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 gasses, 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.
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 a rise in methylmercury levels and subsequent risk to indigenous populations. In fact, the settler-Canadian residents I chat- ted with shrugged off questions about the project’s risk to local wildlife and those who consume traditional foods; instead, they focused their discussions on the economic costs and benefits of the project. This lack of concern for the methylmercury issue is mirrored in Nalcor’s marketing materials, which present the Muskrat Falls project as an excellent way to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, without acknowledging that the development solves an ecological problem by displacing indigenous cultural traditions. While settler-Canadian residents may recognize an economic stake in the project, I met few who felt like they had a personal stake in the Muskrat Falls development. Unsurprisingly, the numbers actively engaged in public protests are small.
Despite the small number of participants, the Muskrat Falls demonstrations have made inven- tive use of theatrical protest as a way to engage audiences. In particular, the protests have creatively reimagined space through imagery and sound. For example, at a July 2017 demonstration at Nalcor headquarters in the provincial capital, St. John’s, activists juxtaposed humble homemade banners against Nalcor’s gleaming corporate logo in a theatrical David-and-Goliath critique of capitalism that positioned Nalcor as a villain soon to be defeated by determined underdogs (“Protesters Take Demand”). Although the action was simple, it effectively communicated the activists’ resolve, while providing a compelling photo opportunity for local media. At this event, protesters also repurposed the building’s logo by framing it with their own signs to create the phrase “audit Nalcor now” (Croft) (fig. 1).
In the reimagined space, the Nalcor brand became an unwitting participant in its own critique. In another example of reframing space, about fifty activists forced a work stoppage by breaching the fence and occupying the Muskrat Falls worksite in October 2016. Accompanied by the sound of traditional drumming, they reclaimed the land on behalf of the indigenous communities of central Labrador (Wall and Breen). Replacing the sound of construction machinery with the sound of drums, protesters reminded their audience of the people most affected by the development. In the summer of 2017, Muskrat Falls activists yet again reshaped space when dozens of demonstrators picketed the provincial government’s Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay for several weeks; they set up tents, lawn chairs, and grills in the parking lot, invoking the spirit of a neighborhood picnic or community potluck (Labrador Land Protectors) (fig. 2). While mass demonstrations like the 2017 Women’s March on Washington rely upon the power of large crowds to communicate strength of purpose, these two small occupations of the worksite and the government office instead invoked local bonds to convey their determination. Communal food and traditional drumming positioned the Muskrat Falls demonstrators as a strong and unified community.
The rural-activist protest tactic of featuring their community’s uniqueness is similarly used by the Shoal Lake #40 First Nation in its ongoing demonstrations in support of water rights. The tribe’s reserve is located southeast of Winnipeg. Displaced during the construction of the Winnipeg aqueduct a hundred years ago, the Shoal Lake #40 First Nation lives without a permanent access road to its reserve and has been under a “boil water advisory” for almost twenty years (Shoal Lake 2011). In response to the recent opening of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, the tribe created the Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations. This “museum” is a personal guided tour of the reserve, the reserve’s contaminated water, and the nearby Winnipeg water reservoir, with discussions of water management, rights violations, and the history of the tribe. The museum’s brochure advertises “real dislocation from ancestral homelands!” and invites visitors to “visit your choice of dilapidated homes or infrastructure” (Shoal Lake n.d.) (figs. 3–4).
Casting audience members as tourists, the Shoal Lake #40 First Nation turns the tourist/museum experience of performed and aestheticized history upside down with biting satire and political urgency. It offers a counter-spectacle to the gleaming new museum in downtown Winnipeg, making a feature of its rural location and difficulty of access, focusing on the role of water in contributing to the isolation of the community, and confronting its audiences of settler Canadians with the reality of life on the reservation.
