How Activists Are Resisting a Megadam That Threatens ‘Cultural Genocide’

Indigenous protesters are engaging in civil disobedience and facing arrest to fight the $12.7 billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectricity project in Newfoundland.
A protest walk on North Spur, a natural dam fortified as part of the Muskrat Falls megadam.
A protest walk on North Spur, a natural dam fortified as part of the Muskrat Falls project, on October 10, 2016. Image: Jacinda Beals, used with permission

Rita Monias, an Indigenous elder from northern Manitoba, traveled more than 3,000 kilometers to Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, in October to join a protest opposing a megadam project on the east coast that threatens to poison an Indigenous food web and cause mass drowning in the event of a dam break.

Monias, 65, along with a dozen peaceful protesters, was arrested on October 29 for trespassing and banned from Parliament Hill—the seat of Canada’s government—for three months, according to iPolitics.


The Muskrat Falls dam will be an 824-megawatt hydroelectric generating facility on Churchill River in Newfoundland and Labrador when the project is completed in 2019. The project—developed by Nalcor Energy and backed by federal loans—aims to create 1,500 jobs and bring clean, sustainable energy to Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, with the potential to sell energy to the United States. The project has become a money pit as costs have ballooned from $7.7 billion CAD in 2012 to the current estimate of $12.7 billion CAD, and the overruns have led to a public inquiry.

Read More: Newfoundland’s Hydroelectric Megaproject Is a Disaster 500 Years in the Making

Monias is one of many Indigenous people who believe that no level of government has carried out its duty to consult Indigenous communities and obtain consent to build Muskrat Falls as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document that Canada supports. Indigenous protesters have chosen civil disobedience, believing it is the only means through which their voices will be heard.

“I got banned from the legislature. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. If I had the opportunity to go back there after being banned, I would,” Monias told me over the phone. “It’s not about me. It’s about our children, our grandchildren, and other people. We all need this place to live.”


Rita Monias (second from left, wearing glasses) marched on Parliament Hill on October 29, 2018 to protest the Muskrat Falls project. Image: Dr. Peter Stockdale, used with permission

Ontario-Muskrat Falls Solidarity Coalition, an advocacy group that opposes the megadam, organized the October protest to call on the federal government to listen to Indigenous people, who argue that building the dam is an act of environmental devastation, and possibly worse. They say the megadam, which is built on quick clay, could give way under intense water pressure and cause flooding that could potentially drown hundreds of people living downstream in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Mud Lake.


“These governments are promoting the destruction of the Earth as well as cultural genocide”

Construction could also destroy an Indigenous food web, which locals charge would be an act of cultural genocide. A 2016 study commissioned by the Nunatsiavut government and conducted by scientists from Harvard, Memorial University, and the University of Manitoba concluded that flooding the reservoir to build the dam will release toxic methylmercury into the area surrounding downstream Lake Melville, which would be absorbed by wildlife and, in turn, by the humans who consume the animals.

Methylmercury negatively impacts brain development, and the researchers said the effects could persist for generations.

“The prime minister has made it very clear that no relationship is more important than the one with Indigenous peoples,” said Vanessa Adams, spokesperson for the Office of the Minister of Natural Resources Canada, in an email. “As guarantor for this project, we work closely with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and expect the province to meet its health and safety responsibilities.”

Nalcor spokespeople, when reached for comment, referred Motherboard to a study conducted by the energy company and the Newfoundland and Labrador government. The study states there is a low likelihood of risk to human health from consumption of seafood caught from Goose Bay or Lake Melville. If methylmercury levels rise too high, the energy company said it will issue a warning to residents living in nearby communities.


Read More: A Canadian Energy Company Is About to Expose an Inuit Community to Toxic Mercury

Monias joined the protest against a dam being built across the country because she knows firsthand the long-term consequences of hydroelectric projects on Indigenous communities and the unwillingness of colonial governments to meaningfully engage with Indigenous peoples, she says.

In 2014, Monias and more than 100 other protesters from Pimicikamak Okimawin Cree Nation occupied Jenpeg Dam near their home, a generating station built in the 1970s for $310 million CAD. Over the past 40 years, Jenpeg Dam has significantly disrupted their way of life, by flooding 65 square kilometers of Indigenous land and causing severe damage to thousands of kilometers of shoreline. The province of Manitoba publicly apologized for Jenpeg’s long-term environmental and social consequences a year later.

Monias says the inability to survive off the land has resulted in mass unemployment, poverty, and even death. She believes exposure to methylmercury from Jenpeg’s construction has resulted in more cancer deaths, and a lack of access to healthy food has been a factor in the prevalence of diabetes in the community. “The man-made destruction of these hydro dams has changed the quality of food, water, medicine, and our way of life,” she explained.

