By Dallas McQuarrie, Saint-Ignace, New Brunswick
When 150 RCMP officers, a sniper team and dogs stormed a previously peaceful camp of those protesting against shale gas exploration near Rexton, New Brunswick on October 17, our community and the protest were vaulted into national and international news.
What did not show up on most of the news coverage was an elderly woman pepper-sprayed in the face while praying the rosary; a senior citizen assaulted by a private security guard and knocked to the ground; and the bizarre arrest of Chief Aaron Sock, of the Elsipogtog First nation, one of the most outspoken advocates of non-violence.
Police say they were enforcing an injunction against a barricade that has prevented exploration vehicles belonging to Houston based SWN Resources from conducting shale gas exploration in New Brunswick. It is true that we are opposed to the process known as fracking because we believe it will contaminate our water supply and cause other environmental damage.
Intimidation not working
If this decision by the provincial government to shut down the protest camp was designed to intimidate us, it hasn’t worked. A meeting on the Elsipogtog First Nation on Sunday, October 20 drew more than 300 people, Aboriginal, Francophone and Anglophone. They made clear both their determination to continue their resistance and to support non-violence.
The protest camp on a road near Rexton, which is 80 kilometres north of Moncton, had been in place for three weeks and support for it was tremendous. Local stores and community members were giving food, winter clothing, and camping equipment. Religious leaders and parishioners were supportive, as were local municipal leaders.
My wife Susan and I had spent time at the camp, and had planned to take more food there the morning that the RCMP overran it in a debacle that saw forty people arrested, pepper spray and rubber bullets, and six RCMP vehicles burned. We were heartened on that same day to hear of spontaneous demonstrations occurring elsewhere in the province and across the country in solidarity with us.
The camp was relatively calm in the weeks leading up to the October 17 attack. There were community events, including a turkey supper to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the 1763 Royal proclamation that recognized Aboriginal sovereignty over ancestral lands in the Maritimes in perpetuity. Indeed, the broad solidarity among the Aboriginal, Francophone and Anglophone communities on the shale gas issue has been the cause of much celebration.
Without Chief Sock and other Mi’kmaq warriors who have been keeping the peace, the situation might have exploded a couple of months ago. Some see the provincial government’s decision to turn the RCMP loose as an attempt to derail an Aboriginal challenge to the legality of the province giving this Texas-based shale gas company unrestricted access to their lands.
On October 2, Chief Sock announced that his band and the Signitog District Grand Council representing Aboriginal peoples in the Maritimes were immediately resuming direct control of their ancestral lands. Aboriginal peoples In New Brunswick never ceded or sold their lands to the Crown. It was a week after Sock’s historic announcement that Premier David Alward began talks with Mi’kmaq and community leaders to resolve the Rexton stand-off. Yet, after only two meetings, Chief Sock and members of his band council were arrested when RCMP overran the Rexton camp.
It’s not clear who burned the RCMP vehicles near Rexton. Many people are old enough to remember the RCMP’s spying on Tommy Douglas, burning a barn in Quebec, and trying to start a riot at demonstrations. The events of October 17 in Rexton have the earmarks of dirty tricks, and the protest movement here has had more than one incident where agent provocateurs trying to discredit it.
For three and a half years, the anti-shale gas movement has been steadfastly peaceful wherever demonstrations took place. At Rexton, within the space of about 48 hours, something changed radically. Some new people professing support showed up at the camp, and, for the first time, there was concern about violence.
I believe agent provocateurs infiltrated the camp and provoked a confrontation that either stampeded the RCMP or provided a rationale for a decision already made. The number of parties who might have an interest in provoking such violence is very limited.
One shale gas activist, a Canadian armed forces veteran trained in intelligence work, and the chairman of a Local Service District, visited the camp most days. He’s adamant that he witnessed a man torching an RCMP vehicle and that he knows that arsonist was not someone from the camp.
Speaking truth to power
Messages of support are pouring in to this, the poorest county in the poorest province in Canada, and there is a lot of Aboriginal support for the Mi’kmaq evident across the country. Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak was at the public meeting at Elsipogtog on October 20. Mohawks, who have a close relationship with Mi’kmaq, have sometimes been on hand as observers.
That’s how things stand in Kent County. Protestors in one of the poorest regions in Canada have fought a billion dollar gas company and the provincial government to a standstill. In spite of the deep anguish the Rexton raid has caused, the meeting on Elsipogtog demonstrated a determination to continue speaking truth to power through non-violent means.