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Elsipogtog punished for taking stand on environmental rights

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Last Thursday, the RCMP launched a military style raid on a peaceful, though illegal, blockade of a compound containing "thumper" seismic testing trucks (used to search for the presence oil/natural gas below the surface). These thumper trucks have been operating on the territory of the Mi'kmaq of Elsipogtog First Nation in search of fracking opportunities.

The Mi'kmaq have objected to the presence of Southwestern Energy (SWN) -- a Houston, Texas-based energy company -- due to absence of consultation. This goes back several months when they first began protests against SWN trespassing on their territory.

On Friday, Sierra Club Canada issued a short press release containing a graphic linking the police action to the federal government’s "Economic Action Plan."

After listening to the Governor General's Speech from the Throne outlining the government's plans for an aggressive natural resource agenda, we concluded the timing may not have been coincidental. Further, the fact that it happened at the conclusion of United Nations Special Rapporteur James Anaya's visit to Canada was more evidence: Harper's way of giving the middle finger to the U.N. and First Nations across Canada. When recently in New York, the Prime Minister's stage-managed comment that he would "not take no for an answer" to the Keystone XL pipeline wasn’t just aimed at Barack Obama, but at Canada's First Nations also.

We felt (and still feel today) that the assault on Elsipogtog was the opening salvo in a war on the Mi’kmaq and other First Nations who would hold up energy/resource extraction in Canada.

Getting back to our press release, we apparently hit some nerves because over the weekend we had an unprecedented number of downloads (over 5000) and significant (positive) re-tweeting. We also received attention from an obscure Sun Media propagandist -- further vindication we were on the right side of the story.

What concerned me, however, were emails from a media outlet and a former staffer. They suggested the release undermined our credibility and was a form of tabloidism and "sensationalizing" of the story. I strongly beg to differ.

Our mission as stated on our website is: "Sierra Club Canada empowers people to protect, restore and enjoy a healthy and safe planet!" With this mission and our long history how could we not stand in solidarity with Mi'kmaq of Elsipogtog? Our release and graphic were emotional, evocative and perhaps terse (in that it did not fully explain our position) while making a very big statement. So I'd like to explain more fully and demonstrate that the emotion was honest and based on cumulative experience -- not a knee-jerk reaction or gambit to seek publicity.

Is it a reach to be concerned there will be many more "police actions" to enforce the "economic action plan"? The 2012 budget omnibus bills largely took away First Nations' and the public's rights to participate in resource development decisions. Doesn't this means going forward there will more and more confrontations as impacted people realize they have very limited legal options -- and turn to protests like the blockade by the Elsipogtog First Nation? Are dawn raids by pepper spraying swat teams with viscous dogs what’s in store for us all?

The Elsipogtog First Nation has never ceded its territory and has had its rights reaffirmed by the Supreme Court, but their attempt to invoke those rights (when it came to an oil company searching for natural gas on their territory) was ignored by the federal and provincial governments, by the judge who granted the injunction enforced by the RCMP, and by the national media (I just learned the injunction has been overturned by the courts).

As for tabloidism, it simply isn't true. I ‎tried in June, July and again in September to draw the national mainstream media's attention to the escalating situation happening in New Brunswick, and the controversial practice of fracking (a process that contaminates millions of gallons of water for each and every well drilled).

Even when I pointed out the protest was led by the chief (and not a small group of "activists,") no one was interested in covering the story. No one.

Why is a First Nation attempting to enforce its constitutional rights not a story until there is violence?

Not until the police raid did the story get out of New Brunswick and then all we all heard "Forty arrested in violent protest." This was a gross distortion.

A peaceful protest had been held for weeks without ANY incident. Not until the swat raid was there any violence. Shouldn’t the headline have been: "Police raid on peaceful protest results in violence"?

Most Canadians aren't aware that the night before the violent confrontation the RCMP visited the peaceful protest camp with tobacco (a symbolic offering) implying goodwill. In hindsight, that action can only be seen as an attempt (successful) to lull the Mi'kmaq into a fall sense of peace and security; into a sense of complacency. It's no wonder the Mi'kmaq don't trust the government and RCMP.

It was the mainstream media that chose to ignore a long-standing First Nation action undertaken to enforce its constitutional rights and react with tabloid sensationalism, focusing on pictures of cop cars burning. That's why we used the graphic -- we felt it was a more accurate representation than was being reported.

I have participated in many protests over the years and my experience is when the police treat people with respect -- people treat the police with respect. Sierra Club Canada strongly believes in, and supports, the rule of law but it is our role to point out when the law is not just, not properly enforced or simply ignored.

The case of the Mi'kmaq of Elsipogtog First Nation raises many questions about the nature of our society. It deserves more than a dawn swat raid with pepper spray, snipers and police dogs.

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