Indigenous leaders share historical ties to Churchill River at Muskrat Falls inquiry

The construction site of the hydroelectric facility at Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland and Labrador is seen on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan

Indigenous leaders shared their personal and historical connection to the Churchill River district Tuesday, at an inquiry into the Labrador megaproject that will harness power from an area that provides them with food, transportation – and great comfort.

“I go there as often as I can to get country food, to pick the berries, to be happy, I guess,” Carl McLean, speaking on behalf of the Nunatsiavut government, told the inquiry into the Muskrat Falls hydro dam in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Tuesday.

McLean, who has a property downstream from the dam near Happy Valley-Goose Bay, began proceedings on the inquiry’s second day with an oral history of the Labrador Inuit’s use of the river and continued reliance on the waterway for food, travel and lodging.

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McLean spoke of the risk of potential methylmercury poisoning that could hurt the food supply and of the importance of Lake Melville, the estuary downstream from Muskrat Falls, as “our highway” throughout the year.

“It’s not only our food supply, but the way we get to travel around. Any changes to that will certainly be significant,” said McLean.

“The activity continues, it was back then and it continues today, the way of life.”

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Sebastian Penunsi of the Innu Nation testified about his life growing up along the Churchill River, called Mishta-shipu in the Innu-aimun language.

Penunsi talked about traditional Innu uses of the river for travel, hunting, and fishing, and said he’s noticed damage to the area around Muskrat Falls and Gull Island since construction began.

Penunsi told the inquiry that he visited the Muskrat Falls dam with another elder, and they agreed the site is larger than they originally understood from conversations with Nalcor Energy, the provincial Crown corporation managing the project.

“They said it was only a little bit that was going to use, the land, but they continue making it more big and he said they didn’t mention anything about the expansion of the Muskrat Falls, destroying all the land,” Penunsi told the inquiry through translator Denina Andrew.

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The independent inquiry, led by provincial Supreme Court Justice Richard LeBlanc, will examine how the hydroelectric project, now more than 90 per cent complete, was approved and executed, and why it was exempt from oversight from the Public Utilities Board.

Indigenous leaders are also scheduled to testify later in the inquiry with further detail with their concerns over the potential threat of methylmercury poisoning in local wild food sources downstream.

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Also Tuesday, Jean-Charles Pietacho spoke on behalf of Conseil des Innus d’Ekuanitshit about his family’s past use of the area for travel, trapping and hunting.

Pietacho based his oral history on stories told by his family and a book written by an elder in his community, as he was himself unable to travel to Churchill River when he was in a residential school.

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Pietacho noted that his history was drawn from a time before the borders of Labrador and Quebec had been established.

“I’m Innu, just Innu. I’m not from Quebec, I’m not from Newfoundland and Labrador, and I don’t see any boundaries. There were no boundaries or borders back then,” Pietacho told the inquiry.

Hearings will conclude in August 2019, with a final report expected by Dec. 31.

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