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Was Muskrat Falls a victory? Interview with Ossie Michelin

Complicating the simplistic success vs failure narrative in land struggles, and looking to Muskrat's future

by David Gray-Donald

Photo credit: Ossie Michelin
Photo credit: Ossie Michelin
This fall, Inuit, Southern Inuit, Innu and settler peoples fought to stop a rushed damming of Muskrat Falls by Labrador's crown energy corporation, Nalcor, that would have poisoned the Grand River (aka Churchill River) and Lake Melville with methyl mercury. 
 
So, were the land protectors successful? The extent of the flooding was reduced and celebrations were widely reported, but a sizeable area was flooded, and major concerns remain. 
 
I caught up online with Ossie Michelin, a Labradorian in the thick of the struggle, for his perspective on what happened, and where things are now.
 
What has been happening at the site since the major flooding was postponed on October 26?
 
Since then there has been continued demonstrations from a smaller group of people. Some people did not want to see any flooding at all. While others had concerns over the stability of the dam. It was rumoured the engineers never hit bedrock. The dam is built on sand terrain, with lots of clay and the river banks are prone to sudden collapse. The cofferdam surrounding the main structure sprung a major leak and Nalcor had to flush the system. This really scared everyone living downstream. Larger protests began again and Nalcor ordered the RCMP to enforce a court injunction barring people from blocking the entrance to the dam site. One of the people served a summons was my 96 year old aunt Dorothy (though the charges have since been dropped). This week, NDP NL Leader Lorraine Michael brought up that Nalcor knew about the structural problems with the cofferdam as far back as June, stating at the legislature that “The Independent Engineer report arising from the Muskrat Falls site visit in July identified, and I quote, ‘a risk of serious leakage’ with respect to the cofferdam.”
 
Can you speak a bit to what was accomplished by the grassroots effort, by people physically being at the site? 
 
People at the site were able to occupy the dam site for several days, shutting it down. The protests slowed work at the site. The demonstrations were peaceful and accepted by the Labrador community. Right now there are just a few people still protesting along the road to the dam but the courts have forced them not to come within 1km of the dam.
 
What has been won and lost at this point? 
 
A victory was won with the agreements between the Indigenous leaders and the province. It was not a final victory but it gave people leverage over methyl mercury contamination. There are still a number of issues (stability of the dam, lack of consultation, further arrests, etc) that have still yet to be resolved. It was hopefully a smaller victory that will set us up for further victories down the line, as the process of removing contaminated organic matter begins.
 
How are people doing now, has there been any chance to rest? 
 
Some people have been resting (I have been resting) and some people have been continuing on the ground action. Since [the height of the action] the cofferdam has leaked, they've flushed the system, lowering water levels. It was only raised for about a week. It has frozen over behind the dam and they can't even build the ice boom to protect the dam. Nalcor is saying there will be damage to the dam from ice, and no more work can be done on that part of the dam for now. They are blaming the protestors for this but they have known about the issues to the cofferdam since July. The occupation was just for a few days, and the active demonstrations were only about two weeks. Most people feel that since they’ve flushed the system after the leak, and as temperatures drop, that not a lot more can be done this year by Nalcor. Things will most likely pick up again in the Spring and Summer as the environmental mitigation work begins (hopefully). In the mean time, most people are resting and preparing for what comes next.
 
How can people help from afar? 

There’s a go fund me account started for the Labrador Land Defenders legal fund to help cover court costs and the Land Defenders work their way through the courts. If you wish to donate please visit https://fundrazr.com/labradorlandprotectors?ref=sh_66GmV4

 

For another perspective, check out the recent article "Claiming victory at Standing Rock and Muskrat Falls" from TheIndependent.ca.

 


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