The Idea of Progress, Industrialization, and the Replacement of Indigenous Peoples: The Muskrat Falls Megadam Boondoggle

By Samson, Colin | Social Justice, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

The Idea of Progress, Industrialization, and the Replacement of Indigenous Peoples: The Muskrat Falls Megadam Boondoggle


Samson, Colin, Social Justice


Abstracts

This essay examines the continuing currency of the idea of progress to justify the state and corporate appropriation of Indigenous peoples' lands and the diminution of their rights. Focusing upon the Innu peoples of the Labrador-Quebec peninsula and the Newfoundland government-sponsored Lower Churchill hydroelectric project, especially its Muskrat Falls megadam component, the essay shows how the megadam is framed by a narrative of progress and a corrupt land claims process that violates Aboriginal title. In this context, I argue that the idea of industry as progress justifies the replacement of Indigenous peoples and their land-based ways of life with appeals to prosperity and sustainable development in which they are rendered insignificant.

Preface: Maya and the Trip to Muskrat Falls

I AM STAYING WITH MY FRIEND MARCEL, A FORMER BAND COUNCIL MANAGER, and his 10-year-old granddaughter Maya in the Innu village of Sheshatshiu in Labrador, Canada. Over bowls of caribou stew we talk about the Muskrat Falls dam. Marcel looks after Maya while her mother works two week shifts at the construction site. I ask Maya what she thinks of the dam. "It destroys nature. The trees are cut down with chainsaws, the river is now like quicksand. It sucks you down," she stridently tells me. "But, does it affect you?" I reply. "Yes, because my Mom works there. If she quits, she won't have any work and can't support us ... but when she's away I miss her a lot."

A few days later we drive along the paved highway adjacent to the dam site, which is not open to the public. Photography there is banned. We can see the gouged-out granite hillsides near the highway. Rock has been drilled out and broken down for boulders to support the banks diverting the floodwater. Vast undulating straight lines of clear-cut spruce stumps give the transmission lines a wide berth. New cabins belonging to Euro-Canadian settlers are fanning out from the industrial hub of Goose Bay. Clean trucks and snowmobiles are in the driveways. There is a sense that the Innu are being replaced.

No one has much to say.

Introduction

Discussions around dams often pose modern industry and technologically driven progress against backward and impoverished cultures that the dams are supposed to replace (Routledge 2003,245). Although all mega-projects are presented by politicians as marks of state progress, the colossal scale of dams makes these into particularly apt national symbols. For proponents, dams are "harnessing" a power easily conflated with that of the state. Because dams are mostly built on mighty rivers far from the urban centers that will receive the electricity they generate, Indigenous and other land-based peoples are the most likely to be displaced (McCully 2001,70) and the least likely to benefit from them (Nixon 2011,165). As Maya said, they also lose nature, and their common land-based histories are what has bound Innu society together. By using the Muskrat Falls megadam project as an illustration, this essay explores the links between the idea of progress and the imposition of industry. Progress, I argue, justifies not only the industrial transformation of Indigenous peoples, but also their replacement as meaningful constituents in the uses of lands and waters.

The idea of progress is integral to Western modern thought. It derives from the conviction that universal principles derived from philosophy and science can explain how and why various attributes of the physical and social worlds change over time. By using empirical observations and rational arguments, European Enlightenment thinkers originally addressed epistemological and metaphysical questions. As sceptics revealed the limits of human reason in grasping the objective reality of the natural world, discussions moved toward social, political, and economic concerns (Matytsin 2016,273), arenas in which subjective interests are so crucial. …

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