“We’re going to stop this pipeline:” grassroots Indigenous leaders

Written by Miles Howe for the Halifax Media Co-op on February 27, 2015

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Ron Tremblay, former councillor for Tobique First Nation and member of Wolustuk Grand Council and Clayton Thomas Muller of Mathais Colomb Cree Nation in Treaty Six (Northern Manitoba), display the Wolustuk Grand Council flag. Photo by Miles Howe.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – If Indigenous voices in the Maritimes had up until now been relatively silent in publicly opposing TransCanada’s ‘Energy East’ pipeline, on Monday, February 23rd, a cross-sectional panel of Indigenous grassroots leaders spoke collectively, and firmly, against TransCanada’s latest and largest proposed pipeline to date. Their message was simple and clear: the pipeline will not pass through the Maritimes, and they are prepared to name and out Indigenous collaborators with TransCanada.

Ron Tremblay, a member of Negutkuk (Tobique) First Nation and a member of the Wolustuk (Malicete) Grand Council, likened the process in front of Indigenous grassroots leaders to turning over a large rock on a sunny day and watching the insects scatter from the sunlight.

To Tremblay, one of the key Indigenous collaborative elements within the province of New Brunswick is the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs of New Brunswick Inc (AFNCNB). Be it with their years-long intimacy with Southwestern Resources Canada that went far towards delegitimizing – and putting in physical jeopardy – grassroots opposition to hydraulic fracturing in the province, or more recently with their demand to ‘be consulted with’ by TransCanada, to Tremblay the AFNCNB has become an ever-more secretive body that is dangerously out of touch with the wishes of the Indigenous population of New Brunswick that it claims to speak on behalf of.

“The Assembly used to meet in Fredericton,” says Tremblay. “We used to go to their meetings and ‘crash’ them. We as grassroots people and the Wolustuk Grand Council had questions and voiced our concerns, but they refused to listen to us. So they stopped meeting in Fredericton and now we don’t even know where they meet or who they’re meeting with. And still, the government and these companies deal just directly with these chiefs.”

That TransCanada is consulting directly with the AFNCNB, to the exclusion of Indigenous grassroots people in New Brunswick, is especially problematic to Tremblay because of the current make-up of the AFNCNB as it relates the proposed route of Energy East. Once it arrives in New Brunswick, TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline is slated to run southwards, to the west of the Saint John River. This is traditional Wolustuk territory.

Of the fifteen reservations in New Brunswick, only eleven have opted to remain under the consultative umbrella of the AFNCNB. Madawaska First Nation, Woodstock First Nation and Saint Mary’s First Nation – all Wolustuk reservations – have withdrawn from the AFNCNB. Elsipogtog First Nation, as a direct result of the AFNCNB’s botched consultative process with Southwestern Energy between 2011 and 2013, withdrew from the organization in November, 2013. Currently, Elsipogtog is the only Mi’kmaq First Nation to have withdrawn.

What this means is that the AFNCNB is now comprised of three Wolustuk and eight Mi’kmaq representatives. Of the the three Wolustuk reservations that remain in the AFNCNB, Kingsclear First Nation’s legal counsel is Stewart Paul, one of the founders of the AFNCNB, while Oromocto First Nation’s legal counsel is Mike Scully, who himself was heavily involved in the AFNCNB’s compromised consultative process with Southwestern Energy. So, in manners related to Energy East, Wolustuk grassroots peoples are now represented by a majority of Mi’kmaq chiefs, whose traditional territories will not be directly impacted by the pipeline’s route.

“No disrespect to our Mi’kmaq brothers and sisters that live in the same adjacent territory,” says Tremblay. “But I feel that the Mi’kmaq chiefs that support it have no right supporting what is not directly affecting them, what is not going through their territory.

“The danger is that when the government or TransCanada or any development wants to come through just Wolustuk territory, is they go and meet with the Assembly. Our biggest beef is that they feel that they have a right to speak on our behalf.”

As for the Assembly of First Nations at the national level, the regional representative for New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island is Roger Augustine, also Mi’kmaq. Recently, Tremblay had words with Augustine on CBC Fredericton’s ‘Information Morning’.

