An art auction in St. Charles, Kent County on Saturday, August 29 raised about $5,700 for a legal action by Elsipogtog’s Kopit Lodge to enable Aboriginal people to make environmental protection the first priority for resource development on their traditional territories.
Literature prepared by Kopit Lodge and distributed at the auction says that to protect the environment, Aboriginal people “have to establish title to the land,” and that requires a major fundraising effort to assert their treaty rights in court.
The St. Charles gala was organized by non-Aboriginal supporters of Kopit’s legal action from several community groups working together as the Kent County Friendship Committee. As well, donations can be made to Kopit’s legal action online at Elsipogtog, N.B. – Legal Action Fund.
The event also shows that the province-wide alliance of Aboriginal, Francophone and Anglophone peoples that drove a multi-billion dollar shale gas company out of Kent County in 2014, and helped bring down the Conservative government of the day, has grown into a broadly-based environmental protection network.
Kopit Lodge was founded by Aboriginal veterans of the campaign to stop fracking in Kent County. It now handles all consultations on resource development and environmental protection for the Chief and Band Council of the Elsipogtog First Nation.
Ken Francis is a spokesperson for Kopit. He says the Lodge’s legal action is aimed at permanently ending the environmental damage caused by irresponsible resource extraction and industrial development on Aboriginal territory.
To do that, Kopit will formally assert Aboriginal Treaty rights that are been ignored or downplayed in New Brunswick and elsewhere. Francis describes the legal action as “re-establishing our rightful connection to the land.”
Successive provincial governments here have refused to engage in meaningful consultations with Aboriginal people about resource developments on traditional Aboriginal land. As well, both Liberal and Conservative governments have been far more responsive to the entreaties of their corporate friends than to the cries of people, whether Aboriginal or not, for real environmental protection.
Francis notes that a Supreme Court decision in British Columbia in June 2014 greatly strengthens Kopit’s case. That decision, in Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, 2014 SCC, saw Canada’s highest court rule that Aboriginal people still retain legal title to all of their traditional territories that were never sold or ceded to the Crown by treaty.
In New Brunswick, there’s no dispute about the fact that traditional Aboriginal lands here have never been sold or ceded to the Crown. That means Aboriginal people here are still the rightful owners of what the Province of New Brunswick euphemistically calls “Crown Land.”
Francis says the B.C. decision means that, sooner or later, provincial governments here will have to listen to Aboriginal people who are still the rightful owners of their traditional territories.
“We don’t trust the politicians anymore because they’re owned by the corporations,” Francis says. “And we just don’t trust the current moratorium on shale gas.” He hopes Kopit’s legal action will lead to all the community groups that opposed shale gas joining forces in common cause to protect the water, land and air for future generations.
Kopit’s legal action will be the third brought against the Province of New Brunswick for its failures to protect the environment. The New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance (NBASGA) and a citizen’s group led by Kent County activist Willi Nolan already have lawsuits before the courts that could sound the death knell for shale gas development.
To date, however, the Province of New Brunswick has been dragging its feet about meeting NBASGA in court. Armed with a library of scientific studies establishing the massive damage to the environment and human health that fracking for shale gas causes, NBASGA is understandably anxious to get to court.
Elected in September 2014, the Gallant government moved quickly to introduce a moratorium on fracking for shale gas. A few months later, however, it established a Commission on Hydraulic Fracturing to study the issue and make recommendations.
Given the overwhelming scientific consensus that fracking simply cannot be done safely, many people, including those in St. Charles Saturday night, are deeply suspicious that the Commission may be just a ‘dog and pony show’ designed to provide the Gallant Liberals with a excuse for opening the door to fracking in New Brunswick.
Indeed, it was the Liberal government of Shawn Graham that first invited shale gas companies to come to New Brunswick, and was subsequently defeated by the Conservatives, who opposed shale gas while in opposition in 2010. Following the 2010 election, the Conservatives and Liberals traded scripts as the Conservatives began supporting shale gas while the Liberals began opposing it.
