Innu Nation blasts scholars calling for halt to Muskrat Falls project

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Innu Nation blasts scholars calling for halt to Muskrat Falls project

The Innu Nation is blasting an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed by 200 academics calling for a stop to the Muskrat Falls project, calling the letter offensive and factually incorrect.

And they're asking for an apology. 

"We had no idea that she was here," Innu Nation land claims negotiator Peter Penashue said, speaking of Deborah Cowen, a professor of geography from the University of Toronto. Cowen was a signatory to the letter and was involved with circulating it. 

The open letter came after Cowen and a group of academics and researchers travelled to Labrador in June and met with representatives of Indigenous groups as well as with Nalcor officials.

Penashue was upset he only learned of their visit after the letter was already in the public.

"We find that very disrespectful and very arrogant of her to do research without consulting with people in the leadership of the Innu Nation," Penashue said.

"I'm hoping that they will take the time to review the evidence and then apologize to the Innu Nation for their ill-advised statements," he said.

The open letter stated there were two "ecological disasters" waiting to unfold as a result of Muskrat Falls, one being the potential collapse of the North Spur and the other, the elevated levels of methylmercury that would be created in water downstream from the project once it is completed.

"It was very, very clear to me, from my own eyes, from the accounts I heard, from residents, from Indigenous people and from the research, the independent research that's been done — that this project really needs to halt," Cowen said in an interview after the letter was released. 

Penashue noted the Innu Nation had voted against a recommendation for further clearing of vegetation in the reservoir.

"The scientists told us don't do anything and the oversight committee, as it's known, voted and changed that decision," Penashue said. 

The Innu Nation also took exception to a section of the open letter that stated the New Dawn agreement made the Innu land claim dependent on Innu support for Muskrat Falls.

"The Innu of Labrador chose to support the Lower Churchill project under the very carefully and extensively negotiated arrangements concluded under the IBA," reads a letter signed by Grand Chief Gregory Rich and Deputy Chief Etienne Rich.

It goes on to cite "careful and extensive participation in the environmental assessment for the project where we probed as deeply as any of the other parties into the potential environmental impacts of the project."

​In an email to the Innu Nation Wednesday, Cowen told the grand chief she was "profoundly sorry for disrespecting you with the open letter I was involved with signing and circulating. This was certainly not the intention but I understand it was the effect."

In a follow-up letter Thursday she stands by the substance of the letter.

"Our letter was crafted and circulated in consultation with the Labrador Land Protectors, a grassroots movement which includes members from all of the impacted Indigenous communities," Cowen wrote.

"Nevertheless, we intended no disrespect to your leadership or the leadership of Nunatsiavut or NunatuKavut and I am certainly open to discussing this vital issue with you further."

Stand your ground, says protest group  

The Labrador Land Protectors group, which has opposed the Muskrat Falls project, is encouraging the scholars to hold their ground.

"Those of us involved in this resistance have always had opponents who criticize us who tell us we're in the wrong but we still stand fast to what we believe to be the truth," said spokesperson Denise Cole.

"So that's really what we're asking the scholars to do."

The group released its own letter directed at the scholars, in response to the Innu Nation's letter, Wednesday morning.

"We know you are feeling the pressure today from adding your names to a cause that has many complex dynamics," reads the letter. 

"Please know that your signatures are important and justified on the open letter asking for action on the Muskrat Falls project."

Cole said there is a different tone from the Innu leadership, which has changed since protests in 2016.

"When Anastasia Qupee was grand chief, she stood and raised her hands with president Todd Russell from Nunatukavut and Johannes Lampe from the Nunatsiavut government," Cole said.

"[She] made the commitment that, yes, we will do everything to 'make Muskrat right.'"

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