(Photos from Elsipogtog Solidarity Rally in Peterborough, October 18, by Andrew Tan)
On the Thursday before Reading Week, while most students were busy packing their bags and catching buses to go home, the people of Elsipogtog First Nation, New Brunswick, were engaged in an anti-fracking blockade and on-going standoff with the RCMP that turned violent.
The conflict between the First Nations protesters and police took place on a stretch of highway in Rexton, N.B. where members of the Mi’kmaq First Nation and non-Native supporters had been holding a blockade to prevent SWN Resources of Canada, a Texas-based natural gas and oil exploration company, from conducting seismic testing on surrounding lands.
Local people had seized the storage compound that SWN was using to hold equipment, costing them an estimated $60 thousand per day. Police arrived early on Thursday morning to enforce a court-ordered injunction against the blockade, permitting the shale-gas project to continue.
The protesters refused to disperse. As tensions rose, the situation soon escalated into chaos and violence, with teargas and rubber bullets being fired, and five RCMP vehicles set on fire.
Approximately 40 people were arrested at the site for accusations of firearms offences, uttering threats, intimidation, mischief, and violating the court-ordered injunction. Nine of these people were expected to spend the weekend in jail.
Among those arrested was First Nation Chief Aaron Sock.
While no one was seriously injured, the techniques that police used to respond to the protesters were extreme.
Images of camouflaged figures armed with rifles, non-lethal bullets, attack dogs, pepper spray, and teargas spread like wildfire across the internet, resembling a warzone more than a Canadian protest site, and brought back dark memories of the Oka and Ipperwash conflicts of the early 1990s.
Video footage shows a contrasting array of images: an advancing police line, peaceful singers and drummers, hostile shouting, smoke billowing from flaming police cars, and screams as a round of bullets is fired to break up the crowd.
This event comes just days following the departure of a United Nations representative sent to investigate the living conditions of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Governing international eyes have been on the country ever since the inception of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and as land disputes related to environmental protection issues become more urgent, many predict that this sort of conflict is only the beginning.
The heart of the struggle lies in the debate regarding the potential environmental impacts of shale-gas exploration. Fracking is the common term for hydraulic fracturing, which is “the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth.” Several chemicals that gas companies use can be hazardous if not properly isolated and stored.
Many fear that the chemicals used in the shale-gas fracking process will contaminate drinking water.
In New Brunswick, citizens are largely divided on the issue, because while some see the economic advantage of drilling, others vocally oppose this type of resource extraction.
One anti-fracking activist interviewed by CBC explained, “I’m not willing to trade a litre of water for a litre of gas, and I live here. No one ever asked me if they could drill under my property, take water from my kids.”
New Brunswick Premier David Alward had met with Chief Sock twice to discuss his concerns for the future of the land before conflict broke out near Rexton. Alward said, “I had been hopeful of reaching a peaceful resolution. Unfortunately and very troublingly, we saw an enormous amount of violence yesterday. The RCMP did what they felt they had to do to ensure the public safety. We are a country based on the foundation of laws, and what was taking place yesterday was wrong. We know today that weapons and explosive devices were seized. There was real concern for the public safety, and the RCMP carried out actions they deemed were necessary.”
Whether or not the extreme use of force was truly necessary remains a matter of hot debate.
In support of the Elsipogtog First Nation, rallies and solidarity events under the banner of “Idle No More” have been held across the country. In Peterborough, with less than 20 hours notice, a crowd of nearly 100 gathered in the park across the street from city council on October 18 carrying signs and drums to show support and raise awareness.
However, the future of resource development in New Brunswick remains a matter of great concern for both environmentally-alert individuals and the overall economy of the province.
When interviewed live by CTV News, and asked how the Elsipogtog conflict will affect New Brunswick, Premier Alward concluded by saying, “As a province, we are determined to be able to develop our natural resources in a responsible way. There has been dialogue and work with First Nations leaders across the province. My hope is that this work will continue on as we go forward.”