Those political shenanigans have made many here deeply cynical about the trustworthiness of either Liberals or Conservatives on the shale gas issue.
Aboriginals ask for consultations; Liberals haven’t answered
Francis notes that Kopit has already written the Liberal government of Brian Gallant seeking consultations on a host of government-approved projects, including the Crown Land Forestry Management Agreement, Premier Tech Horticulture’s peat moss plant in Rexton, and the whole issue of industrial waste management.
“We wrote them two months ago, and we’re still waiting for a reply,” Francis says.
Both Liberal and Conservative provincial governments have traditionally paid lip-service to their constitutional obligation to consult with Aboriginal people about developments on Aboriginal land. However, now that Aboriginal people have a prima facie claim to outright ownership of Crown Land in New Brunswick, the Gallant government appears to be at a loss for a response to Kopit’s request for consultation.
Encouraged by the success of stopping shale gas development, non-Aboriginal community groups are more willing than ever to demand the environment be protected from the greed of resource extraction companies. The joining of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in the common cause of protecting the environment has created a potent political force in New Brunswick that governments ignore at their own peril.
Mike McKinley is an engineer, parent and member of Notre environnement, notre choix /Our Environment, Our Choice (NENC), a community based environmental group with members in the St. Charles, St. Louis, Kouchibouguac, St. Ignace area of Kent County. He and several NENC members joined the Kent Country Friendship Committee to help organize the art auction.
“We found out through the shale gas struggles that the people have no protection from corporate interference in democratic processes,” McKinley says. “Big corporations have far too much influence on government, with the result that provincial governments here have washed their hands of protecting citizens.”
“We’ve learned that all of us, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, have to step up and protect each other and help each other protect the environment,” he says. “That includes helping First Nations assert their Treaty Rights.”
“Our struggle is no longer just about shale gas. Now it’s a struggle for human and environmental rights, and that message really resonates with people.”
McKinley says the key to securing human and environmental rights is education and getting information out to people that the mainstream media tries to ignore or censor.
Debra Hopper is a parent, teacher, and member of the fledgling Kent Country Chapter of the Council of Canadians. She also joined the Kent Country Friendship Committee to help organize and stage the St. Charles Art Auction.
“Nothing is more important than a healthy environment in which to raise present and future generations,” Hopper says. “When we stand together for what is right, we win.”
She says Kopit’s legal action “represents my values and priorities” and will “benefit every citizen of this province.” “What we have here is a gathering of people who love the earth and want to protect it for the benefit of people today and future generations tomorrow.”
Is the TransCanada Energy East Pipeline the next “big one?”
Mark D’Arcy and Caroline Lubbe-D’Arcy are also members of the Council of Canadians. They travelled from Fredericton to attend the Kopit Lodge fundraiser. They too are pleased to see growing support across New Brunswick for environmental protection initiatives.
“It’s time to go beyond just putting out small fires and start taking back control of the environment,” Mark D’Arcy says. “The art auction is a step in that direction.”
D’Arcy identifies “education and using the law” as key tools in the struggle for environmental justice. He says the fact that two-thirds of people voted against shale gas in the 2014 provincial election shows the growing importance of social media.
“People can now communicate with each other without having to rely on the mainstream media,” D’Arcy says. “And the message today is not to be fearful, that is, not to be fearful of government and not to be fearful of the police when they attempt to stifle peaceful protest.”
D’Arcy thinks the next big battle to protect New Brunswick’s environment may well be over the TransCanada Energy East pipeline. He notes that pipeline crosses more than 40 provincial waterways, and says it’s hard to imagine a route with more potential for environmental damage than the one currently being proposed.
“One community after another along the route is joining the struggle to stop the pipeline. Whatever else may happen, there is no social license for such a pipeline in New Brunswick.”
It seems there is a growing realization in New Brunswick that jobs that destroy the environment are, ultimately, jobs that destroy life.
Dallas McQuarrie is a Kent County-based news writer for the NB Media Co-op.