Protests against the Muskrat Falls hydro megaproject. Photo via

Oil & water

The “cost to your soul” of working in oil

Beatrice Hunter: They sold Muskrat Falls to us really well. We thought it was going to be almost like a saviour for jobs, because everybody was struggling. We thought we all were going to have jobs, good-paying jobs. I was totally excited. Until the truth started coming out.

When I heard about Billy Gauthier going on a hunger strike, I started joining the protests over at the Muskrat Falls gate. And then I started hearing about the methylmercury poisoning and how there was no independent study on the North Spur. I mostly wanted to support Billy Gauthier in his hunger strike. […] It was like, this was the right thing to do.

We occupied Muskrat Falls to try and get some answers from Nalcor [Energy] and the politicians and our Indigenous leaders. I knew I wanted to go all the way and it didn’t matter what it was, because I [was seeing] all Labradorians work together, and it was so inspiring that I felt I had to protect it somehow. I felt like I needed to protect something, protect what was going on because I had never seen all races in Labrador work together before.

There is a play by Newfoundland playwright Robert Chafe titled Oil and Water. It tells the true story of Lanier Phillips, the African-American sole survivor of a shipwreck off the coast of Newfoundland in 1942. The story plays an iconic role in the province, because Phillips – who went on to become a civil rights activist – always praised his rescuers for treating him with dignity. “I had never [previously] heard a kind word from a white man in my life,” he told the Washington Post in 2010. Chafe’s play juxtaposes Phillips’ struggle against racism with the class struggle of the poor Newfoundland miners who rescued Phillips.

These concepts – oil, water, racism, and class – run like a refrain through Newfoundland and Labrador’s modern history. After the collapse of the fishing industry in the early ’90s, the oil and gas industry took off as the primary generator of economic growth and employment for the province. Yet many Newfoundlanders who’ve found jobs in the oil industry have struggled with the work they do. It’s difficult spending long weeks away from their families and communities. And now a growing awareness of climate change, coupled with Indigenous resistance to projects that threaten the land, troubles many of those in the industry.

These concepts – oil, water, racism, and class – run like a refrain through Newfoundland and Labrador’s modern history.

When the Muskrat Falls hydro megaproject was announced in 2010, many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians thought it was their salvation. From oil, to water. Yet the project rapidly turned sour. Apart from cost overruns and delays- by Crown corporation Nalcor Energy, the project has seen sustained Indigenous-led opposition from local communities concerned about runoff from the dam that would contain the neurotoxin methylmercury. Methylmercury accumulates as it goes up the food chain, poisoning food sources in an area where many live off the land, hunt, and fish. They’re also worried about the risk of a geologic formation – the “North Spur” – collapsing and flooding local communities. And many have decried the destruction of a sacred river that plays a key role in local Indigenous culture. Protests at the project main gate culminated with RCMP surrounding the area in October 2016 and violently arresting protesters. This escalated the confrontation; several dozen land protectors broke the gate, stormed the site and occupied the workers’ camp. Over 20 of them still face charges.

Oil and water. Class and racism. These themes illustrate in tragic microcosm the challenges faced by workers seeking to transition out of oil and gas, into renewable energy. They also illustrate the tough labour of Indigenous communities struggling to protect land and water as these industries charge forward. Yet does our academic understanding of “work” and “labour” truly capture all this? Or is it too colonial a construct?

On October 22, 2016, about 50 land protectors – including Inuit teenage drum dancers Allyson Gear and Destiny Solomon, pictured here – broke through a gate to the project site and occupied the worker's accommodations complex for four days. Justin Brake/

The narrative of Beatrice Hunter frames this article. Hunter is an Inuk grandmother who participated in the 2016 occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp. In June 2017, she refused to promise a judge that she would abide by an order not to protest at the Muskrat Falls site. The judge had her arrested and she was deported from Labrador to a men’s penitentiary thousands of miles away from her community in St. John’s. After significant public outcry, including an investigation by Amnesty International, Hunter was returned to her community and family, but still faces charges.

Beatrice Hunter: I was never fearful when I occupied with my fellow Labradorians. Only the last day when we came out of the gate, on the fourth or fifth day, and when we all thought we were going to get arrested. That was a fear. And when they arrested us … that was scary. Because you didn’t know exactly what was going to happen next. We had a lawyer but we couldn’t get a hold of him. And you’re wondering, what’s going to happen next? Are you going to be sent to jail?

