A Labrador judge has released Beatrice Hunter, an Inuk grandmother who was jailed in a men’s prison for 10 days after she refused to honour a court order against protesting within one kilometre of a controversial dam construction site.
But she will have to sign a new, amended injunction in order to walk free.
On May 22, she attended a protest and allegedly violated an injunction that ordered her to stay one kilometre away from the Muskrat Falls dam site. She originally signed the injunction after marching onto the site with other protesters and a journalist, who also face charges. When Supreme Court Justice George Murphy asked her if she would stay away from the site, she said she couldn’t promise to do that. That’s when he jailed her.
Hunter is just one of more than 30 protesters who are facing charges relating to demonstrations against Muskrat Falls that began last fall. The $11 billion hydroelectric project has the support of both the provincial and federal governments, and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by providing non-fossil fuel electricity to Canada’s east coast. But Indigenous residents like Hunter fear the dam will poison their food and water with methylmercury. They are backed by Harvard research that shows levels of the neurotoxin will increase downstream as a result of flooding from the dam project.
In front of a packed courtroom Friday, Justice Murphy modified that injunction to allow Hunter to protest outside the dam construction site after Hunter’s lawyer made an application to remove the one kilometre buffer. But the judge said other protesters who agreed to stay one kilometre away will still have to abide by that order.
The judge said he didn’t enjoy throwing her in jail, but warned her: “We can’t have people simply picking and choosing which orders they’re going to obey,” according to reporters tweeting from the courtroom. Although Hunter’s lawyer said she just wanted to protest peacefully at the gate, the judge also warned she would be arrested if she blocked access to the construction site.
Hunter was held in the men’s prison because the women’s prison has been over capacity for more than a year, so Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s has been holding women inmates.
One of Hunter’s supporters let out a woop and others clapped as they filed out of the courtroom after the decision. For them it was a victory after unrelenting petitions and protests to free the woman. When Hunter was first jailed, several women and men lay down in the driveway to block the police van from taking her to jail.
Thursday night supporters held a vigil outside the Happy Valley Goose Bay RCMP station holding signs that said “protecting is not a crime.” Demonstrators also drummed and raised a “Free Beatrice” banner outside the Colonial Building, a former government building in St. John’s.
As the court recessed in the morning, the crowded courtroom erupted in applause for her, and Hunter took a deep breath. A court security guard handed her a box of tissues and she dabbed her eyes. Her supporters have been calling not only for her release but also for charges to be dropped against the other protesters who are facing charges.
Hunter, who is still facing charges, will appear in court again on July 19.