(Billy Gauthier is on a hunger strike over the Muskrat Falls hyrdro-electric project. Photo courtesy Billy Gauthier)
APTN National News
An Inuk artist is taking action against a major hydroelectric project along the Lower Churchill River in Labrador that could impact traditional food sources for the Inuit.
Billy Gauthier has started a hunger strike. He ate salmon caught in Rigolet for his last meal Thursday evening.
“I’m willing to go to the end,” said Gauthier. “If they don’t do what I’ve demanded, which is remove the organic materials from the proposed flooded area, I will not eat anymore.”
Gauthier lives in North West River, about a half hour drive from Happy-Valley GooseBay. Both his art and life are shaped by the land.
“Anybody that knows me that my favorite time of the year is the spring seal hunt,” said Gauthier. “Without that animal, I wouldn’t be here. My ancestors, none of them, could have survived without it.”
Gauthier, like many Labrador Inuit, fear the Muskrat falls project will poison traditional foods.
“There’s been so many things already taken away from the people of Labrador, northern peoples, Aboriginal people in general, over and over and over,” said Gauthier. “I guarantee if this thing goes ahead, it will completely change the area. The most wholesome thing you can do with your family is hunt and fish and feel proud, feel connected to your culture, understand your ancestors. You take that away and why you wonder is there so much suicide in aboriginal culture. That’s f—ing why.”
See related stores here: Muskrat Falls
Research by a team from Harvard University predicts that when the reservoir at Muskrat Falls is flooded, the trees, vegetation, and topsoil will create methylmercury. The toxin will flow downstream from the dam and work its way up the food chain.
“What I believe will happen if this here goes ahead is we will not be able to eat the fish from the area which is my favorite thing to do. An amazing wholesome thing to do,” said Gauthier. “The best way a person can get food is through the land, naturally. I know it.”
Gauthier said time is of the essence.
Energy company Nalcor, owned by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, is set to begin flooding the reservoir any time after Saturday, October 15. It’s a long process and one that will happen in stages. But the timeline has left grassroots people and Inuit leaders scrambling.
Labrador Inuit have held rallies and marches in recent weeks, with loud chants of “Make Muskrat Right.”
The Nunatsiavut Government has called on the province and Nalcor to fully clear the reservoir and is looking at legal options to force the province to act.
“We once again implore the Premier to not play Russian roulette with the lives of our people, and to direct Nalcor Energy to delay flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir until it is fully cleared of all trees, vegetation and topsoil,” said Nunatsiavut president Johannes Lampe in a statement released Friday.
“The concerns over methylmercury contamination are real, and to proceed with flooding without fully clearing will clearly violate our human and Indigenous rights,” said Lampe. “This project has to be stopped now before it’s too late.”
While there’s no commitment to do that, Newfoundland and Labrador Environment and Climate Change Minister Perry Trimper has said he is willing to explore the option.
Gauthier said his hunger strike is a drastic action. “But nothing else will work. Everything is happening too fast. I wasn’t willing to do a violent act.”
Many have criticized the province and Nalcor for being behind schedule and over budget at $11.4 billion dollars.
The town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, just 30 kilometres from the Muskrat Falls project has a large Indigenous population. The town council has also expressed concerns over the impact of the dam.
In a message released on Friday, the council stated, “Our community has been directly impacted by this development and yet, to date, we have been left out of any negotiations or workshops regarding the clearing of the reservoir and the water-monitoring program.”
Cartwright, on the coast of Southern Labrador, residents have promised action on the ground if Nalcor tries to use the town’s port without consent.
In a Facebook post after a community meeting last week, the council wrote, “…the residents of Cartwright feel that there is no price tag on the safety and security of our wild food chain or positive mental health that comes along with carrying on our traditions and culture.”
By unanimous vote, we are to deliver the message to Nalcor and the Province that this project is not welcome to come through the port of Cartwright until all vegetation and soil is removed from the reservoir area.”
NunatuKavut leader Todd Russell, speaking for the Southern Inuit in Labrador, is expected to make an announcement on Monday on the Muskrat Falls project. Russell has voiced his opposition in the past.
Gauthier has kept an eye on the politics and protests. But said for him, and for many Labrador Inuit, this is about the survival of a way of life.
“This is my land,” said Gauthier, his voice breaking as he explains the deep connection. “This land has built me, the way it built my ancestors. This is where I get all my inspiration for my artwork. This is my life.”
His 15-year-old daughter doesn’t live with him, but Gauthier said when she visits, her favorite thing to do is go ice fishing. He added that making the call to her he was going on a hunger strike was one of the hardest things he’s had to do.
“I love life,” he said. “I’m crying right now because I am scared. And I keep thinking about my daughter.”
But he’s firm that if the flooding happens, he won’t eat. He’ll only eat, when the project is halted so clearing can begin. Promises aren’t enough. He wants action.
“I realize it’s a multi-billion dollar project,” he said. “To be honest, I’m scared. But not scared enough to not do it.”
There’s been talk of compensation if methylmercury taints food sources. Inuit leaders have criticized that offer saying it’s not good enough.
Gauthier said the province should just pay the $200-million dollar bill to clear the reservoir. And that not doing so sends a clear message.
“That says to me the government doesn’t give a shit about us,” he said. “It also says the government is being incredibly foolish. Do they honestly believe that spending 200-million right now is going to be a deal? Because in the future, with the several generations it takes before methylmercury is gone…these people are going to have all kinds of problems. It will harm people.”
As for Billy Gauthier, he plans to continue his hunger strike, posting updates on social media daily.
“I want to spread the word like wildfire as much as possible,” said Gauthier. “I don’t want to die. But I’m telling you it in Nalcor’s hands. They can choose to cut the trees and remove all the organic material.”
Gauthier said he has support from friends and family. But hasn’t yet heard from either Nalcor or the province.