They released us under conditions that we had to stay one kilometre away [from the Muskrat Falls site]. Not long after that, Mud Lake flooded. So a few of the gatecrashers had gone to the gate in protest, because we knew Nalcor had released water, they just didn’t want to admit it. That following Monday we had to go answer to the judge for breaking our condition of staying one kilometre away.

I had been struggling and arguing with my god, because I felt the need to protect my son, and I did not sleep well that night. I knew what I had to do in order for everybody to find out what was going on, but it was scary. It was real scary, because you don’t know what the response from the judge was going to be like.

I never, ever thought I’d go to jail. Never, ever, ever. Never, ever, ever thought that would happen to me. Ever. Because I was intimidated by the cops. But now to save our lives, I’m going to say whatever I want. People are shocked that I say whatever I want. I don’t know why.

I just got fed up. I really got fed up with not being heard. I still feel we’re not being heard. It just seems like a game to everybody else but to me it’s something really personal, because you’re trying to save your family from drowning.

“If they had other options, they’d take them”

Delia Warren studied engineering at Memorial University in St. John’s. Her dream had always been to work in renewable energy. Instead, she’s spent most of the past decade working in oil and gas.

Streaming away from renewable energy toward oil and gas started early for students like Warren. Oil is the main industry in Newfoundland, and so most available student work terms were in that industry. Then there was the money – oil provided the highest-paying work terms, and university is expensive. As a fourth-year undergraduate, Warren was already earning more money on work terms than her mother, who’d worked as an operating room nurse for 25 years.

Oil and gas investment in the university played a role too: classrooms and halls were named after oil companies, student employment projects and research opportunities were funded by oil companies, and all this combined to create the perception that “I’ll probably have a better chance of success in my field if I go the oil and gas route,” she says.

When she graduated, an economic crisis was underway in the province, and while other classmates struggled to find work, Warren had a job offer on the table. So even though it was in oil and gas, she took it. She spent the next seven years working for an oil company in pipeline design and subsea engineering. She enjoyed the challenge of design work, but felt deeply conflicted about the industry employing her.

Her dream had always been to work in renewable energy. Instead, she’s spent most of the past decade working in oil and gas.

“I never felt motivated; I never felt passionate. I always had that internal tension because I knew I was working in the exact opposite field from what I had always wanted to work for,” she says. “My friends started branding me as a hypocrite for being so passionate about renewable energy and then working for the oil and gas industry. That was my daily life, being at odds with what I was doing and what I was feeling. […] I ended up quitting that job three times, with the intention of transitioning to the renewable energy industry.”

The first time she quit, her lack of experience in other fields worked against her efforts to leave oil and gas, and she wound up back at the same job. The next time round, it was the money – oil and gas jobs offered twice as much as other work, so she returned to the industry again.

“I do regret making that decision, but at [that] point I’d been out of work for six months, so I needed money,” she recalls. A year and a half later, she parted ways with the company for the third time.

“I said, ‘That’s enough; I’m never working in oil and gas ever again.’ I was sick of being at odds with myself and my own moral point of view.”

Warren’s experience isn’t unique. She says it’s common for students aspiring to study one type of engineering to find themselves streamed into oil and gas. Most of her classmates wound up either working in Alberta’s tarsands, or in Houston, or the Newfoundland offshore oil projects.

Warren now works as a regional director with Iron and Earth, a group advocating for renewable energy and job transition for oil and gas workers.

“It’s a misconception to think that if you work for the oil industry, you are in favour of that industry at all costs,” she says. “These workers are the ones on the front lines; they’re seeing the environmental damage that’s taking place. They’re also seeing the extreme wealth in that industry, […] and when you see that, you wonder, is it really worth this much? These industries are so wealthy and is that really fair?”

“These workers are the ones on the front lines; they’re seeing the environmental damage that’s taking place.”

“In the oilsands you’re seeing these huge amounts of soil getting displaced, and the tailings ponds. […] They see that first-hand and a lot of people get disturbed by it over time. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have worked in the oilsands and [it’s] traumatizing over time, because you’re seeing all of this environmental destruction and you know that you are working toward destroying the environment in that way. I don’t mean to demonize the oilsands, because a lot of people have great jobs there, […] but a lot of those people, I think, if they had other options, they’d take them.”

Beatrice Hunter: I just couldn’t believe the judge didn’t want to hear the reason why I did what I did. He doesn’t want to hear. Every time someone brings it up, he shuts them up. Every time a gatecrasher brings it up, he shuts them up. […] They know exactly how to oppress. They know exactly what they’re doing. This is my first time not being oppressed.

