Rogersville, New Brunswick is 90 kilometers north of Moncton on Highway 126 and is home to about 1200 people. Nearby are two Trappist monasteries, noted for their silent retreats, and major tourist attractions like Kouchibouguac National Park and the world-famous Miramichi salmon fishery. This year, in what has become a summer of anger and frustration in rural New Brunswick, it’s not tourist traffic on Highway 126 people are seeing on the supper news, but swarms of RCMP officers hauling people protesting shale gas development off to jail.
People are protesting against exploration for shale gas that is occurring in their region. Fracking in the quest to extract shale gas has had catastrophic environmental consequences elsewhere, and many of us want no part of it here. Television images of contaminated tap water bursting into flame and other environmental horrors haven’t helped shale gas promoters.
In six weeks, more than 30 people have been arrested near Rogersville, amid RCMP warnings that Kent County is “getting dangerous.” In late June, a gas company drill truck used in seismic testing burned during the night. Earlier that day, a shale gas protestor was injured by a gas company employee’s vehicle fleeing a crowd of angry residents. Tensions between rural residents and the first-term Conservative provincial government of David Alward began ratcheting up in June when the province decided to get tough with protestors and have the RCMP arrest them.
Protesters know that the province contracts for RCMP policing from the federal government, and there is anger that the Alward government decided to throw people in jail rather than talk with them.
The beleaguered regime, saddled with a dismal economic record and facing an election next year, is touting shale gas with an evangelical fervor as the holy grail of economic development. But the plan to sell shale gas as a source of endless jobs and money hasn’t worked.
A poll taken in May, before the arrests began, showed residents split on the question of whether shale gas was even important to New Brunswick, while an overwhelming majority felt the industry posed very serious environmental and public health threats.
Protest uniting people
The “say no to shale gas” protest has united English, French and First Nations peoples around a single issue, something rarely seen here. Many businesses have anti-shale gas signs in their windows. The Catholic church where I attend in St. Ignace (about 50 kilometers from Rogersville) has “stop shale gas” signs on its doors. The New Brunswick College of Family Physicians is calling for a moratorium on shale gas development. The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has expressed serious concern. People clearly believe their doctors, not Premier Alward.
The opposition to shale gas is home grown. The protesters are the folks one sees at farmers’ markets every summer. Demonstrations seem like family reunions with parents, grandparents and children much in evidence, along with teachers from near-by schools, local business people, doctors, clergy, and even elected officials. Petitions, public rallies, and similar exhibitions of deep community opposition to shale gas are summarily dismissed by the provincial government whose dull mantra of “shale gas or recession” has become a tragic confession of their own lack of vision.
In June, the province deployed the RCMP to accomplish by force what it couldn’t achieve by political means. In early July, in a clumsy attempt to stifle daily-growing news coverage of the protest, Halifax Media Co-op journalist Miles Howe was arrested. Howe set up shop at the protestors’ camp and was able to witness and report on every arrest. Conversely, the mainstream media has often been excluded from such scenes by RCMP officers closing roads and refusing to let them see the confrontations. The group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has issued a news release calling for charges against Howe to be dropped.
My wife Susan and I were among 12 protesters arrested June 15 by 63 RCMP officers just after dawn. Like the Maliseet First Nation Elder who became my cell-mate, we were praying on the highway when arrested. We’re both senior citizens who have never been arrested before. A surreal moment occurred when an RCMP officer, who had taken my cane while I was on my knees praying, had to help me up before he could arrest me and put me in the paddy wagon.
The Alward government and its gas company cronies are now using the RCMP as bully boys to intimidate ordinary people trying to protect their families and communities. It’s become quite clear that people here in one of the poorest areas of Canada are regarded by the Conservative government as throwaways who can be pushed around with impunity.
Training in non-violence
Between July 16 and July 20, additional sessions will occur on the Elsipogtog (Mi’kmaq) First Nation in Kent County (where the arrests have taken place) to train people in methods of non-violent resistance.
Originally posted on Dennis Gruending’s blog, Pulpit and Politics.