Last week Lake Melville MHA Keith Russell took a poke at Land Protectors who set up a blockade at the entrance of Muskrat Falls.
Russell went to media and said, in part, “And you have people talking about Mother Earth, and sacred waters and, you know, spirits flowing through these rivers, and that’s all well and good. But people have to understand too that there is a real need for this development. ”
He went further to say he didn’t buy into the “mumbo jumbo” about the trail leading to Muskrat Falls as being scared ground.
Russell, who is of aboriginal decent and served as a member of the Inuit government of Nunatsiavut, said he spoke out of frustration over the protest against Muskrat Falls.
“The reference that I made, if you go back, I certainly apologize, it certainly was not my intent to use my comments as a broad statement about aboriginal peoples in general or spirituality. I am a spiritual person myself,”
Russell said, as an aboriginal person and a Labradorian person, he was raised to respect people’s beliefs.
“I shouldn’t be in this role, one to judge other peoples’ beliefs, whatever they are. I guess I was just a little over zealous in terms of trying to get my message across. I want people to look at the broader picture, if you will: the need for the power, the economic benefits, the jobs, the opportunity for us to address some of the social issues within our community and our aboriginal communities as well, I certainly wasn’t sensitive to the Innu elders in terms of their beliefs.”
He said that he has a duty to be more sensitive to all of the people that he represents in the district, regardless of what aboriginal group they come from and even if they are not part of an aboriginal group.
In April of 2011 Russell, who was then with the Nunatsiavut government spoke before commission hearing regarding Muskrat Falls and said, “But we certainly have to acknowledge the fact that if you’re born and raised and grew up here or you came here to Labrador and you moved into Upper Lake Melville and you did some travelling on the land and you did some fishing and you did some hunting and you visited other communities, the mouth of the river is somewhere you pass to get somewhere else, to get something done, to be somewhere, to see something and to go interact with the land, which defines who we are as Labradorians.”
When asked about that statement to the commission and the difference from 2011 and now, Russell said, “Some may think I did a complete 180 from my position back then to my position right now. The fact remains being raised here, on the land by my grandparents and my father, and we did spend a lot of time hunting and fishing and that was part of our diet, no doubt and still is to this day, we were taught to respect the land, and I still do hold all those things dear in terms of being environmentally conscious about what development does.”
Russell said back when he spoke to the commission, it was as an aboriginal person, in representation of 2,000 plus aboriginal people as part of the Nunatsiavut government’s land claim.
“Certainly the scope of representation with this new role with the provincial government has certainly changed. We have more communities and we have 10,000 strong in Lake Melville and it is my duty ensure that all aspects of this project and all people of this community are included in my representation. In terms of the amount of money generated by this project and the jobs created and the educational opportunities, I have to put the district first.”
Russell said of the amount of spinoffs created by the development of Muskrat Falls and the chance of the by-products of this mega development with recreational infrastructure, senior infrastructure: “We cannot doubt that mega projects bring a certain amount of economic stimulus to a district, and the people, whether you are aboriginal or not, are going to greatly benefit from this project.”
Even though there have been problems with the Voisey Bay project, such as unemployment for people in the community due to jobs that community members were told they were coming and did not materialize, Russell still holds hope that if Muskrat Falls does go everyone in Labrador will benefit from the project.
“What I think we need to see is the aboriginal organizations come together with the provincial government, with contractors, with unions, we have to maximize employment and the benefits locally, there’s no question about it. You need to have people in line and we have had some of that with the Aboriginal Training Partnership. You need to have people of aboriginal decent and people who are settlers as well. You have to have people lined up to speak for those training opportunities, for those jobs, in order to benefit and increase the quality of life for those families.”
Russell says shortly the government will be going into debate over development of Muskrat Falls and hopefully the project will be sanctioned. He said what will happen is reports will be presented to the assembly about the various alternatives.
“People have talked about natural gas, wind power and other alternatives and we are going to put those reports to the floor of the house. In terms of the cost of this project we need to know what is the cost, those numbers need to come in. We are not saying this is all said and done, we want that final debate to be based on the real cost of this project and the real numbers associated with the alternatives too,” he said.
Russell said that the government is not prepared nor is he prepared go ahead with a project that will damage the province, or damage future generations.
“We have to make that right decision and that is why we will be heading into debate.”
The effects of Muskrat Falls project will be the flooding of traditional caribou migration trails, which benefit people of Labrador as well as the Innu of Quebec; Russell says all that has to be taken into consideration.
“If you look at the Smallwood Reservoir and the intended footprint of the Lower Churchill it is much different, we are looking at maybe 120 square kilometres that would be effected, so those things have to be considered in order to be responsible to people and responsible to all natural resources, not just the river but to the species in the river.”
Russell said he hopes that people here in Labrador will take all things regarding Muskrat Falls into consideration when considering whether or not they will support the project.
“You have to strike a balance between environmental concern, economic benefit, and spiritual belief as well, and having said that I am hoping people be engaged in the debate as we head towards, hopefully sanctioning in the house this project and I hope people are willing to listen to everything, including the alternatives, the cost of the project and how this project can help us stabilize rates and what environmental benefits this will bring.”