Muskrat Falls protesters' court battle ends after more than 4 years

·4 min read

After the Muskrat Falls protests in the fall of 2016, dozens of people were charged criminally and/or civilly with violating a court injunction ordering people not to trespass on the construction site, obstruct any traffic to or from the dam, or encourage others to do so.

Most of those charges have been dealt with in various ways over the last four years, and on Tuesday the final 16 people charged were sentenced.

Justice George Murphy of Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court handed down two-year suspended sentences to the group. Murphy had found 14 of them guilty of civil contempt of court in January 2020, and two had pleaded guilty.

Murphy said he had spoken many times in the various court proceedings over the last four years about the rule of law and the need for it to be respected.

He said when courts recognize legal rights and make orders for their enforcement, these orders must be followed or there will be consequences. People have a right to disagree with court orders and they can publicly express the fact they disagree, he said, but disagreement does not mean they can ignore the orders or refuse to comply with them.

“The court does understand and respect how passionately you were and are opposed to the Muskrat Falls project,” he said. “From a moral standpoint, people can sometimes have sympathy for individuals who defy a particular law or order. However, from a legal standpoint, this defiance cannot be tolerated or otherwise, court orders would cease to mean anything.”

He said the court proceedings have very little to do with the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, Indigenous rights, the ownership of land or the environment.

He said while these issues are very important to the court because they are important issues in society, they are only important to the court in these proceedings in that they help inform the court about what motivated some of the individuals.

Murphy said it was important to also recognize the people had not violated the injunction in the subsequent years and specifically referenced reconciliation.

“Given the nature of the underlying protests that gave way to the rise of these contempt-of-court proceedings, including the factors motivating the protests, the significant community support for the protests, and the fact that many of the protesters were Indigenous, I have concluded this is an appropriate case where the promotion of reconciliation is a factor to be considered in the imposition of penalties.”

Mark Gruchy, who represented the 16 people and others associated with the Labrador Land Protectors group, said he was glad to see the case end the way it did, with no further custody for any of the people charged and reconciliation being recognized as a factor by Murphy.

“With respect to certain of the individuals involved, the sentence brought down, in my view, was lenient and merciful and the court explicitly recognised the importance of reconciliation as an objective in sentencing, which is an important thing. It’s one of the major themes in this case, in our point of view.”

He said it isn’t hard to find cases where people have served custodial sentences for breaching court orders, which didn’t happen here even in the more serious cases with multiple breaches. Reconciliation being considered as a mitigating factor was important in that, he said.

Gruchy said it was also important to note that never at any point was there non-peaceful action, even when a group occupied the Muskrat Falls site.

Some of the group who had occupied the site were among those sentenced Tuesday, including Kirk Lethbridge. Lethbridge, who also held a five-day hunger strike while on the site, said while it was a relief in some ways to see the court case finally end after four years, it doesn’t lessen any of the concerns he has over the hydroelectric project.

He said violating the injunction wasn’t about disrespecting the court or the rule of law, but was about trying to keep the people of Lake Melville safe.

“This was about trying to keep people from being poisoned, about keeping our culture alive, being able to eat and harvest the same food from the land we always had, and to be able to live without fear of a wave of sand and water rushing your way and destroying your community as it goes.”

Evan Careen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram