The dirt on ‘clean’ energy: #MakeMuskratRight

Debbie Martin criticizes large-scale industrial and energy developments, such as the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, that are threatening Indigenous territory.


Nova Scotia aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. This is an ambitious but important goal – unmatched virtually anywhere else in Canada.

Historically, Nova Scotia has relied heavily upon coal for energy and has had a poor track record when it comes to renewable sources of electricity and energy.

In 2013 Nova Scotia penned an agreement with the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, in which it agreed to purchase hydroelectricity from Muskrat Falls.  This electricity, which is expected to flow to Nova Scotia via a subsea cable by 2019, is an important part of Nova Scotia’s plan to reach its clean energy targets.

Although setting renewable energy targets is laudable, and certainly needs to happen in this era of climate devastation, the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions must be weighed against associated social and ecological harms.

Muskrat Falls, Labrador (Photo Credit: Google Maps and Donald Atkinson, 2001)

Muskrat Falls, Labrador (Photo Credit: Google Maps and Donald Atkinson, 2001)

Consider, for example, the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Generation project – a multi-billion dollar project that is currently under construction in Labrador. This project involves the construction of two large dams, the first one (which is currently under construction) at Muskrat Falls and the other at Gull Island. The reservoirs created from damming these two sites will completely obliterate 100 square kilometers of pristine wilderness. This land is owned by the Innu, and is upstream from where approximately 2000 Inuit live. It’s also historically significant because, since time immemorial, the Indigenous peoples of Labrador have relied upon this and the surrounding area to hunt, fish, and collect plants for food and for medicine. This will all come to a screeching halt in the near future when the reservoirs are created.

Methylmercury, a neurotoxin, is linked to neurological and developmental issues in children, and to the development of cardiovascular diseases. It’s produced when organic matter such as trees, plants, and topsoil are left to rot at a site that’s been flooded. Fish and other aquatic species that eat these plants become contaminated. As such, the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project will poison key food sources for the Innu and Inuit of Labrador and damage their way of life.

Labradorians, including Elders, Indigenous leaders, children, women and men, have been protesting the development of Muskrat Falls for nearly a decade. People have been arrested; three Inuit went on a hunger strike and others have blockaded roads. The escalating protests in October 2016 galvanized supporters from across the country. These land defenders and water protectors demand that the planned flooding of the Muskrat Falls site halt until threats to human and environmental health are eliminated.

In late October, negotiations between Indigenous leaders and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador resulted in an agreement to create a third-party expert advisory committee to further study the health impact of the planned flooding. The government has promised that it will stop the project if there is a serious risk to human health. Meanwhile, Stan Marshall, the CEO of Nalcor Energy – the company responsible for the project – is arguing that the protests have cost the project hundreds of millions of dollars and that concerns over methylmercury contamination are unfounded. And yet, concerns about this contamination are well-documented in the Federal-Provincial Joint Environmental Review Panel report published in 2011.

Industrial and energy developments are shaping up to be the new residential schools – bent on taking away the rights and freedoms of Indigenous peoples and their ability to live and express Indigeneity in this country. Indigenous peoples realize this; it is why we are standing in solidarity against such developments. As such, the one good thing that can be said about unfettered ecological devastation is that it unites those of us who believe our Mother Earth is more important to us all than the economic needs of a few.

This is supposed to be an era of reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples of Canada. It is supposed to be a time when we implement the articles outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – a Declaration that, in part, upholds Indigenous rights to land, and their right to ‘free, prior and informed consent’ before that land is developed or otherwise used for commercial or industrial purposes. Widespread protests, blockades and hunger strikes should not be necessary precursors to respectful consultation.

It is time to stop pushing through large-scale developments on Indigenous territory without consent. Such action is antithetical to reconciliation, antithetical to Indigenous rights, and antithetical to efforts to produce ‘clean energy’ for the social and ecological benefit of us all. We can and should do better.


Debbie Martin is an Associate Professor in the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University. @DalhousieDebbie

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