[Going to jail] was the hardest moment in my life, because I couldn’t kiss, or hug, or touch, or encourage, or deal with day-to-day life with the people I loved, with my family. It was the hardest 11 days of my life. But if I had to do it all over again? In a heartbeat. Because it’s the right thing to do. If you want to see your kids free, if you want to see your grandchild free, if you want things to be fair.

It took me a long time to heal, and I still have a way to go, but it’s the right thing to do. And I’d do it again. Just so I can sleep at night.

Muskrat Falls, renewable energy, and the “cost to your soul”

One of the only other places for engineering grads to find a job in Labrador has been the Muskrat Falls hydro megaproject.

Nathan Dixon also studied engineering at Memorial and was one of those attracted by the chance to get away from oil and gas. His background included a stint in the tarsands.

“That was just horrible,” he recalls with a shudder. “That really opened my eyes to the tarsands, the oil and gas. It sucked. You’re in the middle of a huge, huge mine, the size of St. John’s. Massive open pits, huge trucks driving, ginormous sulphur blocks five storeys high that look like bricks of gold but it’s sulphur, and just disgusting. We were on a barge in the middle of it, floating around the tailings. It was disgusting.”

“You’re in the middle of a huge, huge mine, the size of St. John’s. Massive open pits, huge trucks driving, ginormous sulphur blocks five storeys high.”

He eventually left that job but continued to find that his work experiences conflicted with his conscience. He worked one job in Peru, for a mining company in a remote mountainous area populated by Indigenous villagers who did not want the mine to proceed, and who sabotaged the team’s work at night.

“The locals kept cutting, they kept taking our equipment, because they were like, ‘You’re not putting a mine on this mountain.’ What hit home was halfway through, watching the military come in with their guns to these locals – who looked like they were all over 60 – and taking these locals away at gunpoint because they were cutting our equipment. That night I got on the satellite phone and I called my company and I said, ‘Book me a flight home. This is not for me. I can’t do this. I won’t be a part of it.’ And I left.”

The challenge of making ethical decisions about work was not something these engineers’ studies prepared them for.

“You’re taught that it’s done ethically,” Dixon says. “You’re taught that you’re doing the best that you can, that there’s procedures and there’s regulations that can control any catastrophe or any spills. They don’t show you, they don’t teach you the dark side. […] It took getting out into the real world, and actually seeing things happening, to understand.”

“We just weren’t [told] the actual risks, the damage, the personal costs, the land cost. It’s never broken down to the real world. There’s a book-smart and a street-smart, right? Well there’s a book-risk-value on everything. They do teach that. They teach about economic geology and economic oil and gas. But they never go into the cost to the environment. The cost to your soul, really, when you’re out there. It’s a different world.”

For Dixon, taking a job at Muskrat Falls was a conscious choice to seek a more ethical livelihood by transitioning into renewable energy.

“I want to do my part and not just go offshore and drill drill drill, extract extract extract. I’d like to spend my time working toward something different. I chose Muskrat Falls because that’s what’s here.”

“Your options are pretty limited here. Move to Alberta and do tarsands again? Stay here, and get a job offshore? There [were] no other options. There was no green energy. I would have loved to work on a wind farm, or solar, or even infrastructure construction projects – I would have loved to build a bridge, or do roads. But even that wasn’t an option. Those jobs are hiring 10 people; they aren’t hiring thousands to get them out of the oil and gas. It was so limited, I was basically stuck.”

“They teach about economic geology and economic oil and gas. But they never go into the cost to the environment. The cost to your soul, really, when you’re out there.”

When Indigenous-led protests and occupations broke out against Muskrat Falls, Dixon found himself confronted by questions of conscience once more.

“It was conflicting. It was tough, because I understand where they were coming from,” he says. “It was hard because I wanted to support the protesters – and I did support them – but I also went to work. […] I’m so happy they protested. I think it was good that they were protesting. I believe in it. I have no time for anybody who tries to stifle protests or shut them down.”

Dixon navigated the ethical challenge by committing himself to integrity in his own work: to reporting shortcomings and making sure the project was as safe as possible. He draws a distinction between his support for Muskrat Falls, as a state-owned renewable energy initiative, and privately owned oil pipelines.

