Indigenous Resistance to Megaprojects Escalates in Canada, U.S.
Indigenous resistance to energy megaprojects escalated in both Canada and the United States, as protesters entered the construction site of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric power project in Newfoundland and Labrador, while police arrested scores of others who were trying to block construction of an oil pipeline across private land near the Standing Rock Sioux reserve in North Dakota.
Near Goose Bay, Labrador, tensions increased over the weekend at the construction site of provincially-owned Nalcor Energy’s $11.4-billion, 824-megawatt Muskrat Falls hydro generation project. Indigenous residents downstream from the project are protesting the company’s decision to leave some trees standing when it begins to flood its 41-square-kilometre reservoir. Leaving the vegetation standing is expected to increase levels of methylmercury, a neurotoxin, in water downstream from the reservoir outfall, contaminating the wild fish and game on which many local people rely for food.
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Citing a Nalcor spokesperson, the National Observer reported Saturday that “protesters and vehicles entered the work site near Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and a blockade of around 150 people formed outside the main entrance.” On Monday, CBC News said, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police beefed up its presence at the conflict site, bringing in a tactical response team and closing a highway leading to it.
The national broadcaster also reported the company’s assertion that some protesters had “begun moving toward potentially dangerous construction equipment” at the job site.
“The Crown utility said equipment, electrical infrastructure, and other machinery in the area pose ‘many safety hazards and risks,’ and are urging those onsite to exercise caution,” the CBC added.
In another effort to draw attention to the protest, the Toronto Star reported that Inuk artist Billy Gauthier and two Goose Bay residents were travelling to Ottawa while conducting a hunger strike, hoping to urge the federal government to intervene in the standoff.
“Being Labradorians, we’re stubborn and we’re strong, so we don’t believe we can’t win,” Gauthier told the Star by phone.
The weekend also saw a pitched battle erupt between police and as many as 300 members of a resistance camp in North Dakota seeking to block the US$3.7-billion Dakota Access Pipeline Project, in which Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. holds slightly more than a one-third stake. The line is meant to carry up to 570,000 barrels a day of crude oil from that state’s Bakken shale fields to southern Illinois.
“Law enforcement was alerted early Saturday morning to an SUV on private property near the pipeline construction site and found that four men had attached themselves to the vehicle,” Reuters reports, citing the Morton County sheriff’s department.
“Later, around 300 protesters marched toward pipeline construction equipment and tried to breach a police line keeping them from the equipment,” it continued, based on the sheriff’s statement. “Some were pepper sprayed by law enforcement,” Reuters adds, and authorities arrested more than 80 people on a variety of charges.
CNN, meanwhile, suggested the number arrested may have been closer to 130, and reported that police confirmed trying to shoot down a camera drone the protesters were using to document the confrontation.
“Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier confirmed the incident,” the news channel said, “saying the drone endangered a law enforcement helicopter flying over the area.
“Today’s situation clearly illustrates what we have been saying for weeks, that this protest is not peaceful or lawful,” Kirchmeier said. “It was obvious to our officers that the protesters engaged in escalated unlawful tactics and behaviour during this event. This protest was intentionally coordinated and planned by agitators with the specific intent to engage in illegal activities.”
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, supported by a growing number of celebrities and environmental activists, have been protesting construction of the 1,886-kilometre pipeline for months. Video from earlier confrontations showed private pipeline security forces using attack dogs to disperse protesters.
The community says the pipeline threatens the Missouri River, which it will cross, as well as what the Rapid City Journal describes as “a massive, tribal-owned water system that provides millions of gallons of drinkable water every day for tens of thousands of people—both Native and non-Native—in western South Dakota.”
“Some of us are wondering why the white communities haven’t showed up in support,” resistance camp member Mark K. Tilsen Jr. told the Journal. “I don’t think it’s out of racism. I think it’s lack of knowledge. I don’t think they realize that their way of life is in danger and that their water is in danger.”
However, Reuters reported that hundreds of people had gathered in Los Angeles to support the North Dakota resistance. And earlier this year, Indigenous groups across Canada and the United States entered a mutual defence treaty, agreeing to act together “to block all proposed pipeline, tanker, and rail projects affecting First Nations land and water.” The Standing Rock Sioux are among the signatory First Nations and U.S. tribes.
The two protests—one against a supposedly clean renewable energy source—also illustrate a warning reported earlier on The Energy Mix: that local concerns may animate stiff resistance to energy megaprojects, even when climate concerns aren’t at the forefront.