Jim Learning, Labrador advocate who went to jail over Muskrat Falls protests, dead at 81

Jim Learning ran as an Independent candidate in Labrador’s Lake Melville district in 2019. (Jim Learning/Facebook)

Jim Learning, who was passionate about his beloved Labrador throughout his life and who spent his final years fighting against the Muskrat Falls megaproject, has died. He was 81. 

Learning died Thursday evening. He had fought a long battle with cancer and had suffered multiple strokes.

Learning, who ran as an Independent in Lake Melville district in last year’s Newfoundland and Labrador election, was well known across the Big Land for his outspoken nature. 

He once drove to the border with Quebec to erect a Labrador flag next to the province’s official flag.

“He wanted a flag down on the border, and nobody would do it, so Jim cut the pole and went down there and put it up himself,” Roberta Benefiel, his partner, told CBC. 

“He had a dream for Labrador. He wanted the people of Labrador, all of the people of Labrador, to unite,” Benefiel said, adding that what her husband truly desired was an independent Labrador that could make its own choices. 

“With the three aboriginal groups and us non-aboriginal people, it’s so hard to bring everyone together,” she said. 

‘He stood up for his beliefs’

Learning was a member of the NunatuKavut Community Council until 2018. President Todd Russell praised Learning as a passionate man who desired “positive change” for the people around him. 

“For as long as I have known him, his passion, his yearning to ‘do what is right’ spurred him to action. He could be a man of words yet he was always more a person who lived out those words,” Russell said in a statement. 

Learning was jailed twice during his crusade against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project . (Katie Breen/CBC)

“He not only advocated for his rights, just as importantly, he practised them. He stood up for his beliefs and he had his freedom taken when jailed for doing just that.” 

Benefiel said her husband went to jail  “on a couple of occasions” during his protests against the Muskrat Falls project. 

After being jailed in 2013 for refusing to sign an undertaking to keep the peace and to refrain from blocking traffic, Learning voluntarily stayed in jail, refusing to eat.

Learning was jailed again in 2017 after refusing to obey a court injunction ordering demonstrators to not interfere with the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.

‘Very much a mentor

Learning had a deep bond with the Labrador Land Protectors group, which ardently protested the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project on the Churchill River, not far from Happy Valley-Goose Bay.  

Denise Cole, a member of the Land Protectors group, said she will remember Learning as an advocate and friend. 

He taught me to be a better me.– Denise Cole

“He left us as an elder and he’ll stay with us as an ancestor,” Cole said. 

Cole knew him through his advocacy for social justice and mental health and inspired her to remember to always be open to learning something new.

Denise Cole with her friend Learning, who died Thursday. (Submitted by Denise Cole)

“Jim was very much a mentor. He taught me how to canoe, he taught me how to set up a tent, and how to use logs and make yourself a bed to put in that tent, and he taught me resilience and integrity,” she said. 

“He taught me to be a better me,” she said.    

Cole says Learning left his mark on Labrador and she will continue to see him everywhere she looks.

“How he impacted the world around him with his gentleness — even when he stood up and got loud, he did it in such a respectful way,” she said.

‘Epitome of a warrrior’

Close friend Kirk Lethbridge stood with Learning at Labrador Land Protectors protests. 

“He was the epitome of what a warrior is for Labrador, for the land and the water, for the people, for our heritage, for our history. He spent a lifetime standing up for this land,” Lethbridge said. 

Learning is being remembered as a passionate advocate for Labrador. (Submitted by Denise Cole)

He recalled a story that he said demonstrated Learning’s resilience and passion for standing up for what he believed in.

“When we first started walking on the North Spur to take on the corporate giants that were damming Muskrat Falls, and we would come on these walks … every so often Jim would have to run off out in the woods.” 

“He’d have to change his catheter and sometimes it would be bleeding. If anybody knows what that might be like, this man would still at his age go out and walk in defiance of those who would destroy our land,” said Lethbridge. 

“I always had admiration and respect for a man that would have that much passion,” he said.  

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

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