“That Dam will never be built,” was the refrain I overheard growing up in the mining community of Labrador City. It seemed momentum was against the Lower Churchill hydro-electric project in the 1980s. People were sour about the one-sided agreement with the province of Quebec to develop the Upper Churchill. Famously, Joey Smallwood was determined to develop a hydro dam at Twin Falls on what was then called the Hamilton River.
In Labrador the history of British Colonialism can be seen through the history of the river. Called, Mishtashipu in the Innu dialect of Labrador, many Labradorians use the anglicized version The Grand River. Today, the Newfoundland/Canadian name is The Churchill River, thanks to Premiere Joseph (Joey) Smallwood who wanted to honour one of his political heroes when he renamed the river in 1965. Since 1821 the river had been called The Hamilton River, after Commodore-Governor of Newfoundland, Sir Charles Hamilton.
But this context requires yet more context, the border between Quebec and Labrador is a creation of Canada. To the Innu of Nitassinan this is a line created by colonial powers. The Innu define the land of Nitassinan to be much of Eastern Quebec and Labrador. The Innu traditionally were a nomadic people, living in tents and following traditional food supplies such as caribou herds and salmon runs.
The two Innu communities of SHESHATSHIU and NATUASHISH were settled into permanent villages in the 1960’s by the Newfoundland government. Natuashish was re-settled in 2002 from Davis Inlet. Davis Inlet and Sheshatshiu were summer gathering places for the Innu and both were close to Hudson Bay trading posts for basic services and supplies. In 1948 the Government of Newfoundland relocated the Innu of Davis Inlet to the Northern Inuit Community of Nutak. The resettlement did not last as the Innu people returned to the area near Davis Inlet on foot two years later.
In 2008 the Innu of Labrador entered into the New Dawn Agreement with Nalcor and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. A part of this agreement was the benefits rights agreement for the hydro development at Muskrat Falls and with it Nalcor considered consultations with Labrador Indigenous groups finished.
Today the Inuit portion of the Northern Labrador coast is known as Nunatsiavut, a self-governing body formed in 2005. The town of North West River in central Labrador is not included in the Nunatsiavut land claim even though some two-thirds of its residents are Inuit, many of whom are Nunatsiavut members. Further down the estuary known as Lake Melleville is the Nunatsiavut community of Rigolet.
In southern Labrador the Inuit population refer to their land as NunatuKavut and include many of the fishing communities along the south coast. NunatuKavut is engaged in an ongoing land claim and has headquarters in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
In Central Labrador members of all three Indigenous groups and of the white settler population harvest fish, birds and seal from the Lake Melleville estuary. Upstream is the hydro-electric project at Muskrat Falls and the group known as the Labrador Land Protectors, comprised of members of the four aforementioned communities’ have been involved in a direct action to oppose the dam since it was sanction by Premier Kathy Dunderdale in 2012.
The Labrador Land Protectors have campaigned against the dam for two main reasons. First, the fear of Methyl-Mercury leaching into the food web of Lake Melleville caused by flooding of the land upstream. Second, the instability of the natural land mass known as the North Spur which has been incorporated into the design of the dam at Muskrat Falls.
In June of 2017 I returned to Labrador for the first time in a decade to talk with members of the Labrador Land Protectors. Watching from home in Ontario I was moved by their conviction. Nalcor, a crown corporation of the province, had petitioned the courts for an injunction barring anyone from the construction site. By entering the site, or even to go near it to express concern, would be a breach of the court’s injunction and the potential for jail time was real. Even the person entering the site was an indigenous person laying medicines or setting a trap for pine martens as their ancestors had done for years it did not matter.
In October of 2016, a large group of protectors entered the project site through the main gate and occupied the site until Premier Ball promised that more assessment would be done. Labrador Land Protectors are still going to court for breaking the injunction more than two-years later.