Inuit grandmother jailed after refusing to stay away from Muskrat Falls
Police have taken an Inuk woman into custody in Happy Valley-Goose Bay after she refused to promise a Supreme Court of N.L. judge she would stay away from the Muskrat Falls construction site in Central Labrador.
Beatrice Hunter, a mother, grandmother and land protector from Hopedale now living in Goose Bay, went before Supreme Court Justice George Murphy on Monday after allegedly defying a recognizance in protest on May 22 after promising not to be within one kilometre of the Muskrat Falls site.
Hunter is one of dozens of mostly Indigenous land protectors facing civil and criminal charges related to their efforts to resist the controversial dam, which they say threatens their water, food, safety and ability to practice their traditional ways of life.
Hunter’s 23-year-old son Scott Dicker, who also faces charges related to the Muskrat Falls protests and was also in court Monday for participating in the May 22 protest, said when his mother was asked by Murphy whether she would stay away, Hunter said she “can’t make any promises about it,” he recalls.
Hunter’s response prompted the judge to order her into custody until a follow-up hearing at 3:30 p.m. the same day, Dicker told The Independent Tuesday.
Hunter reportedly said she will represent herself in court, where she faces civil and criminal charges related to the Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp last fall. She also reportedly said she will plead not-guilty to the charges.
Dicker said his mother would “never hurt a fly,” and that he was upset at the sight of her being taken into custody by sheriff’s officers.
Gail Pilgrim, a longtime friend of Hunter’s and another grandmother and land protector facing charges related to the Muskrat occupation, describes Hunter as a “family-oriented person” whose granddaughter “is her world.”
“She adores that little girl,” Pilgrim says, fighting back tears. “Same as me — I adore my grandchildren.”
Pilgrim says if she, Hunter and other parents and grandparents have to watch their children and grandchildren suffer the consequences of Muskrat Falls, “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself — my conscience would just get the best of me.
“And same as Beatrice. She needs to know her children and grandchildren are going to be alright. But nobody can guarantee that, not with Muskrat Falls. It’s so sad.
“We’re just standing our ground and saying this isn’t right.”
“We’re fighting for the future”
In April Hunter told The Independent she and other land protectors are “not fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for the future.
“We’re fighting to ensure that there’s not more [methylmercury] poisoning, and we’re fighting to ensure that our people don’t get drowned because Nalcor doesn’t tell us anything — they’re not being transparent,” she said, referencing the public concern around the North Spur and what she calls crown energy corporation Nalcor Energy’s failure to alleviate anxiety among people living downstream by providing evidence their lives are not being put at risk by the dam.
“If they were transparent this would be a whole different story,” she added. “But you kind of wonder — it’s all corrupt when they’re not telling you everything.”
Dicker says when his mother was brought back into the courtroom later Monday afternoon Murphy asked her multiple times if she would promise to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.
“But she held her guard and she said, ‘I’m not keeping that promise,’” he recalls.
Dicker says the judge ordered a recess and allowed him and his mother to speak in another room in the courthouse.
“And she said, ‘I can’t — I know in my heart this is the right thing to do, so I can’t back down from it.’
“We were talking for about 5-10 minutes, me trying to convince her, but she still held her ground,” Dicker recalls. “When the recess was over we went back in, and the judge asked again if she would keep the promise and she said no. And then the sheriff’s [officers] put her in cuffs and in the back room.”
The sight of Hunter being handcuffed after her first refusal to comply with the judge’s order upset Dicker, who says he “ended up punching a door in the courtroom” before walking away.
When Hunter was ordered into custody for 10 days, one woman in attendance reportedly shouted out an expletive and left the courtroom, slamming the door on her way out. She was brought back before the judge by sheriff’s officers and apologized.
After the hearing supporters blocked an RCMP van arriving at the courthouse to take Hunter to jail.
They eventually let the van through, but once Hunter was escorted into the vehicle five supporters laid on the ground in front of the van, preventing it from taking Hunter away.
Dicker said the scene was “at a standstill for about 20 minutes” before police brought his mother back into the courthouse.
Police warned Hunter’s supporters, many of them land protectors, that if they blocked the vehicle again they would be charged with obstruction.
Hunter was subsequently put aboard the van and taken to jail at the RCMP detachment up the road from the courthouse.
Later that evening about 50 supporters held a vigil outside the RCMP detachment on Hamilton River Road.
People drummed and waved Labrador flags in front of the elevated windows of the jail cells inside.
At one point, supporters reported on social media, they could hear a banging sound from inside the brick walls that was in synch with the drum beat outside. They also said they saw a hand reach up from below one of the barred cell windows.
“You feel like you’re standing alone…trying to make a voice for Labrador”
Dicker says he, his mother and their family is “really close,” and that Hunter has “always been there for other people.
“She has a big heart,” he says, pausing to compose himself, his voice over the phone audibly emotional. “Even throughout the [Muskrat Falls] protests she was the only one who was able to keep me in line, from over-reacting and stuff. She’s always been the level-headed one in the family.”
While Monday’s court appearance was on a civil matter of breaking an injunction and recognizance, on Tuesday afternoon Hunter appeared in Goose Bay provincial court, where she faces two criminal charges related to the Muskrat Falls occupation.
Dicker says she informed the judge she would represent herself and that she intended to plead not-guilty to the two criminal charges of mischief relating to a testamentary instrument or property greater than $5,000, and unlawfully disobeying a court order.