As part of focusing on the rural community’s unique characteristics, both the Muskrat Falls and Shoal Lake theatrical protests emphasize the relationship between the community and the surrounding environment. At Muskrat Falls, activists are highlighting the location of the hydroelectric development, which has visibly scarred the deep-green boreal forest and clear blue waters of the falls. But more difficult to show are the scars resulting from the biomagnification of methylmercury in aquatic food sources; less visible, these may take a generation to appear. The projected increase in methylmercury at Muskrat Falls demonstrates what Jane Bennett calls the “vital materiality” of matter, or the “capacity of things . . . not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or
tendencies of their own” (vii–viii ). By focusing on the shared materiality of things both human and nonhuman, Bennett’s political theory of “vibrant matter” insists that humans contemplate and respond to nonhuman actants (14). Rural sites of protest like Muskrat Falls and Shoal Lake offer obvious connections between Bennett’s theory and discussions of theatrical protest. Using her theory, we can see how the waters of the Churchill River have their own political efficacy: their vital materiality produces spectacular changes in the ecosystem through the chemical and biological formation of methylmercury after vegetation floods. These changes will have significant effect on the health of animals both human and nonhuman and political consequences for the region’s health, education, and social resources for years to come. Drawing attention to the shared materiality of the waters of Muskrat Falls, the aquatic wildlife downstream, and the humans who compete for the river’s resources, both enrich understanding of the complex human relationship with the environment and expand our imagined worlds. It reminds us of the political nature of the spaces and bodies that we inhabit, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Likewise, the Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations emphasizes this shared materiality and presents a theatrical-protest experience both personal and pedagogical as it teaches audience members about the Shoal Lake #40 First Nation’s decades-long struggle for clean water.
While Bennett’s theory of vibrant matter offers one way to consider rural activism tied to the environment, the examples of Muskrat Falls and the Shoal Lake #40 First Nation also remind us how theatrical protest is often dominated by urban privilege, including easy access to city centers, mass crowds, social media, and other technologies. Large displays of state authority and restriction, such as street blockades or riot police, which can provide a narrative foil or visual antagonist for theatrical activism, are less available for rural activists. Demonstrators in remote locations may not have the means to invoke the heightened energy and visual impact of a mass crowd. In Canada, this urban privilege has roots in colonial practice, because a colonial history of racism resulted in the concentration of Canada’s indigenous peoples in underserviced rural areas. Recognizing this urban privilege begs the question: What might it mean to decolonize theatrical protest? How might demonstrations and discussions of theatrical protest look beyond the urban? The examples of Muskrat Falls and the Shoal Lake #40 First Nation suggest that decolonizing theatrical protest might require consideration of the elements of theatrical protest that rely upon cultural, geographic, and economic privilege. Such reflections can expand the activist repertoire and broaden scholarly conversations about theatre and activism.
Susanne Shawyer is a dramaturg and assistant professor of theatre history at Elon University in North Carolina, where she also serves as coordinator of the Drama and Theatre Studies Interdisciplinary BA. Her research explores the dramaturgy of protest, intersections of modern theatre theory and political performance, and the history of applied theatre. As dramaturgy mentor for Elon’s Department of Performing Arts, she emphasizes intersectional approaches to script analysis and performance creation. She received her doctorate in theatre history and criticism, with an emphasis on performance as public practice, from the University of Texas at Austin.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010. Print.
Calder, Ryan S. D., et al. “Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities.” Environmental Science and Technology 50.23 (2016): 13115–22. Print.
Croft, Mark. “Image of Protesters at Nalcor Headquarters posted to Free NL Facebook Group.” Facebook. 8 July 2017. Web. 13 Oct. 2017.
Labrador Land Protectors. “Image of Picketers with Statement to Premier Dwight Ball posted to Labrador Land Protectors Facebook Group.” Facebook. 4 July 2017. Web. 13 Oct. 2017.
Nalcor Energy. “Project Overview.” Nalcor Energy Lower Churchill Project. N.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2017.
“Protesters Take Demand for Muskrat Falls Audit to Nalcor’s Front Door.” CBC News. 8 July 2017. Web. 13 Oct. 2017.
Shoal Lake #40 First Nation. “Water.” 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2017.
———. “Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations Brochure.” N.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2017.
Wall, Lukas, and Katie Breen. “Muskrat Falls Workers Bused out after Protesters Occupy Site in Central Labrador.” CBC News. 22 Oct. 2016. Web. 13 Oct. 2017.