“I specifically told [the host of the program] that Roger does not represent the Wolustuk people,” says Tremblay. “So they quickly called him. And he said: ‘Well, I respect what Mr. Tremblay said’, but that according to his mandate he does speak on our behalf and that the Wolustuk Grand Council doesn’t speak on behalf of anybody.”

In terms of who is mandated to speak on behalf of who, Augustine himself may be on thin ice in terms of the manner in which he perennially acquires the title of AFN regional representative. In the latest 2014 ‘election’ for the position of AFN regional representative, Augustine won by acclimation. This was problematic to numerous individuals who at the time voiced their concerns on social media. Individuals were interested in challenging Augustine for the position, but were apparently not informed on how to run, and were only informed of Augustine’s win by acclimation through a press release. Tremblay personally has no faith that Augustine will provide any opposition to Energy East.

“Roger is an opportunist,” says Tremblay. “He’s been seen as a great leader according to the province, because he talks their language. Any sort of development, Roger’s their man. When we were at the Elsipogtog camp, he came on his birthday, and he admitted that he was part of the process of getting SWN there. I remember [people] being devastated that he would admit that, that he would do that.”

Shelley Young, Mi’kmaq from Eskasoni First Nation, was also among the panelists who spoke out against TransCanada collaboration. Young was quick to point out the importance of inter-tribal solidarity between Mi’kmaq and Wolustuk grassroots people, even if the route of the pipeline through New Brunswick crosses strictly Wolustuk territory.

“I’ve heard people say: ‘Why are you standing against Energy East if it won’t affect Mi’kmaq people?’ And it’s really shocking to her that, actually,” says Young. “Mi’kma’ki is branched out into seven districts. That’s in New Brunswick. That’s in Quebec. That’s in Maine, Nova Scotia, PEI. And we don’t go by the borders of the provinces…and also our waterways are all connected.”

In elaborating on Indigenous collaborators with Energy East, Young focused on former AFN Chief Phil Fontaine and his consultative group, ‘Ishkinogan Consulting and Mediation Inc’. According to Young, Ishkinogan is well-ahead of Maritimes Indigenous pipeline resistance, having already provided information sessions to a variety of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq reservations.

“Basically what Energy East is doing is hiring our best consultants,” says Young. “The people who worked for the AFN (Assembly of First Nations). People who worked for Indian Affairs. People who are very trusted already by our chiefs and our leadership. Familiar faces to our leadership.”

Young notes that Ishkonigan – who was deeply involved in the failed and controversial ‘Ring of Fire’ proposed mineral developments in Northern Ontario – establishes community trust in a variety of ways. According to Young, Fontaine’s consultation group mixes in emotion-laden sessions, like talking circles on the impacts of residential schools, with their pro-Energy East sessions. This builds the impression of a consultative group with the best interests of the community’s well-being at heart.

Young says that Ishkonigan employs two consultants within the Maritimes region. One is ex-Elsipogtog chief Jesse Simon. Simon, chief of Elsipogtog between 2008-2012, and a former co-chair of the AFNCNB, would have been one of the go-to chiefs for whatever the New Brunswick government’s initial consultation was on the highly volatile SWN shale gas file. Simon also continues to sit on the board of directors of the AFNCNB. Tremblay notes that he spotted Simon sporting a ‘TransCanada’ t-shirt at a recent Energy East pipeline open-house in Saint John, New Brunswick.

The other consultant is former Tobique counsellor, Darrah (Pine) Beaver.

“I did speak to them. I asked: “Why are you pushing this on our chiefs?” I was really upset that our own people were basically convincing our chiefs that its a good thing for us. They said: “The pipeline’s gonna go through anyways. We may as well get what we deserve out of it. That’s the message they’re giving our leadership, that it’s going to happen anyways, you may as well get something out of it. And get on board, because if you’re not on board now, it’s going to cause you trouble later on.

“To me, I don’t agree with that. We’re going to stop the pipeline.”

Miles Howe’s forhcoming book ‘Debriefing Elsipogtog – Anatomy of a Struggle‘ will be released in April 2015.

This article was first published by the Halifax Media Co-op.

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