“I’m socially in turmoil. Do I agree with pipelines? No. I don’t want to see a pipeline go under a river. I don’t want to see a pipeline go through a community, or through a waterway. It just doesn’t make sense. […] I think these land protectors, these water protectors, these Indigenous people are right in protesting this. […] It’s inevitable for a pipeline to break. It’s inevitable. So why are we putting it through these sacred lands? If somebody tried to put a pipeline through my pop’s grave, I’d break it every day! So I really respect that.”

Like Warren, Dixon’s dream is to work in renewable energy. But until those industries appear, his options are limited to oil and gas or the contentious Muskrat Falls.

“What do I do? I can’t go back to making $40,000 a year. I don’t have a lavish lifestyle. I have a very modest mortgage, one vehicle, […] and I’m in a spot where I can’t take a $50,000 job. I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills – my student loans, my mortgage, everything else that I have. What else do you do? Here in our society, when oil is king?”

Beatrice Hunter: I see people struggle, and they’re struggling because there’s only a powerful rich few that’s benefiting from all of this. Why should they have to struggle, when the government is supposed to be taking care of them? There are so many things tied to this Muskrat Falls and I see it too with the Trans [Mountain] Pipeline, and I see it with the Site C dam, and it’s all the same. It’s all the same oppression.

I used to think this only happened in the movies. Funny, eh? I guess they pushed me in a corner, and I said: no more.

Protecting land and water

Denise Cole is a Two-Spirited woman of Inuit descent, and one of the land protectors fighting the Muskrat Falls project. When she was 18, she lost a brother to the river when the sandbar he and his friends were playing on gave way. When she returned to Labrador in 2009 after living away for several years, she performed a ceremonial fast and paddled to the site of the tragedy, where she and a friend built a sacred fire and held a ceremony.

“From that point on there was a much deeper awakening and spiritual connection to the water and to the river, and it was the first time I’d ever really truly opened myself up and understood this sense of feeling the spirits of the water,” she says. “That river has multiple strong spirits.”

When the Muskrat Falls project was announced Cole was working with the Women In Resource Development Corporation, which is sponsored by Hydro, a Nalcor Energy company, and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. As part of her work, she attended the initial environmental assessment hearings, and it was there she grew concerned. She realized the project had grave implications for the land, people, and culture, and she witnessed Elders and individuals speak out against the project. She also observed Nalcor’s dismissive attitude. She became so distressed that she gave up her job.

“I left that job because I could not, in clear conscience, ever promote that project or encourage women to be a part of that project,” she recalls. She says Nalcor staff argued with her and said the project would offer important opportunities to promote women’s employment in the trades, and that it would help women’s equality.

“Meanwhile my Elders were standing up and saying this cannot happen,” she says.

In September 2017, Labrador land protector Denise Cole led a group to Nalcor offices in St John's, NL. They blocked the entrance to draw attention to Indigenous concerns over the Muskrat Falls hydro project. Trina Roache/APTNInvestigates.

Beatrice Hunter: I just can’t understand, why do we have to fight so hard? Why do we have to occupy Muskrat Falls? Why, to get heard? Why [do] Billy [Gauthier] and Delilah [Saunders] and Jeremias [David Zack] have to go on hunger strikes? Why do I have to go to jail? Why [do] Marjorie [Flowers], Jim [Learning], and Eldred [Davis] have to go to jail? Why do we have to go to jail when all we’re trying to do is protect ourselves?

I used to be so proud to be a Canadian, but now I don’t call myself a Canadian anymore. I call myself an Inuk. I call myself a Labradorian. I don’t call myself a Canadian anymore. I don’t even stand for the national anthem anymore.

Activism, work, and responsibility

While media, government, and industry dismiss them as “protesters,” the act of being a land protector involves a lot of hard work – which exacts a physical, emotional, and mental toll. Cole and Friends of the Grand River organized weekly rallies in 2013 when the Idle No More movement erupted, but provincial media ignored the gatherings. In one early action, fellow land protector Dennis Burden took an axe to a Nalcor power transmission pole in December 2012 (he was fined $8,000 for the symbolic act of political protest).

“[Dennis] and I worked together to coordinate that, and make sure it was going to be safe,” recalls Cole. “He left the axe in the pole, which was intentional. He didn’t cut it completely down, which was intentional, for safety reasons. When the cops showed up, which we knew they would, it was really important that Dennis had that axe placed up high into that pole so they could see it, because we didn’t know how they would react – if Dennis had had an axe in his hand, would they have killed him? We had at least three or four different media people there, and that was also intentional because we wanted as many witnesses as possible, but we didn’t invite a bunch of people because we didn’t want anybody to be at risk. This was stuff we were trying to learn very quickly.”

