Billy Gauthier is on a hunger strike, nine days and counting.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
Billy Gauthier feels like he could go on a long run after consuming only water for eight days. At five-foot-five and 140 pounds, he's not a big guy, and in the first three days of his hunger strike, he says he lost seven pounds. He's likely lost several more since then.
"I try and conserve my energy, but sometimes I have to be energized," Gauthier, 38, tells VICE News. "I can't just sit down or lay down and hope things work out."
Gauthier's phone keeps cutting out due to bad reception in the remote area 40 to 50 kilometres northwest of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. This is where a small but determined group of protesters have built an encampment in a parking lot across from the entrance of the worksite of a giant hydroelectric dam, which they have also blockaded for more than a week, attempting to stop workers from going in and out. On Friday, another group of protesters in Goose Bay occupied a helipad in an attempt to stop the company from flying workers in by helicopter.
Any day now, the company behind the Muskrat Falls dam project could start to flood a 41-square-kilometre area of land—but Indigenous locals, including Gauthier, fear the flooding will increase methylmercury levels downstream, causing it to bioaccumulate in the fish and seals they rely on for food.
Willing to die, Gauthier will only end his hunger strike if the company promises not to flood, and guarantees they will conduct proper research before going any further, "to know for sure whether or not it's going to release unacceptable amounts of methylmercury."
Smoke wafts over the protest camp from a communal fire and large oil drums with burning wood inside. The young men in the camp take regular trips into the woods to chop logs for the fire. Posters of Gauthier hang around the encampment. The Labrador artist, who is recognized worldwide for his carvings of delicate figures from stone and organic materials including walrus ivory, has become a symbol of resistance within the camp, and outside of it, due to growing media attention.
Gauthier is staying warm in a camper, while outside, people gather in a communal tent, chatting, planning future action, and sharing bannock, moose soup, partridge soup and red berry jam.
Gauthier isn't offended by it. "It's been very, very few times in the last eight days that I've actually thought about food," he says.
Two other hunger strikers, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister, have joined Gauthier, and are both on day five, while a fourth hunger striker who joined them has since quit the protest. While Gauthier is drinking only water, he has encouraged the other two hunger strikers to drink broth or juice.
"I've encouraged them to do this because, if in the end we're not heard by Nalcor, or our provincial government, or our federal government, if we're not heard then we can't all die at once. And this would ensure it would be one at a time."
Gauthier and the others know they have embarked on a dangerous strike. Despite mounting protests and a growing number of headlines, the Newfoundland government is not backing down, and the company still intends to flood.
Nalcor and the province hope that when the dam is completed, together with the Gull Island phase of the project, it will provide a wealth of non-fossil fuel energy for the province, Nova Scotia and New England. The project is already way over budget, and has racked up a total cost of $11 billion, with multiple loans from the federal government.
Since beginning his hunger strike, Gauthier has conversed with Nalcor's executive vice president Gilbert Bennett, who he says he has "very little faith in," and provincial environment minister Perry Trimper. He won't call Trimper by his ministerial title. "He's not qualified for his job, so he's Perry Trimper to me."
"Even if it's only potential, why would you play Russian roulette with the people who live off that land?" he asks. That's why he's now calling on the federal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to intervene.
"Growing up I've been told, and believed, that Canada is one of the safest most beautiful and free countries in the world, where you can express your opinion and you can be protected," he says.
"If provinces don't do what's right for the people, a federal government that oversees the country is supposed to intervene and make things right. If not, my previous views of this country will be tainted."
The day before he stopped eating food, Gauthier called his 15-year-old daughter to tell her what he was planning. She lives in New Brunswick with her mother, but when she visits he takes her ice fishing.
"It was the hardest phone call I ever had to make in my life," he said.
He told her: "I'm not going to eat until someone out here does what's right for our people." That's when she started to cry, he said.
"I'm scared," he told VICE News, "But that's what bravery is, when you're scared but you do it anyway, because it's right."
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