Dicker says his mother appeared tired when she was escorted into the courtroom in handcuffs, and that she began to cry when she looked at him.
Pilgrim says Hunter is a “strong” and “wonderful person,” and that she is standing by her convictions because she “believes in leaving clean, fresh water and food for her family — because we all eat traditional food, we all go out fishing and hunting; we eat it.
“And she knows if the methylmercury poisoning is going to go ahead, which it is because they’re not clearing [the reservoir], we won’t be able to do that anymore. And she knows what they’re doing is wrong, wrong for everybody. People lost their homes, and I think that’s what sent her over the edge — that’s why she stood her ground.”
In April Hunter told The Independent she and others continue to resist Muskrat Falls because they were “called to do this.”
She said on Oct. 22, the day a protest outside the project’s main gate spontaneously turned into an occupation of the on-site workers’ camp, “everyone felt it — even the non-believers felt it.
“I remember one land protector during the occupation say he didn’t know if he believed in God, but he knew there was a higher power at work when we went through that gate,” she explained.
“This is pushing me beyond my boundaries, but when deep down you can feel it being the right thing to do, then you can’t question it.”
But Hunter admitted continuing to resist the project after Premier Dwight Ball and Indigenous leaders negotiated a deal behind closed doors after the occupation last fall, public support and support from the Indigenous governments and organizations has been diminished, leaving her and other feeling alone.
The deal included, among other things, a monitoring program of methylmercury levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir. But locals have repeatedly said they don’t understand the methlymercury data published on the government’s website, and that they don’t trust Nalcor or the government will clear the reservoir of topsoil and vegetation or otherwise act in the people’s best interest.
“You feel like you’re standing alone and you’re trying to make a voice for Labrador,” she said. “So it was a little bit difficult there, but I felt a lot better today after seeing all the other Labrador land protectors, because we hadn’t seen each other for a while,” she continued, explaining she had reunited with others at a court appearance that day.
“We believe what we’re doing is right”
Pilgrim says she and Hunter and others are “only standing up because we believe what we’re doing is right. We believe we have the right to clean drinking water and fish and hunting rights — what we’ve always done.”
She says she would “love to see a lot of people come out and stand up for [Hunter] and say, no, we’re not going to take this.
“I want to see a lot of people stand up [against Muskrat Falls] the way Beatrice did.”
In April Hunter, a Nunatsiavut beneficiary, repeatedly called for Nunatsiavut Government to support her and other Inuit land protectors in their legal battle.
“This is for the future, this is for generations to come,” she said.
“We need all the support we can get. I can’t afford a lawyer. Me and my son can’t afford a lawyer, [but] we feel it was the right thing to do, when we went in in October, because we had no voice.”
Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe did not respond to a request for comment for this story by the time of publication.
Hunter and other land protectors have repeatedly said elected politicians have not adequately supported them or addressed their concerns.
“Our premier is also our Labrador and Aboriginal affairs minister,” she continued. “Who are we supposed to turn to? We had no one to turn to if we have any concerns. We had no voice.”
Labrador MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Yvonne Jones, who has often touted the federal government’s commitment to reconciliation, also did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Nor did provincial justice minister Andrew Parsons, who has only said his department is consulting with other provinces on how they are addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action related to integrating Aboriginal systems of justice.
According to 2014-2015 Statistics Canada data, 27 percent of adults admitted to correctional services in Newfoundland and Labrador were Aboriginal, though the most recent available data indicates Indigenous people comprised only seven percent of the province’s population.
Last month Parsons told The Independent that the provincial government “recognizes the importance of Indigenous justice systems and is committed to Indigenous engagement on justice issues,” and that they are “diligently working with other government departments, as well as our federal and territorial counterparts, to develop policies in response to the TRC.”
However, he said the matters presently before the courts in relations to Indigenous people in Labrador trying to protect their land and livelihoods “must be allowed to take their proper course.”
On Monday Inuk land protector Marjorie Flowers said in a livestream broadcast on the Labrador Land Protectors’ Facebook page that Judge Murphy’s ordering Hunter into custody for 10 days is “a direct hit on the Labrador Land Protectors to stop us from protesting the destruction of the culture.
“He’s effectively put an end to it, or he thinks he has, because he’s took her and jailed her. This is total colonialism at its goddamned finest.”
On Tuesday supporters returned to the RCMP detachment in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in an attempt to communicate with Beatrice from outside the facility.
They chanted “the people united will never be divided,” and then chanted her name, cheering when they saw what they thought was Hunter’s hand.
Also Tuesday, St. John’s resident Matthew Della Valle launched a two week protest outside Nalcor’s headquarters in the capitol city, where he is calling for a number of measures that would ensure the safety and security of people living downstream of Muskrat Falls.
“I am deeply moved by Beatrice Hunter’s strength in standing up for her people,” he told The Independent on Tuesday. “Her stand [Monday] is inspiring to say the least [and] speaks volumes to us all.”
Della Valle said he believes “the charges against the protectors should be dropped because they are not justified at all.
“They are standing up for their people, their culture, their way of life and what they hold sacred and dear for themselves and their children and the many generations to come.”
Dicker, asked what he feels he can do, if anything, while his mother is incarcerated, says he will continue to stand by her side.
“I have to be brave for her now,” he says, “so I’m going to stick with her as far as I can.”