“We didn’t know how they would react – if Dennis had had an axe in his hand, would they have killed him?”

As feminist theories of emotional and psychological labour trickle into the mainstream, a parallel argument could be made for activism as a form of labour.

Yet Cole cautions against this interpretation. She says she’s been approached by academics who talk about “activism work,” and she reminds them that the concept of work they are employing is itself a colonial construct.

“What I’m involved with is not the activism work of myself, as an Indigenous woman. This is my responsibility. It’s the protection responsibility I have for the land and waters and lives, as a Two-Spirited Indigenous woman.”

“There is this colonial language that’s been passed down for generations that says: here’s what your life is supposed to look like. You’re supposed to go to school, you’re supposed to go to work, you can volunteer and have a family, but there’s this personal and professional side of ourselves. […] We need to start decolonizing some of our language.”

“I’ve worked a lot with youth over the years where I’ll say, ‘People are going to try and teach you that you have a personal path and you have a professional path, and I’m going to challenge you to see them as the same path.’ I’ve been [sober] now for quite a few years, but when I was in my active addiction, it started with childhood trauma – this idea of splitting myself. There was a part of me that the rest of the world got to know, and then there was the part of me that was a hurt and damaged kid. And as I became an adult it was the same thing. You always have to live with two worlds, two lives.”

“So for me, this isn’t work. This is a part of living. I think that way, we start to truly honour what so many people are doing – not just Indigenous people but people who are making resistance work, decolonization work, the Indigenizing work, they’re making it a very active, predominant part of their life.”

“People are going to try and teach you that you have a personal path and you have a professional path, and I’m going to challenge you to see them as the same path.”

“Now I no longer just work jobs based on what’s a good-paying job. My vision of career, I let go of that a long time ago, not because I don’t deserve a career, but I understand that my life is my life. I don’t need to compartmentalize anymore. I take jobs that honour these responsibilities I have. We’re human beings before anything else, before we’re employees, before we’re employers.”

Oil and water. Work and responsibility. These concepts frame the struggles of workers transitioning from oil and gas, they shape the experiences of Indigenous communities working to protect the land and water, and they shape the sense of responsibility that runs through each of these groups and individuals as they struggle to align their ideals with the practical matter of lived reality. Above all, perhaps, they attest to the healing work that’s needed in a country struggling simultaneously to decolonize, and to make a just transition away from fossil fuels.

Members of Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation protesting the Muskrat Falls hydro megaproject. Justin Brake /

Beatrice Hunter: I used to think America was bad but I think we’re worse, because the discrimination, the systematic racism, the oppression, the colonial oppression is so discreet. The mainstream media portrays it as we’re this great country that welcomes everybody, that respects all nations, and we don’t! We don’t! It’s like my bubble burst. I was in this illusion. I was totally in this illusion that everyone had respect for me, that everyone had respect for my way of life, that everybody had respect for Innu, but it’s not like that. And it’s very heartbreaking.

Besides being sent to prison, it’s very heartbreaking when you find out that nobody has any respect for you or your life. I was obviously conditioned to be oppressed.

I’ve seen other gatecrashers not handle it so well because they’re so stressed about court, and about wondering if they’re going to get arrested and sent to jail one day because I got arrested and sent to jail, and I was peaceful and non-violent. The paranoia can take over if you let it.

I don’t think I handle it well, because last week I had a really bad panic attack. Really bad. […] I just fell to the floor, I had a hard time breathing, there were things going through my head, like I wasn’t going to see my grandchild anymore. It got worse because I complained to the RCMP, because one of the RCMP officers drove by while I was doing my 10-kilometre walk and stuck up his middle finger. I tried to go down to the RCMP office and complain […] and walked into the detachment and the sergeant would not take my complaint.

This is nothing, though. This is nothing. You know what would be worse? If my family drowns. That would be way worse than putting up with all this BS. That would be way, way worse. People say I’m strong. There are some days I don’t feel strong! I don’t want to cry, though.

I just hope the North Spur doesn’t break before everybody realizes. I pray every night and then I’m thankful every morning. […] And then the methylmercury poisoning – we’re not going to be able to fish anymore! They want to starve us; they want to freeze us. Billy didn’t start this for no reason. Billy, Delilah, and Jeremias didn’t start this for no reason. The Nunatsiavut government didn’t start this for no reason. We didn’t occupy for no reason. I didn’t go to jail for no reason. There’s a reason.

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