There was a time I saw myself as a protester and now I see the truth: I am a Protector.

It took a return to my traditional values, as an Indigenous woman and human caretaker of the planet, for me to evolve back to my roots. The Labrador Land Protectors has become my family. We embrace our different cultures and work together as one.

Denise Cole stands in front of the banner in a red shirt. She and a group of others are protesting the Muskrat Falls hydro project.Photo courtesy of the Muskrat Falls St. John's Action Team

This evolution led me, and many others in Labrador resisting the Muskrat Falls hydro project, to the circle. The circle embodies the whole team; it becomes a way of thinking and a way of living. Within the circle, everyone is respected and everyone contributes value. Leaders and skill sharers weave in and out of their roles. The circle is a breathing and changing sphere of activity and focus. It is the complete opposite of the colonial triangle ruling the world where decisions are made for others instead of with them. Working in the circular way is truth and reconciliation in action. It is how the Labrador Land Protectors set goals and stay connected as a family as we grow in numbers and maturity.

We came into existence out of necessity. Our Grand River (colonial name: Churchill River) and Muskrat Falls, our sacred place, came under attack even before the Lower Churchill Hydro Project was sanctioned in 2012. Our land, water, culture and lives have been threatened and destroyed ever since. In fall 2016 our protection efforts became more organized. Our voices were heard across the nation as we occupied the Muskrat Falls work site, Inuk hunger strikers travelled to Ottawa and solidarity actions grew across Turtle Island. This is when our circle philosophies became an instrumental way to flourish. Still, the government continues their destructive project, ignoring our requests and concerns.

Part of living in the circle is to communicate with certain values. The Sharing Circle format is an essential part of all our meetings, many of our events and now as a way to have our voices heard by colonial powers. We’ve taken many of the elements of Indigenous sharing circles and added our own components to form what we refer to as the “Integrity of the Circle”. This has become invaluable to how we communicate. It is how we are educating elected leaders and informing the world of our message and intentions.

Denise Cole plays the drum.Photo by Janet Cooper

It is this modern take on the traditional sharing circle that we’ve implemented to bring political and corporate leaders into our world and to hear from us “heart to heart”. When you are within the sharing circle, you must speak and listen with truth and humility. To do so, everyone speaks with their hearts, even when they come prepared with words on paper. We use the talking stick and no one is to be interrupted, we treat everyone with equality and respect. It is not a time for debate; it is a time for sharing and healing. A time to deal with painful truths between what has been opposing sides in hopes that relationships can be built and real change can occur. It takes the politics and business out of situations that have deep human realities. We invite other protectors and supporters to an ‘outer circle’ to silently give positive energy to those in the ‘inner’ circle and to bear witness to the ceremony. We live stream on social media for accountability to our larger protector family, to share beyond our small town, though we do not allow pictures or media to interrupt.

The circle gives us a way to speak about the impacts of the Muskrat Falls hydro project on our lives as we face a cultural genocide at the hands of our federal and provincial governments. It gives us a voice as ‘the people’ when our Indigenous leaders have closed their ears and eyes to our cries. It allows us to speak when justice systems try to silence us with injunctions, arrests, and charges. We believe we are creating a new truth and reconciliation to replace the empty and authoritarian model of government consultation, closed door deals and power imbalances.

Recently we welcomed Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, into our sharing circle. It was a powerful event. Each protector spoke their truths to the Minister. They did so peacefully without any verbal attacks. People spoke to the issues and realities in a deeper way. It gave time to put forward questions, offer solutions, and present knowledge. We used a healing blanket, eagle feathers and guides to help maintain the integrity of the circle and keep people supported on the emotional journey. The talking stick was then presented to the Minister and she was given extra time to respond with her truths as she felt them. For us this led to some frustration as we did not feel our hurts or questions were honoured in a meaningful way. Still, we showed great restraint and strength of character as we always enter the circle in a good way and leave in a good way.

We also remind our sharing circle guests in our closing words that this is not consultation or consent. It is a starting point to further sharing. We fear that political leaders see these circles as a one-time event. Too often they miss that it takes a real investment of time for healing to begin on years of oppression. We open with prayer and we close with prayer. It is important to us that we do things in a way that honours our ancestors and those yet to be born. It is for them that we protect the land, water, and cultures. This is a huge shift from how media, corporations and governments have painted us as radical protesters threatening ‘development’.

The circle is a very powerful tool and we have been gifted it by our Elders and knowledge holders. It has been through different events, our own experiences, and the values passed down to us that we have come to this sharing circle way of doing things. I believe that all cultures and people can gain wisdom and insights when the circle is used to communicate. The Labrador Land Protectors use the circle to make decisions, share tasks and set directions. This is how things were done before colonization pitted us against each other and took away our self-determination. When it comes to all life, the circle should be honoured, for we are nothing but a small part of the greater circle. If our society lived with circle values again, I believe that life would become fuller. Our planet and all life on her would thrive and we would understand our purpose here is to share, honour and protect. 

I am forever grateful for the values of the circle; it is this evolution to the traditional that has given my life real purpose. I feel my ancestors in the circle with me along with the next generations. I feel all life, plants and animals, all the elements, and humanity when I humble myself into my place within the circle. Using the sharing circle in land protection has had a profound impact and I encourage others to learn, adapt, and use the circle as we’ve been intended to do since the beginning. It will change your life and how you live on this planet we call home.

Nakummek, thank you, for listening and spending this time with me in my circle.

Denise Cole is part of the MCC Newfoundland and Labrador blanket exercise facilitation team.

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