Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Strange and Sad Story of Beatrice Hunter

The Strange and Sad Story of Beatrice Hunter

By: Ryan Young

Like many people across Newfoundland and Labrador, I have been following Beatrice Hunter’s story very closely over the last two weeks. For those who may not be aware, Beatrice Hunter is an Inuk grandmother and Land Protector who is presently being held in custody at the penitentiary in St. John’s for refusing to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site.

On May 29th, during a court hearing for Protectors who broke an injunction to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site during Victoria Day Weekend, Judge George Murphy asked Hunter if she would promise to stay away from the protest site. Hunter told the judge she could not make that promise and as a result she was remanded into custody.

The story took another turn on June 2nd when it was learned that Hunter had been transferred to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s. Since then, there has been a large public outcry at Hunter’s incarceration, including protests at Nalcor headquarters and outside of HMP. In Labrador, fellow Protectors have held vigils and rallied for Beatrice’s release, and there is a large rally planned for Thursday at Colonial Building in St. John’s.

For the government, this has become another case of very bad optics. While most people seem to agree that they should not interfere with the judicial system, the fact that the injunction itself came from Nalcor makes the government responsible for Beatrice Hunter’s incarceration. They had they option of telling Nalcor to back off from the charges against the Protectors but chose not to do so. Now, with Hunter’s defiance, they have painted themselves into a corner that can have no positive political outcome.

I don’t think that Hunter intentionally tried to make a martyr of herself, but in many ways, she has become one. Many people across the province were upset with the treatment of the Land Protectors who were charged for standing up against Nalcor, and when Hunter was transferred to HMP, the cries of colonialism out of Labrador began to grow in volume and urgency. When our justice system takes an indigenous grandmother away from her family and her home for exercising her rights to protest, it leaves many wondering just what our priorities are.

Despite the many socio-political issues at play, we can’t ignore the fact that Beatrice did break the law. No matter how much we may not like the law sometimes, we can’t blame those whose job it is to enforce it. She left the judge little choice when she refused to stay away from the site, and under the law he felt compelled to do something. What that something was, however, is the issue at hand.The discussion should not be whether or not Beatrice should be punished under the law, it should be whether or not the punishment fits the crime. Hunter is a law-abiding citizen who has never been in trouble with the courts before and her only crime was protesting what she believed to be an injustice against her people. It does not seem unreasonable to think that there could have been another solution that could have been explored instead of sending this grandmother to the pen.

The whole situation is very, very sticky. In addition to Beatrice’s direct story, it also touches on issues of overcrowding in our prisons and the differential treatment of protesters on the island vs those in Labrador. I understand the importance of not having the government interfere with the justice system, but at this point it seems inevitable that they will have to act in some capacity. Hunter is due back in court on Friday and if she continues to be held at HMP, the disgruntled murmur from the public will soon turn into an angry roar. There are options, and Andrew Parson’s should be exploring every possibility of how to get Beatrice home. Considering all the talk about truth and reconciliation in this country, we need our leaders to take a stand and ensure that we are doing everything we can to protect the rights of aboriginal women.

In a video released by CBC on June 6th from inside HMP, Hunter expressed the major frustration that she and many other Land Protectors have with Nalcor. A lack of answers to their questions. This highlights the larger issue of the lack of openness and accountability when it comes to the Muskrat Falls project. Despite promising to open the project up to public scrutiny, the Liberal’s have become even more secretive than the previous administration was and are refusing to release any reports from the oversight committee. The message being sent by government via Nalcor to the people of Labrador is don’t ask questions and don’t try to get in our way or you will end up in jail. I don’t think they were betting on the defiance of someone like Beatrice Hunter to turn public opinion against them.

No matter how this story turns out,  irreparable damage has already been done to an already strained relationship between the government and the people of Labrador. The Smallwoodian “develop or perish” attitude seems to be alive and well with the current incarnation of Liberal leaders, and the steamrolling of the Muskrat Falls project without the support of the people living in Labrador will not soon be forgotten. The intimidation of Nalcor will always be seen as the strong arm of government against the people living downstream of mighty Muskrat and the dam will continue to enforce the idea of colonialism that is spreading through the big land like wildfire. There is no political value in having Beatrice Hunter locked up, and the first thing this government needs to do to start repairing the rift is to send her home. The second thing they need to do is start listening to people like Beatrice and start giving them the answers they have been demanding. That doesn't seem like too much to ask for...

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