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By Ossie Michelin
In the early hours of Oct. 27 it felt like we changed the world—and we did. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador had announced they will meet my friends' requests for environmental and human health protections on the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric project. The hunger strike was over after 13 days and my friends could eat again! One of the happiest moments of my life was watching Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister devour an Arctic Char after several long days of ups and downs.
Over the previous two weeks hundreds of Labradorians came out to demonstrate, blockading and eventually occupying the dam site. My friends and I had flown to Ottawa to speak with the Canadian government and national media. In the provincial capital of St. John's hundreds rallied every day to "make Muskrat right."
Dr. Trevor Bell from the Department of Geography at Memorial University read to us over the phone the deal reached between the provincial government and Labrador's three indigenous leaders. This agreement would ensure that before any flooding would happen extensive research identifying and leading to the removal of mercury dense organic matter must occur first.
The province had agreed that if any initial flooding had to happen to protect the dam from winter ice, not only would Nalcor have to prove the flooding was completely necessary but that the initial flooding would be kept to a bare minimum for the shortest duration possible. If there was another option, it would have to be taken. Independent research using peer reviewed science and Indigenous knowledge would determine which areas were the most dangerous to human health and therefore excavated. All of this would be monitored and regulated by the federal government, the province, municipalities, the three Labrador Indigenous groups and independent scientists.
As Dr. Bell read this to us we cried, we shouted and we hugged each other. Not only had our friends survived their hunger strike and protected our home from a large wave of unmitigated methylmercury contamination, but this agreement would enact some of the strongest environmental protections around hydroelectric damming on the planet. The research that will happen in the flood basin of the Muskrat Falls project will help inform all future damming projects going forward on how to protect against deadly methylmercury.
The next morning the dozens of land defenders occupying the Muskrat Falls work site had announced they were satisfied with the terms of the agreement and left the camp to be greeted by the cheers of hundreds of Labradorians who had come out to celebrate their heroes.
With that Labradorians could begin to heal from one of the most trying periods in their history. We felt like we had won—but it was just the beginning.
Now that the promises have been made, it is up to us to make sure everyone will come through on what they said:
1. We must ensure that the province enacts legislation to guarantee the safety of this project. We must hold all levels of government accountable, and make sure that all research from here on out is independent and transparent, with the best practices enforced.
2. We need to learn from and enforce the findings of the groundbreaking research on methylmercury contamination happening in the flood basin. Not only will this protect our home, but it will help to inform others looking to protect their homes from hydroelectric damming.
3. We need to support independent journalism, like The Independent who chronicled every action on the ground since the beginning, even risking jail time in their duty to represent the Labradorian perspective. Their work kept leadership accountable and provided a human face on the issue.
4. Ordinary Labradorians must continue to step up to make sure that their representatives on the provincial, federal and Indigenous levels know that they are watching and that nothing but the best is acceptable.
Billy Gauthier and his mother Mitzi Wall find out that the provincial government had met all four of their requests and the hunger strike is over after 13 long days.Ossie Michelin
Together, our little corner of the world stood up to corporate interests and our own government and changed how the hydroelectric industry functions. We won with love in our hearts for our culture, communities, land and waters. We showed the world just how hard we can fight and more importantly we showed that to ourselves.
Billy, Jerry and Delilah are home in Labrador now and eating once more. It is a time to rest and celebrate, Labradorians fought hard for their water and won. However, this victory does not mean we can become idle, because now that we have the agreements with regulators, the work has just begun.
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