The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador has been plagued by problems and has even been publicly labelled a “boondoggle” by Stan Marshall, CEO of Nalcor Energy, the provincial Crown corporation overseeing it. The most recent estimates predict that the cost of the finished dam will run to $12.7 billion, an increase of almost $5 billion from initial projections. The dam is not expected to produce electricity until 2020 — two years behind schedule. For a project that was supposed to ensure the future economic prosperity of the province, it has not lived up to expectations.
On November 20, 2017, after months of political pressure, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball announced that the province was setting up a public inquiry into the Muskrat Falls project. Many, including myself, who are concerned about the effects of the project on the people of the province, but especially those in Labrador, were hopeful that this inquiry might address the critical social justice concerns surrounding this dam.
From 2013 to 2016, I worked with a community-university research alliance called the Feminist Northern Network (FemNorthNet). One of our partner communities was Happy Valley-Goose Bay (HV-GB), a 20-minute drive downriver from Muskrat Falls. Over FemNorthNet’s six years of research in HV-GB, we heard that the Muskrat Falls project was creating significant social and economic changes in the community and surrounding area; in many cases, it was exacerbating existing challenges in women’s daily lives. Numerous protests have taken place since 2013, as Labradorians concerned about Indigenous rights, methyl mercury pollution and community changes tried to have their voices heard by Nalcor and the provincial government.
However, hopes that these concerns would be addressed in the inquiry were not to be realized, despite claims by Minister of Justice and Public Safety Andrew Parsons that “the magnitude of this inquiry is significant.” An examination of the terms of reference for the inquiry reveals a missed opportunity for social justice and for addressing the important concerns raised by Labradorians about the impact of this dam on their lives. The terms of reference instruct the Commissioner to investigate only:
- whether the Muskrat Falls dam was the lowest-cost option for meeting the province’s electricity needs,
- why the project is over budget,
- whether the project should have been excluded from monitoring by the Public Utilities Board and
- whether the province received full information about the risks of the project.
The fact that they essentially address none of the social justice concerns raised by Labradorians is unfortunately not surprising. Indeed, it reflects a long-standing pattern in Newfoundland and Labrador politics, in which the government on the island of Newfoundland assumes the role of a colonial power over the people and land of Labrador. Many Labradorians feel that their concerns and rights are not taken seriously by the provincial government and that they are treated as second-class citizens. Examples of this pattern in relation to Muskrat Falls are the fact that Labrador is forced to bear most of the social and environmental costs of the dam, yet will receive none of the electricity, and the harsher treatment of protesters in Labrador compared with those on the island. The terms of reference of the inquiry, reflecting primarily the concerns of the provincial government and the island’s taxpayers, could be considered a third example of this pattern of colonial domination.
The lack of consideration of Labradorians’ concerns, particularly Indigenous Labradorians’ concerns, with the Muskrat Falls dam is also a step backward for reconciliation in the province. Just four days after this inquiry was announced, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in HV-GB to deliver a formal apology from the government of Canada to the province’s survivors of residential schools, most of whom were taken from Labrador communities. These more than 1,000 survivors were purposely excluded from the earlier 2008 federal apology to all other Canadian survivors of residential schools. In his apology, Trudeau acknowledged that reconciliation is a work in progress but pledged to continue to work toward it. In its vision for the future of the province, titled The Way Forward, the provincial Liberal government likewise promised to include Indigenous voices in provincial decision-making and to resolve outstanding land rights issues. Placing Indigenous Labradorians’ concerns at the centre of the Muskrat Falls inquiry would have gone a long way toward fulfilling these goals.
An inquiry that committed to social justice and reconciliation would have addressed the issues that Labradorians have been voicing for many years.
First, a more just inquiry would have acknowledged that there are significant public safety concerns arising from the dam itself. These concerns include the stability of the North Spur, an embankment that anchors the dam; the risk of flooding for communities downstream; and the rising methyl mercury levels in the river as a result of construction of the dam and reservoir. The small downriver community of Mud Lake was already flooded in spring 2017, displacing residents for months and causing thousands of dollars in property damage. Residents of Mud Lake have filed a class action lawsuit against Nalcor Energy and the province, alleging that the Muskrat Falls dam is to blame for the flooding.
Second, a more just inquiry would have investigated the rapid socio-economic changes that have taken place in HV-GB and surrounding communities since the beginning of the Muskrat Falls development. The inquiry would have questioned why these changes were not properly prepared for during the regulatory phase of the project’s development. Participants in FemNorthNet’s research described rapidly rising housing prices, increased crime and substance use, significantly longer wait times for local services such as health care and loss of a sense of community and inclusion as just some of the costs of the dam’s development. These costs disproportionately affect historically marginalized members of communities, including women and girls, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and seniors or elders. These groups are also least likely to be able to access the benefits of the project, such as jobs.
An inquiry committed to fulfilling the promises of reconciliation would have explored the many concerns raised by Indigenous people and governments in relation to the effects of the dam on their rights, culture and way of life.
Third, an inquiry committed to fulfilling the promises of reconciliation would have explored the many concerns raised by Indigenous people and governments in relation to the effects of the dam on their rights, culture and way of life. Most prominent among these concerns is the issue of methyl mercury. The Nunatsiavut government has stated that methyl mercury contamination from the dam will “harm Inuit health and violate Indigenous and human rights.” Other Indigenous rights issues that must be addressed in relation to this project include the NunatuKavut Community Council’s unresolved land claim to the area, the loss of access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds and the anticipated poisoning of important country food sources.
Terms of reference investigating these three issues would represent a minimum standard for an inquiry that takes Labradorian concerns seriously and works toward reconciliation and social justice. If the provincial government had wanted to achieve this goal, it would have developed the terms of reference for the inquiry in consultation with concerned citizens’ groups like the Labrador Land Protectors, nonprofit organizations such as the Labrador Friendship Centre and the Mokami Status of Women Council, Labrador’s municipalities and the region’s three Indigenous governments. Instead, the government pursued an inquiry that addresses none of the vital concerns raised by Labradorians.
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