First Nation protesters tell Southwestern Energy to “Frack off!”

Acting on behalf of a U.S. energy company, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police staged a surprise, early morning attack on an encampment of Elsipogtog First Nation (Indigenous) protesters engaged in a prolonged struggle to stop shale gas fracking on Mi’kmaq lands in New Brunswick, Canada.

The encampment was awakened by an RCMP paramilitary force of 200 armed and riot-ready police using rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, taser guns and dogs on Oct. 17. The attackers leveled the camp, injured many elders and arrested 40 activists.

The provincial government claimed the police were unarmed, but videos taken by protesters as well as CBC News photos clearly show RCMP snipers with assault rifles taking aim at protesters.

Blockade to stop fracking

The weeks-long encampment targeted SWN Resources, owned by Houston-based Southwestern Energy, which had been exploring for shale gas deposits in New Brunswick since 2010.  Laying claim to all underground mineral and gas rights, the New Brunswick provincial government gave SWN permission to conduct seismic tests to explore 2.5 million acres of land for potential shale gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing — fracking.

Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals through deep underground horizontal wells to break up shale rock to release natural gas.  The chemicals used are known to be toxic and carcinogenic.

The testing, conducted with less than 24-hour notice to residents, involved “thumper” trucks that set off earthquake-like vibrations through the ground.  In 2011, repeated protests forced SWN to temporarily halt operations.

When SWN escalated testing activities again in 2013, protesters began blocking their trucks from reaching remote testing sites. After months of direct action, on July 24 the Mi’kma’ki government council issued an eviction notice to SWN.

After negotiating with the Elsipogtog First Nation and the Mi’kmaq Warriors Society, SWN agreed to stop testing in the area.  The company planned to resume testing in other areas in September but was stopped by Elsipogtog protesters, who set up the encampment to blockade a lot near Rexton, New Brunswick, where SWN’s seismic testing equipment was stored.

Upon establishing the blockade on Sept. 30, Elsipogtog First Nation Chief Aaron Sock announced a sweeping Mi’kmaq land reclamation in response to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s lifting of protective environmental restrictions.  “Let it be known to all that we as the chief and council of Elsipogtog are reclaiming all unoccupied reserve lands. We have been instructed by our people that they are ready, willing and able to go out and stake their own claims on all unoccupied lands for their own use and benefit.” (Tworowtimes.com, Oct. 9)

The Elsipogtog encampment grew to around 200 people, which included not only First Nations people but also non-Native Anglophones and Acadians in a coalition many have described as “unprecedented.” Signs attesting to the multinational alliance read: “SWN, Returnez Chez-vous!” [“Go home!”] and “Frack Off!”

Earlier in October, dozens of young First Nations activists left school to join the encampment. Raven Chanelle, who helped organize the student walkout, said: “People need to be more aware that they can change things.  It’s not up to the government; it’s up to the people.” (Wagingnonviolence.org, Oct. 14)

Protesters also blocked coastal Route 134 to draw further attention to their struggle. The road is the site of two historic protests by the Mi’kmaq 15 years earlier that resulted in legal victories protecting their rights to hunt, fish, trap and harvest lumber.

What makes the current coalition so unusual is that during these previous struggles most non-Indigenous communities actively took the government’s side. Today, the threat of shale gas drilling in New Brunswick has galvanized these communities to join forces with the First Nations to oppose SWN.

RCMP raid pre-empts attempts to lift injunction

On Oct. 3, claiming that the blockade cost them $60,000 a day, SWN filed an injunction in Canadian courts to dismantle the encampment, and on Oct. 12 they sought an extension until Oct. 21.  Elsipogtog blockaders were due to rebut the extension later in the day on Oct. 17, and Chief Sock had released a press statement outlining plans to resolve the issues that led to the blockade. It is clear that the early morning raid was designed to pre-empt any court decision that might have favored the protesters.

Court rulings in Canada have established that Indigenous people must be consulted when their land is considered for development.  Indigenous people have won 186 lawsuits since the mid-1980s — a 90 percent success rate. (CBC News, Oct 19)

Former Elsipogtog Chief Susan Levi Peters stated, “According to our understanding we signed an agreement with the Provincial government that guaranteed consultation, and according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People we have a right to free, prior and informed consent with our community before anyone is to drill or pursue something like shale gas, especially fracking.”

Global solidarity

Immediately following the RCMP raid, Elsipogtog solidarity events spread across Canada.  Over 45 anti-fracking actions were organized — many led by Indigenous people blockading major roads and bridges in several Canadian provinces.  Non-Natives organized actions as well, chanting slogans such as “Everybody take a stand! No raids on Native land!”   There were also demonstrations outside Canadian consulates in New York and Washington.

Solidarity messages came from several pro-Palestinian student groups in Canada, and from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose spokesperson, Khalil al-Maqdisi, said, “We are very familiar with these weapons of oppression used by settler colonial regimes in order to colonize our land and dispossess our people. … These were practiced first by Canada, and by the United States, against the Indigenous people of their land.”

Encouraged by these demonstrations of solidarity and undeterred by the attack and the injunction, Elsipogtog protesters have already re-established a limited encampment, letting traffic pass only on one lane of the highway.  They want to make sure SWN does not get a foothold on their land.  They vow to continue the struggle to stop shale gas exploration dead in its tracks.

On Oct. 21, Justice George Rideout denied the request by SWN Resources to extend their court injunction to prevent the Elsipogtog protesters from blocking their storage facility.