Kent County “water warriors” gather on Elsipogtog, view documentary celebrating their historic victory

Written by Dallas McQuarrie on July 18, 2017

This protest march on Oct. 1, 2013 is shown in Water Warriors. About two weeks later, RCMP security units stormed a protest camp in Rexton, but the “water warriors” refused to give up, and eventually won. Photo by Dallas McQuarrie.

“You have to normalize resistance.  You have to normalize it in every aspect of what you’re doing,” Suzanne Patles, in Water Warriors.

Elsipogtog First Nation – The story of Indigenous people, Acadians, and Anglophones in one of New Brunswick’s poorest areas successfully defending their homes and communities from the ravages of shale gas development is now the subject of a new documentary film.

Water Warriors (22-minutes; Storyline) celebrates the story of how people without financial or political power managed, against seemingly insurmountable odds, to drive a multi-billion dollar oil and gas company out of Kent County, to withstand violent attacks by RCMP security forces and, ultimately, to topple a provincial government.  Produced by Michael Premo and Rachel Falcone, Water Warriors had its premier showing in New Brunswick July 13 on the Elsipogtog First Nation.

For eight months, from May through December 2013, a cross-cultural alliance of Mi’kmaq, Acadian and English speaking people in Kent County who were determined to protect their fresh water from fracking, stood firm against the provincial government, police and industry.  New Brunswick’s “water warriors” never wavered and, in late 2014, a newly-elected government put a moratorium on fracking that remains in place to this day.

Water Warriors is a moving story that offers hope to environmentalists and others around the world who love the earth.  Its message is that people and communities united in common cause do have real power, and can stop governments and industry from sacrificing the environment on the altar of corporate greed.

The “water warriors” victory in Kent County was “a story that needed to be told,” said film director Michael Premo, an environmental advocate and journalist. Photo by Dallas McQuarrie.

“It’s a story that needed to be told,” director Michael Premo said at the documentary’s New Brunswick premiere on Elsipogtog.  “When we showed this film in New York people were just blown away by what was accomplished here.”

Water Warriors has also been received enthusiastically in England and Italy where people “are inspired when they see what happened here,” he said.

The struggle in Kent County “sets an example for Canada and the world,” Premo said.  He stresses that the success of the “water warriors” in New Brunswick shows people engaged in similar battles elsewhere that they too can succeed.

Despite an appalling record of water, land and air pollution following shale development elsewhere, the Province of New Brunswick committed itself to shale gas development in 2010 without any scientific study of its possible impact.  When the 30 or so community groups across the province who formed the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance (NBASGA) raised environmental concerns, they were ignored or ridiculed by the then Conservative government.

The film is visually striking, showing both the land, air and skies the “water warriors” were defending, and their confrontations with RCMP forcibly clearing the way for a multi-billion dollar oil and gas company.

It would, of course, take a documentary many hours long to chronicle the eight months of daily confrontations and skirmishes on New Brunswick highways and in provincial forests that eventually repelled the shale gas invaders.  Throughout their struggle, Kent County’s “water warriors” received support from anti-shale gas groups across the province–notably NBASGA.

What makes Water Warriors an inspiring film is that it captures the spirit of resistance that made victory against all odds possible.  It’s a joyous success story of ordinary citizens–many of whom never saw themselves as activists before–challenging money and power, and winning.

Elsipogtog “water warrior” Debbie Cyr told of travelling to New York where the documentary played to full houses. Photo by Dallas McQuarrie.

Mi’kmaq activist Debbie Cyr, who appears in the documentary, introduced the film by saying the protection of water is not a Native, Acadian or English issue, but “a human rights issue.”  When Water Warriors was publicly released, Cyr travelled to New York to see the film premiere there.

“It was you guys that did it,” Cyr told the Mi’kmaq, Acadian and Anglophone “water warriors” attending the Elsipogtog showing.  “All of us made a difference.” That “difference” made by the water warriors of Kent County will be felt for years to come.

Speaking after the film was shown, Mi’kmaq elder and Kopit Lodge spokesperson Ken Francis said the struggle to protect the environment in Kent County led to a November 2016 decision by the Elsipogtog First Nation to file an Aboriginal Title Claim in New Brunswick courts.  Kopit Lodge represents the Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq on resource development issues.

“We were told we didn’t stand a chance” of stopping shale gas,” Francis said.  “Maybe as Aboriginal people alone we didn’t stand a chance; and maybe Acadians alone didn’t stand a chance; and maybe English-speaking people alone didn’t stand a chance, but all together we got it done.”

Therein lies the power of Water Warriors to inspire.  The documentary demonstrates that governments and corporations can’t do whatever they want with impunity.

Denise Melanson and Debbie Hopper from Indian Island speak for the Acadian and Anglophone “water warriors” in the documentary.

Contacted after the showing of Water Warriors, Melanson said, “I first learned that there was a plan to allow fracking in our community at a SWN (Southwestern Energy) meeting in Rexton in April 2011.”  Hopper, her husband and mother-in-law attended the meeting with Melanson.

It was at that SWN Rexton meeting that Melanson, a retired medical social worker, “saw the map of all the leased lands across the province and was appalled by the extent of the areas targeted for fracking.”

“It was then that I knew we had to get together and fight, “she said.  “And I would advise others facing similar challenges to remember that if you don’t fight, you can’t win, and that when we fight with each other, ‘they’ win.”

Melanson soon became a spokesperson for NBASGA.  Her advice for people and communities struggling to protect their water, land and air is “Never give up – even when it looks impossible!”  She also encourages people who want to protect the environment to “learn everything you can.”

“You need to know more than the people who are supporting the opposite side.  I think that we won this battle because we were more credible than the opposition, and were able to help others understand the threat to our environment, health, and way of life posed by fracking. Share what you know with everyone.”

Like Melanson, Hopper was also alarmed by what she saw at the SWN meeting.  “For the next blur of time, it was read, research, organize, travel, protest, write,” Hopper said.  The effort to stop shale gas also showed Hopper one of the uglier realities of New Brunswick.

“We who are not Indigenous came to recognize the unjust treatment of Indigenous Peoples in our province. How they were more likely to be treated roughly and arrested,” Hopper said.

“Having no control over our land – being told that we did not own the mineral rights to our land and so the government would be giving the frackers the right to go on our land, gave us a small sense of what Indigenous peoples have suffered since their land was taken over.”

Hopper advises people trying to defend the earth to “form environmental protection groups, write letters to the editor, organize information meetings, do lots of research (we knew more than the politicians about the topic), contact experts and raise the money to bring them to speak. Contact your politicians at all levels.”

 During the screening, the “water warriors” in attendance watched silently for 22 minutes, and then rose to their feet applauding enthusiastically as the film ended.  Water Warriors closes with footage of New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant announcing a moratorium on fracking following the 2014 provincial election.

In an informal discussion following the showing of Water Warriors, Reginald Aucoin received loud applause when he expressed the hope that the cross cultural alliance formed to protect water in Kent County would continue acting as a united voice for protection of the environment.

Aucoin, a Moncton resident, lived in Brown’s yard when the shale gas eco-vandals first showed up, and he quickly joined the struggle to protect the earth for future generations.

That struggle continues today. It is a bitter irony that Premier Gallant, who won an election with a promise to put a moratorium on shale gas, refuses to stop New Brunswick forests from being clearcut and sprayed.

Dallas McQuarrie is a retired journalist and civil servant living in the unceded Mi’kmaq territory of Sikniktuk.

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