Suspended sentences for 16 found guilty of civil contempt during 2016 Muskrat Falls protest

·7 min read
John Gaudi/CBC
John Gaudi/CBC

A group of protesters who were found guilty of civil contempt of court relating to a protest at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric site in 2016 have been given suspended sentences for breaching an injunction — marking a bittersweet day for protesters who have spent the last four years in court.

Justice George Murphy handed down the sentences in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Supreme Court on Tuesday.

All 16 protesters will have to sign an undertaking that they will keep peace and be of good behaviour, and comply with court orders, for the next two years, which he said he hopes will mark the end of the court proceedings stemming from the 2016 protests.

In January 2020, Murphy found 14 members of the Labrador Land Protectors group guilty of contempt of civil court for breaking an injunction in October 2016 that ordered people not to enter Nalcor's Muskrat Falls work site, or to block access to it. Two others had previously pleaded guilty.

Murphy said the court took "no pleasure whatsoever" in ordering the protesters into custody when that injunction was breached, adding that he understands the protesters feel passionately about the controversial project, but that the rule of law must be obeyed, or there will be consequences.

This is a very broken system and there's still a tremendous amount of work for us to do. - Denise Cole

People can disagree with court orders and publicly express that disagreement, he said, but just because they disagree does not mean they can ignore the orders or refuse to comply with them.

Murphy also said the protesters did not seem to understand that the contempt of court was nothing to do with Muskrat Falls, the environment, Indigenous rights, reconciliation or ownership of land — issues he said that are very important to the court and to society — but rather, the charges had to do with the actual actions, not the motivations of the protesters.

The protesters who appeared in the courtroom Tuesday, including Denise Cole, took issue with those comments.

Jacob Barker/CBC
Jacob Barker/CBC

"That's not reconciliation; that's like a tap on the head saying, 'I appreciate that you think that you're right. I'm here to tell you you're wrong and in my era of reconciliation I won't punish you as much as I could.' That's really the breakdown of it," Cole said.

"I'm not arrogant, but I'm aware this is a very broken system and there's still a tremendous amount of work for us to do."

The Canadian court system is where "two worlds collide," Cole said, adding that she feels a colonial legal system may be feeling threatened by an Indigenous movement.

"We all sort of go under the belief that we have these constitutionally protected rights as Canadians, and then we realize that there's a lot of ifs or buts," Cole said.

"From him, it's that I don't respect him and the court enough, but for me he's talking about my creator who has given me a responsibility to next generations and to my culture, to the land and to the water — there's a responsibility that I hold there, and it tells me that he still doesn't get that. Which is a shame."

'Conviction of the heart'

Murphy's comments also struck a nerve for Kirk Lethbridge, who said he and every protester he spoke with at the time were acting on their concerns about what the hydroelectric project would mean for their homeland.

"I think that's ridiculous on his part to say that. I don't think one of us was out there doing this because we were on some crime spree or ego trip. I think that everybody that walked on the North Spur, occupied the camp, I think that all of us, each individual, we all did that on conviction of the heart," Lethbridge said.

"We all had better things to do than to play around with something so serious."

Lethbridge said one of the biggest worries that moved him to action in 2016 was a concern about methylmercury levels in the water as a result of the damming of Muskrat Falls.

Levels of methylmercury have long been a point of contention, and as recently as November, an American researcher was again raising the alarm about the toxic organic compound, while a contractor for Crown corporation Nalcor insisted levels are safe.

Janet Cooper/Facebook
Janet Cooper/Facebook

"When I see the people of Labrador disrespected, the land and the environment is disrespected, and poison is in the water, that makes me emotional, yes," Lethbridge said.

"History will show that there was a revolution, a non-violent revolution, and we came together like we never have before, and history will also show that the people that stood here today [had] great courage."

The falls have been dammed, and while the hydroelectric project is still not up and running, Lethbridge said, it's still a tough pill to swallow.

"You feel like you've been repunched in the belly, somewhat, but nothing compared to what it looks like when you look out at the reservoir and at the dam," she said.

"I'm proud of all of us for what we've done, what we stood for. We were accused of being trespassers on Nalcor property when I'm still of the belief that it was Nalcor that's the actual trespasser here."

Jacinda Beals said it's a "surreal day" to finally be done with the court process that's been weighing on her for the last four years, but it was difficult to listen to the decision.

John Gaudi/CBC
John Gaudi/CBC

"A lot of what he said was really hard to listen to. You hope that after four years he might understand, the court might understand: none of us are criminals, none of us had charges before, none of us would have been here if the dam weren't being created and our lives weren't put at risk. It's as simple as that," Beals said.

"We would not be here if it wasn't for Nalcor and that dam."

Beals said adding her voice to the protest was never just a choice for her — it was vital.

"We all understood the rule of law. We just believed that this was too important," she said through tears after the judge's decision.

"We had to take a stand. I know that I could not … I could not stay at home and let this happen without trying to stop it. And as scared as I was about all of this — judges and jail — I still had to do it, I had to fight, I had to do what I could, and I know I'm not the only one who felt like that."

Cole, Lethbridge and Beals all agree they'll sign the two-year conditions, and are happy to finally be done with the drawn-out court process that has cost them money, energy and time over the years but the worries will likely dog their steps for years to come.

Donald Edmunds
Donald Edmunds

"I'm disappointed that we're all put on these conditions for two years and it does feel like we're criminals, like they look at us as criminals, but I'm relieved that nobody else is going to jail. It's been four years since I got arrested that morning and it's something that I live with every day, and I know all of us feel that hurt," Beals said.

"We've got communities living in fear, people living on the riverbank living in fear. Mud Lake is over there suffering every day waiting for this dam to let go.… Nobody's convinced that it's safe."

Cole said she's never been in trouble with the law before but said the protest was worth it, because it "woke up" not just her generation, but younger generations.

"I think a lot of Labradorians weren't aware of their own power. And now they are."

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