Don't whitewash police violence at Muskrat Falls
By Hans Rollman
October 19, 2016
Let's talk about language.
When photos surfaced of Rigolet resident Emily Wolfrey being physically
lifted in the air by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and dragged
off under arrest, some -- myself included -- referred to it as an "attack."
According to our editor Justin Brake, who was the only reporter at the
scene, "After six arrests, 21-year old Emily Ann Wolfrey of Rigolet was
violently arrested...Wolfrey was upset and yelling at a police officer,
who then suddenly charged toward her. Wolfrey resisted and three other
police officers moved in to help with the arrest at #muskratfalls blockade."
Others were quick to resist that language. The officers were simply
enforcing an injunction, they said -- it's not an attack when they're
enforcing the law. The Land Protectors should have predicted they'd be
arrested. It's not an attack when it's predictable, said some. Unless
there was "unnecessary" force used, the standard term is simply
"arrest," said others.
It's important to note that the critics were mostly white men commenting
from armchairs in St. John's, not the front lines of the struggle among
Indigenous communities in Labrador where land protectors and hunger
strikers have been fighting for weeks to resist the imminent flooding of
their land by the Muskrat Falls hydro development, which scientists have
projected will result in dangerous levels of methylmercury exposure
throughout the local food chain if more stringent environmental
standards are not followed.
But what all these critiques ignore are the power dynamics at play on
the ground, and Labrador's history of colonialism.
Think about the situation for a moment. An Indigenous woman is fighting
desperately to protect her family's food source and way of life. If the
fish, seal and other animals in Lake Melville become unsafe to eat, her
entire community's existence as it is and has been for almost 300 years
will end. Moreover, the people of Rigolet, many of whom still live with
the legacy of residential schools and the intergenerational trauma they
spawned, are only trying to exist as they are, where they are.
Colonialism = violence
In the midst of the fight for her family and community, a federal police
officer orders her to stand in a "safe zone" unless she wants to be
arrested, and then minutes later charges toward her for doing nothing
more than expressing her distress over the imminent loss of her family's
ability to feed themselves. Multiple officers then lift this young woman
off the ground against her will and force her into a police car. No
matter where it happens in this country, Canadian police arresting
Indigenous people for fighting for their lives constitutes an attack and
an expression of colonialism.
Moreover, the very act of enforcing court injunctions and flooding the
reservoir in defiance of local inhabitants' concerns constitutes an
attack by the provincial government and Nalcor against rural Indigenous
communities. Muskrat Falls is but the latest effort to colonize
Nitassinan, NunatuKavut and Nunatsiavut, as the project disrupts the
natural environment and way of life in all three of Labrador's
The language that is used in these circumstances is biased in favour of
the powerful. A state-sanctioned act of violence against a young woman
is still an act of violence. A state-sanctioned act of violence against
an entire region -- poisoning their waterways and food -- is still an
act of violence.
Google defines the word rather clearly: "attack (noun): an aggressive
and violent action against a person or place."
Let's be clear: Muskrat Falls, and the actions of Nalcor and the
provincial government, constitute an act of racist violence against
rural and largely Indigenous communities in Labrador.
When those who share the privileges of class, race and ethnicity with
the people in power police the language that other people use to
describe their experiences of oppression, they're acting to perpetuate
the power and dominance of their class and race against those who
challenge it. Their experiences become the norm. Their perception of
what is an attack, and what is everyday business, becomes the norm.
In this case, Nalcor and the provincial government have the full
resources of an armed police force, ranks of high-priced lawyers and an
apparently limitless budget of billions of dollars to defend their right
to do whatever they want at Muskrat Falls and in Labrador, even at the
expense of the health, lives, and locals' sense of security.
Meanwhile, local communities have neither wealth, nor lawyers, nor armed
police on their side. All they have is themselves: their bodies and
their will to resist in the defence of their land, health, and their
More than 100 locals marched onto the site on Sunday, putting their
physical bodies on the line. When you consider how sparsely populated
Labrador is, these numbers are remarkable.
Several remained at a blockade outside the main gate overnight, further
committing their bodies to the cause.
Inuk artist Billy Gauthier is now on day five of his hunger strike,
throwing his own body and health up in the defence of his community.
There are now reportedly two other people in Labrador on hunger strike
against the project.
By saying the acts of Nalcor and the provincial government, and the
police officers who will quell any inconvenient resistance on the
ground, do not constitute an attack on the communities and peoples of
Labrador, simply because they have money and the law on their side, is
whitewashing what's actually happening. It's whitewashing the colonial
and racist legacy of governance in this province (and country), and it's
whitewashing the disproportionate imbalance in wealth and power between
white urban elites in St. John's and rural, largely Indigenous
communities in Labrador.
It's whitewashing racism. It's whitewashing violence.
Saying "they're just doing their job" is, as recent years have shown,
insufficient moral justification for acts of police and other state
agents. State agents were "just doing their job" when they tore children
away from their families and home communities in the early-twentieth
century and sent them to endure abuse at the hands of residential
schools. It was fully legal. It was not right.
The provincial government and Nalcor are acting in irresponsible fashion
when they use police to enforce corporate profit. Not only is this an
inappropriate use of public resources, but it undermines community trust
in policing and undermines the ability of police to do their job in
Labrador. How can it not undermine public trust in police officers when
they intervene on behalf of distant corporations against unarmed
community elders and youth who are simply trying to prevent their land
from being poisoned?
These days, spitting on a police officer is considered "assault" by the
law and prosecuted as such. Yet when three armed men pick up a young
woman who's trying to defend the safety of her community and future
generations, it's not? Preferential treatment for the wealthy and
powerful is built into the law. Using it in this fashion, as Nalcor and
the provincial government have done, is exploiting that privilege and
perpetuating the racist, colonial foundations on which it is built.
It's important not to feel intimidated in the language we use. It is not
"loaded language" to refer to efforts by a corporation to poison your
food chain as an attack. It is not "loaded language" to refer to it as
an "attack" when rural and Indigenous inhabitants who have no other
means of resistance besides their own bodies put those bodies on the
line to defend their communities, and are beset by armed police officers
and dragged away and imprisoned. It is not "loaded language" to refer to
an ongoing legacy of racism and colonialism as an "attack" on the
natural rights of rural and Indigenous communities in Labrador.
Racism and colonialism are not just a matter of history: they're a
matter of ongoing public policy by Nalcor and the Newfoundland and
Labrador provincial government. They're a matter of ongoing injustice in
which the federal Liberal government is equally complicit through its
silence and its willingness to consider guaranteeing billions more
dollars in loans to the province that makes this ‘attack' on rural
So yes, let's talk about these things. But let's not whitewash them.
Sustainablelorgbiofuel mailing list