Muskrat Falls: Courts shut down dam protest over Labrador’s Lower Churchill Project

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Labrador Inuk Ossie Michelin was packing his bags and preparing leave Muskrat Falls on the Churchill River west of Happy Valley-Goose Bay last October 17, a day after the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador issued an injunction forcing protestors off the site of the Lower Churchill Project (LCP), commonly known as Muskrat Falls.

That morning, nine protestors were arrested as flooding began.

“My family trapline is gone,” said Michelin. “It’s been removed. It’s underwater now – part of it is, anyway. That I’ve accepted. It’s the poisoning of our fish and waters that I can’t live with. I refuse to give up my culture and my way of life. I’m going to eat fish from home. I’m going to get mercury poisoning. I don’t care. I would rather die eating salmon than die not being a Labradorian.”

Michelin is best known as a journalist – he took the iconic photograph of a kneeling woman holding a feather before the line of RCMP during an anti-fracking protest at Elsipogtog, New Brunswick. But he is above all a Labradorian, born and raised in North West River, and he’s left his adopted home and his husband in Montreal to join his home community in their fight against the dam. Like many Labrador Inuit, Michelin has been fighting the project for years, but this week the flooding began.

Built by Nalcor (the Newfoundland/Labrador version of Hydro-Québec), the LCP is commonly known as Muskrat Falls, after the location of its Phase 1 of building roughly 35 km from Happy Valley-Goose Bay. However, the project follows on the creation of the Churchill Falls Generating Station, which dammed the Churchill River between 1971 and 1975, flooding 5,000km2 of unceded Innu territory.


Nationally renowned Inuit-Métis artist Billy Gauthier, who was born in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and lives in North West River, began a hunger strike demanding changes to the Muskrat Falls project on October 13.

“Yes, I’m scared,” he told CBC Newfoundland-Labrador, “but that’s what bravery is, when you’re scared and you do it anyway.” He said he hoped his profile as an artist will bring attention to the issue.

Since the beginning of construction on Muskrat Falls in 2013, it has been best known across Canada for running more than 50% over budget (an excess of some $4 billion) and for misjudging the projected need for electricity. This means the cost of building the dam alone may nearly double hydroelectric rates for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians – from $0.12 to $0.22 per kWh – in the next five years.

Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall acknowledged that the project was a boondoggle at a news conference in June, saying, “The Muskrat Falls project was not the right choice. […] It was a gamble and it’s gone against us.” However, he said, to halt the project now would mean that the province had spent $6.7-billion, leaving billions more “to settle claims and bring the project to some conclusion, and we would not have a source of power, which is needed. Stopping the project is not a practical option.”

Indigenous opposition to the project has been split because it is located at precisely the area where Inuit and Innu lands historically met.

“The way it works is this project technically falls upon the Innu lands,” said Ossie Michelin. “The mouth is at the end of Lake Melville, which is where the Innu and the Inuit territories meet. Inuit are a coastal people, Innu are Montagnais – they’re hunters in the mountains. This is where the mountain meets the sea – it’s a very mixed neighbourhood. We all use the water, but the dam itself is technically within the Innu claim.”


The NunatuKavut Community Council and the Nunatsiavut government, which together represent Inuit communities in Labrador, oppose the project. However, in 2011, the Innu Nation signed the Tshash Petapen (“New Dawn”) Agreement. This provided reparations for the loss of land caused by the Churchill Falls project 40 years before, providing 35,000km2 of hunting land and $2-million annually to pay for damages caused by the flooding, but also paved the way to an agreement from the Innu Nation to support the Muskrat Falls project.

While many Innu still support Muskrat Falls, some have recently come out against it, including Elder Bart Jack, a former president of the Innu Nation.

“Our agreement stated the Innu were going to get a fair shake of the employment and of the training. That has not happened,” he told The Independent of Newfoundland and Labrador. “There’s no clear-cutting, so the mercury contamination will start as soon as the flooding takes over. Once the flooding happens, you’re never going to be able to mitigate that because the trees are going to be underwater.”

Michelin pointed to a study by Professor Elsie Sunderland of the Harvard School of Public Health, who brought her team to study the presence of methylmercury in Lake Melville – into which the Churchill River empties. Sunderland and her colleagues discovered that there was already more methylmercury in the water than they expected. But it is estimated methylmercury would increase by between 25% and 200% following the flooding at the Lower Churchill Project.

“The government said, ‘Trust the people that we pay, don’t trust the Harvard scientists,’” said Michelin. “But we already have elevated methylmercury levels as a result of Churchill Falls, which is 300 km upstream. This dam is 35 km upstream from where we hunt and fish. And the province only studied the mouth of the river. They said it was fine, they’ll do compensation and monitoring. Well, we don’t want just that. But you know what? When we start getting sick, they’re going to fight us then too. They’ll say, ‘Hey, you could have gotten that mercury from anywhere.’ You know how these things work – they’ll make it as difficult as possible, there’ll be a bunch of court cases, and we’re all going to die early deaths.”


Michelin, argues the project violates the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It may also violate the Federal Fisheries Act by threatening the habitat of salmon, trout and other fish, he added, saying that violation might move Ottawa to intervene.  

“They’d just better make sure they’re not going to poison us when they flood it,” he said. “That’s the situation we’re in – be poisoned or not be poisoned are our options, but we’re not necessarily the ones who get to choose the answer.”

Since publication there has been a work stoppage at the Muskrat Falls construction site but no final agreement has been reached between Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball and Inuit officials. For more info see: CBC Indigenous

All photos by Ossie Michelin 

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