Controversy brews over legal aid representation
© Derek Montague
RCMP officers approach the group of protesters during the April 5 demonstration, while they lay down defiantly on the Trans-Labrador Highway.
Ten Muskrat Falls protesters had their provincial court hearing postponed after it was revealed that nine of the defendants had no legal council.
The court hearing, which was scheduled for Feb. 17, will now be held on May 21, in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Eight of the 10 defendants, including NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell, Garfield Bessey, Dorothy Earle, Marjorie Flowers, Edwin Heard, James Holwell, James (Jim) learning, and Lloyd Pardy, are facing three charges related to a Muskrat Falls demonstration that took place April 5, 2013.
During that demonstration, Russell, and about a dozen other NunatuKavut demonstrators, formed a traffic blockade in the early morning, preventing workers heading to Muskrat Falls from entering the South Coast turnoff on the Trans-Labrador Highway.
Two RCMP officers arrived on the scene and told the protesters they couldn’t stop people from going into work, and that the highway would have to be reopened. The officers informed Russell and his group that refusing their orders would result in charges of obstruction.
A couple hours after the RCMP’s first warning, about six more officers arrived on the scene. The officers asked the protestors one more time to step aside and let the Muskrat Falls traffic through.
Eight of the protesters, lead by Russell, responded by linking arms and lying on the road. One by one, the protestors were dragged away by police. In some cases it took four officers to carry away a protester.
The eight men and women were subsequently charged with resisting or obstructing a peace officer, mischief by interfering with use of property, and unlawfully disobeying an order of the court.
James Learning also has four more charges pending against him from two other Muskrat Falls demonstrations he participated in.
The other two men who appeared in court Feb. 17 — John learning and Ken Mesher — are facing one charge each for disobeying a court order. This charge stems from an incident in Dec. 2012, when the two men, along with James Learning, walked onto the Muskrat falls worksite as a form of protest against the project.
John Learning and Mesher were not involved in the April 5 arrests on the Trans-Labrador Highway.
During the court hearing, attorney Stacey Ryan, who is also the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area director for the Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission, told the court that the protesters tried applying to legal aid as a group. Stacey said the request had been denied, leaving all but Ken Mesher without any legal representation.
“People have to apply individually and be assessed … individually,” said Ryan.
After the hearing was adjourned, Todd Russell expressed his frustration with the legal aid process. He believed that the group would be able to get representation through the Aboriginal justice project.
“I’m extremely disappointed. I was told by the Legal Aid Commission that, under the Aboriginal justice project, we would be afforded legal representation,” claimed Russell.
“There was a board meeting of the Legal Aid Commission on Jan. 18 and subsequent to that … they had informed us that they had denied our request.”
Russell claims that he and his group were pretty much guaranteed by the Legal Aid Commission that they would receive representation. He speculated that there might have been political pressure for the commission not to represent them.
“We were told that we’re 99 per cent that they were going to fund us. So we’re wondering now if there’s not some politics involved …” said Russell.
The Labradorian left a phone message with the Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission, looking for a response to Russell’s claims. As of press time, the phone call has not been returned.
Russell and the other eight people, who need lawyers, now need a plan to find legal counsel. Russell doesn’t know whether or not they can use lawyers who are retained by the NunatuKavut Community Council.
“Right now, we got to go back and assess what our options are,” said Russell.
“We have lawyers for specific cases (at NCC). We’ll have to go back and see what our finances say …”