St. Ignace – Anti-shale gas protesters in New Brunswick are gearing up for more confrontations with the province in the wake of the Alward government’s decision to have the RCMP shut down a protest camp in Rexton by force on Oct. 17th. The camp, outside the Irving Compound on Highway 134 south of Rexton, had been the site of a three week peaceful protest that had kept five shale gas thumper trucks confined to the compound.
The decision to end a peaceful protest by force ended in a debacle that saw forty people arrested, pepper spray and rubber bullets, and five RCMP vehicles burned. It also triggered spontaneous demonstrations elsewhere in New Brunswick, and activists in Kent County report say people previously not involved in the protest are calling to ask how they can help.
By Friday, less than 24 hours after the Rexton camp had been stormed by more than a hundred RCMP officers in riot gear, some with weapons drawn, and attack dogs, hard questions were already being asked about the Alward government’s timing and motivation. Protesters point to the fact that the provincial government’s use of force to end the Rexton protest came the day before Aboriginal peoples were to seek a court injunction against SWN for invading their territory. That the attack was designed to portray protesters as violent people and influence how the Aboriginal injunction would be received in court cannot be discounted.
Since Aboriginal land in New Brunswick has never been sold or ceded to the Crown by treaty, several lawyers have stated privately that Aboriginal Peoples have a very strong basis on which to assert they are still the rightful owners of so-called Crown land in New Brunswick. As the legal owners, the Aboriginal Peoples would have the right to evict SWN from their territory.
On October 2, Elsipogtog Chief Aaron Sock stunned the provincial government by announcing that his band and the Signitog District Grand Council representing Aboriginal peoples in the Maritimes were immediately resuming direct control of their ancestral lands. A week after Sock’s historic announcement, Premier David Alward began direct talks with the Mi’kmaq people and representatives of community groups across the province seeking to stop shale gas development aimed at peaceful resolution of the Rexton stand-off.
Yet, after only two such meetings with the Alward government, Chief Sock and members of the Elsipogtog band council were among those arrested when RCMP overran the Rexton protest camp. Protestors say the move to arrest Sock, who has been an outspoken advocate of non-violent resistance, shows the Alward government has no real commitment to listening to the legitimate concerns of the people.
Also scooped up, for the second time since June, was Halifax Media Co-op reporter Miles Howe. Howe’s June arrest has been investigated and condemned by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. Today, many are questioning whether free expression on the issue of shale gas really exists in New Brunswick anymore.
The belief that the Alward government is using the RCMP to achieve its political goals has been indirectly bolstered by its already-demonstrated commitment to ideology rather than to science. For the last two years, Premier Alward and his cabinet have pointed to a government sponsored study as the scientific basis for their decision to develop the shale gas industry.
In September, however, that report, entitled The Path Forward, was reduced to mere ‘junk science’ in the service of politics when it was revealed that Louis LaPierre, the man hired to prepare the report, did not have the scientific credentials he had claimed. Undaunted, the Alward government declared it didn’t really matter if its own report was fraudulent junk science because it was going ahead with shale gas development anyway. Indeed, one cabinet minister distinguished himself by saying on CBC radio that it was “unfortunate” the truth had been discovered.
The cynicism with which the province discarded the need for an independent, scientific evaluation of shale gas is evident in its newly-assumed pose of seeking some sort of peaceful resolution to a violent situation which it created itself. Thus, the Alward government is still proclaiming it wants to negotiate, but that it has no intention of changing its position.
At this time it remains uncertain where the thumper trucks are. Unconfirmed reports placed them in the St. John area Thursday night after the mass arrests at Rexton, and that has triggered speculation they may be headed for the American border.
Meanwhile, the province’s heavy-handed action may actually be creating a bigger political headache for the beleaguered Conservatives, who face an election in 11 months. Protesters are heartened by an upswing in calls of national and international support, and report they are ramping up plans for more peaceful resistance. Far from cooling out protestors or frightening them away with a show of force, this week’s dismantling of the Rexton camp by force appears to be generating new support to the anti-shale gas movement.