- Rural Theatrical Protest: A Note from Muskrat Falls
Throughout 2016 and 2017, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, along with indigenous and settler allies, demonstrated against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Concerned that the oil pipeline would threaten the local water supply and damage sacred sites, the Standing Rock activists effectively used a social-media campaign and drone video footage of their theatrical protests to draw global attention to their cause. In the autumn of 2016, these efforts filled traditional media with news of the pipeline protests, and my social-media feed exploded with images of the Dakota Plains and #StandWithStandingRock and #noDAPL protest hashtags. As a scholar of performance protest I was excited to see a rural demonstration make front-page news, because too often scholarship on theatrical protest emphasizes urban examples like parades, flash mobs, or mass demonstrations in city centers. Standing Rock serves as a good reminder that the public sphere extends beyond city streets and that rural activists also make deliberate use of theatricality for political ends.
At the same time that the Standing Rock demonstrations captivated the world, activists elsewhere were engaging in similar protests against energy projects that threatened drinking water and indigenous cultural heritage. Thousands of miles away at Muskrat Falls in central Labrador, Canada, demonstrators were using theatrical protest tactics in attempts to halt a large hydroelectric development. Meanwhile, members of the Shoal Lake #40 First Nation were promoting the Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations, an innovative theatrical tourist experience that highlights the Canadian tribe’s prolonged fight for clean drinking water. While perhaps not as widely known as the Standing Rock protests, the ongoing Muskrat Falls demonstrations and the Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations are equally vital appeals for water rights and the recognition of indigenous culture. This note from the field examines the challenges and potentials of these two Canadian cases, which serve as examples of how small-scale theatrical protests, rooted in remote communities, creatively respond to the challenges of rural location.
Once a beautiful natural waterfall tucked into a narrow corner of the Churchill River, Muskrat Falls is now part of a large hydroelectric development under construction just twenty miles from the Labrador town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. For Nalcor Energy, the project represents an important push toward renewable energy, a reduction of greenhouse gases, and hope for economic development in central Labrador. But the indigenous Innu and Inuit peoples of Labrador argue that the Muskrat Falls development threatens their health and traditional hunting and fishing practices. Scientific research has predicted that flooding the reservoir without full vegetation clearing of the Muskrat Falls site will result in increased levels of methylmercury downstream in Lake Melville, and consequently in the local wildlife that forms the indigenous diet, including fish, shellfish, birds, and seal (Calder et al. 13117–19). This is a particular concern for those who rely upon these foods, as methylmercury is a neurotoxin associated with ADHD, as well as neurological and cardiovascular problems (13115). Since construction began in 2013, both indigenous Canadians and their settler-Canadian allies have used a variety of protest devices, including hunger strikes, land occupation, civil disobedience, and mass demonstration, in their efforts to force Nalcor to agree to a full independent audit of the downstream impact of the Muskrat Falls development and to completely clear all vegetation from the reservoir area prior to the flooding. [End Page E-7]
Resistance to the Muskrat Falls development is complicated by the project’s remote location, as well as its impact on an indigenous way of life unfamiliar to settler Canadians. The Muskrat Falls worksite is a forty-five-minute drive through the forest from the nearest town, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, thus creating access challenges for both demonstrators and media. Moreover, the town is home to only about 6,500 people; therefore it is not surprising that mass demonstrations at the site have numbered at most 250 people. When I visited my family in Newfoundland and Labrador in May 2017, I asked friends and neighbors about Muskrat Falls. Those I casually polled expressed concern as taxpayers for the cost of the Muskrat Falls development, but not about...