa Muskrat Solidarity Committee.

Competing studies

An overview of the Muskrat Falls generating facility. (Nalcor Energy)

Morrissey, a Nunatsiavummiuk Inuit woman from Labrador, said when her community first received news about the project, Nalcor presented studies assuring the community of minimal environmental impacts from the dam.

However, a study out of Harvard showed the possibility that much higher methylmercury levels than predicted by the Nalcor study could flood the main water supply should the land be flooded without proper preparation. It would then run downriver and affect both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Labrador, the study said.

The increase in methylmercury would be "sharp," according to the study, and remain high for decades unless the land is completely cleared before flooding continues.

"Ways of life that have existed are under grave threat. Once you introduce that mercury into the food web that's relied on by the Inuit and Innu ... so much of eating and hunting and trapping is all wrapped up in tradition and in culture," said  Matthew Behrens, one of the organizers of the upcoming panel discussion and vigil.

Nalcor responds

Nalcor responded to the concerns about possible poisoning in April of last year, after the release of the Harvard study. 

Gilbert Bennett, vice-president of the Lower Churchill Project, said some of the findings in the study were consistent with Nalcor's findings but added, "we do not predict that creation of the Muskrat Falls reservoir will heighten risk to people in Lake Melville."

Nalcor will "continue to monitor and measure mercury levels in the environment as long as necessary, including in fish, seals and people. We will continue to collaborate with regulators and work with stakeholders on this important topic," he said.

If levels do increase, the corporation has said it will issue warnings about consuming fish or seal.

That's not good enough, said Behrens. "Would you feel it's acceptable to introduce methylmercury into the Toronto water supply and just advise people to monitor the levels when they want to drink some water, or watch some fish?"

The project has sparked demonstrations and hunger strikes, and put pressure on provincial politicians to force Nalcor to clear the entire area before flooding it.

While Nalcor did partially clear the area, residents are worried mercury levels will spike when the reservoir is fully flooded.

Panel discussion

For people who live in the southern parts of Canada, it might be difficult for them to understand both the cultural and socioeconomic impacts the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam has on those living in the North, said Morrissey.

"Harvesting from the land not only is essential to maintaining your family because the cost of food is so expensive in the North, but it's a cultural issue of concern," Morrissey said.

"These are lands that have been passed from generation to generation. My family had trap lines up there that are no longer accessible because of this dam," she added.

Spreading awareness about the events surrounding Muskrat Falls and how they're affecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is integral to both Morrissey and Behrens.

"People like myself, and a lot of us who are not in the area, need to step up to the plate and start engaging a lot more in public education," said Behrens, who is non-Indigenous.

"This is affecting many different populations. It's just very important that we be aware that not only are Indigenous people being affected but this is a human rights issue of concern," said Morrissey.

The panel will take place on Sunday evening from 7 p.m. at the Canadian Friends Service Committee, 60 Lowther Ave. in Toronto.

The vigil is planned for Monday morning at 11 a.m. at the constituency office of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett at 1650 Yonge St.

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.

With files from Terry Robert