October 25, 2016 4:17 pm
Updated: November 2, 2016 2:51 pm

Muskrat Falls: Why people are starving themselves to oppose Labrador dam flooding

WATCH ABOVE: Protesters explain why they're bringing the issue of the Muskrat Falls dam to Ottawa.

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Those opposed to aspects of the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador have taken their fight to Ottawa in order to call national attention to a phase of the project they fear threaten their way of life.

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The Muskrat Falls Hydroelectric Generating Facility, a project by Nalcor Energy, is one of the largest publicly funded ventures in Labrador’s history. The 824-megawatt development will create a reservoir that spans 41 square kilometres.

READ MORE: N.L. premier to meet with aboriginal leaders over Muskrat Falls protests

While there has been concern over rising costs — it was projected at $7.7 billion and has since risen to more than $11 billion — as well as higher average prices for consumers (from 12 cents a kilowatt hour to a projected 21 cents), that’s not what these protesters who have taken their fight to Ottawa are concerned about.

Instead, it’s the environmental consequences of the flooding of a basin, and the threat it poses to their way of life.

The project is upstream from 2,000 Inuit and other residents in the Lake Melville region who rely on fish and seal meat. Nalcor says methylmercury —  a neurotoxin linked to intellectual issues in children, heart problems and other issues — will likely increase between 2.3 and 4.8 times in the lower Churchill River before falling back to baseline levels over the next 15 years.

The protesters — who say they have research supported by a Harvard University report — believe that if the land is cleared, the risks would be mitigated.

The construction site of the hydroelectric facility at Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland and Labrador is seen on July 14, 2015.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

But protesters felt that the issue surrounding Muskrat Falls wasn’t garnering the national attention it deserved. So several of them made their way to Ottawa, three of whom went on a hunger strike.

“We’re not against the dam; we’re not against development. What we’re against is the fact that Nalcor — the provincial energy company — said in their initial environmental impact statement that they’d clear the flood basin of organic matter and trees,” said protest organizer, Ossie Michelin. “By doing so this’ll prevent the area downstream of it from being contaminated by methylmercury which is a deadly neurotoxin.

“We want them to continue on with the project, but we just don’t want to be poisoned.”

Billy Gauthier is one of the hunger strikers. As of Tuesday, he said that he’d lost almost 18 pounds since last eating on Oct. 13.

“They’re not going to be removing the organic materials … and without removing the organic material the methylmercury will be leaching out into the water system and flowing out into Lake Melville [which] so many people in our communities actually use for main food source,” Gauthier said. “And it’s an incredibly healthy food source.”

“It’s not just food for us. It’s also our connection to the land and our way of life. We refuse, absolutely refuse to let Nalcor get away with this. We will not see our lands poisoned.”

The issue was raised during Tuesday’s Question Period.

“Provinces are working with the communities that are affected,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But that wasn’t enough for NDP leader Tom Mulcair.

“All they got a flippant insulting comment from a Liberal backbencher,” Mulcair said referring to a tweet by Newfoundland St. John’s East MP Nick Whalen where he suggested residents eat less fish to “compensate” for elevated levels of methylmercury. “This is a fundamental issue of indigenous rights and health.”

Whalen has since apologized for the comment and the tweet has been removed.

“They’re messing with the food on my table. They’re messing with the health of children, of elders and those who sit around the family table,” said Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut Community Council representing Inuit-Metis in southern Labrador.

His group repeatedly urged the government in recent years to do full clearing as recommended by the joint review panel during environmental assessments, he said.

“This is a litmus test for reconciliation.”

— with files from The Associated Press

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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