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The construction site of the hydroelectric facility at Muskrat Falls, Nfld., is seen on July 14, 2015.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Newfoundland and Labrador's premier met Tuesday with aboriginal leaders to discuss controversial flooding at Muskrat Falls, as Ottawa signalled it is open to extending federal loan guarantees for the megaproject.

Security officials locked the main doors as protesters gathered at the provincial legislature, while Premier Dwight Ball met with Labrador aboriginal leaders over a planned reservoir that critics fear could pose health risks.

The project is upstream from 2,000 Inuit and other residents in the Lake Melville region, and critics are worried about methylmercury contamination when the 41-square-kilometre area is flooded.

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Last week, Nalcor agreed to remove more forest cover from the area to address those concerns, but protesters say they also want all soil removed before the reservoir is created.

That would further delay a project that is already behind schedule and plagued by cost overruns.

Natural Resources Minister James Carr said in Ottawa Tuesday that the Trudeau government is open to extending a 2013 loan guarantee granted by the former Harper government.

"We're dealing now with a request from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to extend the loan guarantees that were offered by the previous government in 2013, so we're seriously considering their request," Carr said.

Ball has already said Nalcor, the Crown corporation building the megaproject, wouldn't increase water levels for a reservoir before Tuesday's meeting.

Under questioning from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair in the Commons Tuesday about what Ottawa is doing to protect the Inuit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the provincial government is consulting with indigenous people.

"We are ensuring that the province continues to consult and engage on this project with the full respect that we all expect will be shown towards indigenous peoples in this country," Trudeau said.

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On Tuesday in St. John's, demonstrators hung a sheet spray-painted in black reading "Don't poison Labrador" on the railing of the legislature building. Angus Andersen of Nain stood with a sign saying "Make Muskrat Right."

He said a court order for the arrests of people occupying the Muskrat Falls site undercuts the meeting's purpose.

"Why even meet with aboriginal leaders if you're going to start arresting people who are protecting the land peacefully?"

About 50 protesters entered the central Labrador site on Saturday and occupied an accommodation complex, prompting the company to remove at least 700 workers from the grounds.

On Monday, the company obtained an injunction naming 22 people occupying the site for potential arrest. The head of Nalcor said in a statement that protesters are risking serious injury, and has urged them to depart the site.

"You cannot break into or trespass on your own land," demonstration organizer Denise Cole of Goose Bay said to applause from about 40 people gathered at the legislature.

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She also led a moment of silence and prayer for those occupying the Muskrat Falls site and blockading its entrance.

Three hunger strikers, including Inuk artist Billy Gauthier, who says he has not eaten since Oct. 13, have issued four conditions before they'll eat again.

They include:

  • An evidence-based approach based on peer-reviewed science to mitigate the effects of methylmercury contamination.
  • An independent assessment of Nalcor Energy’s science and engineering reports on the necessity of imminent, first-phase flooding by the end of this month. If flooding is necessary, height and duration is to be kept to a minimum.
  • Removal of soil to minimize methylmercury contamination, as suggested by independent scientific research, during the second phase of reservoir flooding.
  • A commitment from the federal government that it will participate in a joint monitoring program and fulfil its regulatory obligations related to Muskrat Falls.

The list of conditions is signed by Gauthier, Delilah Miriam Saunders and Jerry David Zack.

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