Monias is not alone in her activism against the construction of Muskrat Falls. Kirk Lethbridge, 56, lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, less than an hour’s drive from the Muskrat Falls site. An Inuit Labrador man, Lethbridge calls himself a warrior for his land and people, having been an activist since the late 1980s.


Indigenous activists Dennis Burden, left, and Kirk Lethbridge, right, during the Nalcor occupation on October 26, 2016. Image: Kirk Lethbridge, used with permission

In October 2016, Lethbridge organized a series of protest walks on North Spur, a natural dam fortified as part of the Muskrat Falls project, and which Swedish researchers have said is unstable because the soil composition makes it susceptible to landslides. Nalcor rejected this conclusion.

“I said I’m walking on the North Spur. If I walk alone, that’s fine—I’m walking,” Lethbridge told me. “Eighteen or 20 people came with me [the first time]. Then we walked again and there were 35 people. Then we walked again—85 people. And then it was 300.”

On October 16, 2016, Nalcor filed an injunction banning protesters from company property. But protests escalated a week later when Lethbridge and approximately 50 Labrador Land Protectors—a group composed of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents who oppose the Muskrat Falls dam—occupied the construction site of the hydroelectric generating facility. Lethbridge spent the four-day protest on a hunger strike.

Read More: Hunger Strikers Celebrate Muskrat Falls Win

Dennis Burden, a 55-year-old Inuit fisherman who lives in the southeast Labrador town of Port Hope Simpson, occupied Nalcor property along with Lethbridge.

Previous to the 2016 occupation, in December 2012, Burden traveled more than 400 kilometers from his home to the construction site where he used an axe to hack through a pole on Nalcor property. Two years later, he was ordered to pay an $8,000 CAD civil disobedience fine.


He recalls the warm welcome from construction workers on that day in October 2016.

“It was pretty amazing when we got in there, the welcome that we received. We were treated like kings,” Burden said. “Everything you could want… They brought us money, socks, clothes. The workers on site cheered us on.”

The occupation abruptly ended on October 26 when an agreement was reached following an 11-hour meeting between leaders of Indigenous groups—Innu Nation, the Nunatsiavut government, and NunatuKavut Community Council—and government officials. The agreement promised further independent assessment of the hydroelectric project and the creation of an independent committee tasked with finding ways to reduce the risk of methylmercury contamination.

Lethbridge says that he and other protesters were betrayed by their Indigenous leaders, who did not consult them. Innu Nation and NunatuKavut Community Council were not available for comment, and the Nunatsiavut government did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.

Some protesters reportedly felt they were used as a means to move other political aims forward, including land claims.

During the 2016 Muskrat Falls occupation, Lethbridge says former Liberal MP and current NunatuKavut council president Todd Russell encouraged protesters to break the injunction and did so himself. Protesters were charged and Russell was not. Lethbridge says the Labrador Land Protectors feel betrayed by Russell as he has not shown up in court to support protesters.


In December 2017, Russell signed an $8 million deal with Nalcor for future development on land that is currently being negotiated between NunatuKavut and the federal government for claims.

“We feel strongly that we were all used for someone’s political will and ambitions,” said Lethbridge.

The Indigenous people protesting Muskrat Falls’ construction are facing legal consequences for their activism.

Last month, 15 protesters accused of breaking Nalcor’s 2016 injunction defended themselves in court. The defense was unable to call on every person it wanted to testify and final trial dates are slated for May 2019. Lethbridge and Burden have both pleaded not guilty, feeling they have done nothing wrong as Indigenous people accused of breaking colonial law.

“Whenever you have Indigenous issues and Indigenous people collide with the colonial justice system, you have people who are going through the process and they simply don’t feel that they ever have an opportunity to tell their story and to be heard,” said Mark Guchy, the lawyer representing Labrador Land Protectors.

Read More: A Depressing Dispatch from the Edge of the World—Newfoundland

Monias, Lethbridge, and Burden say they will continue to raise awareness about the the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in the hopes that their concerns will be heeded by Indigenous leaders as well as by provincial and federal governments.

Labrador Land Protectors wants immediate progress on all four recommendations of the independent committee set up as part of the agreement that ended the 2016 occupation and an independent review of North Spur’s stability, and for Nalcor to drop its injunction against protesting the hydroelectric project.

Muskrat Falls is set to start generating power by late next year, but this isn’t the end of the civil disobedience opposing the project.

“It doesn’t matter to me [if I get in trouble] as long as we have our story out there—that these governments are promoting the destruction of the Earth as well as cultural genocide—because we have lost our way of life,” said Monias.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the primary risk for drowning in the event of a dam break existed in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, North West Spur, and Rigolet. This has been updated to say Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Mud Lake. Motherboard regrets the error.