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It was standing room only in downtown Vancouver on January 24 as 250 people crowded into a meeting room at Simon Fraser University to hear two Mi’kmaq activists describe the ongoing fight in against gas fracking in the eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick.
Suzanne Patles and Coady Stevens are two veterans of the battle that has fought the frackers to a standstill and inspired continent-wide solidarity actions. The January 24 event was the beginning of a lengthy speaking tour that has them speaking across British Columbia and then moving on to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario in the coming weeks.
In B.C., they will speak in six cities and First Nations territories. In addition to Vancouver, they will speak in Squamish (Vancouver region), Victoria, Nanaimo, Kamloops (Neskonlith First Nation) and Moricetown (Wet’suwet’en First Nation, in north central B.C.).
On February 1, they joined the anti-fracking, Unist’ot’en Camp in Wet’suwet’en territory for three days. The camp was established last year to act as a spiritual and physical barrier to the proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline and multiple, proposed gas fracking pipelines that would converge on the northern coast of B.C.
The speaking tour is organized by a broad range of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups, including No One Is Illegal and the Native Youth Movement.
The struggle in New Brunswick
Patles and Stevens were among the many people across New Brunswick and the Maritime provinces who joined the Mi’kmaq of Elsipogtog and other residents of Kent County in southeast New Brunswick to take a stand against exploratory seismic testing by the Texas firm SWN Resources during the spring and summer of 2013. The company had moved into the region with exploratory work for the first time.
Several years earlier, the anti-fracking movement arose after SWN and other fracking companies began to obtain rights to conduct seismic testing and drill on 1.4 million hectares of land in the province. That’s one seventh the territory of New Brunswick, with about one third of the population (map here). Other companies conducting exploration are Corridor Resources, Contact Exploration, Windsor Energy and Geokinetics Exploration. SWN’s rights cover 1.1 million hectares.
SWN says it will begin production by 2016 if it finds enough gas. But its first year of exploration in 2011 was delayed then halted by protest actions. The following year, changes to regulations by the government, again responding to protests, left the company too late in the testing season to submit its permit applications.
In 2013, protests beginning in June saw the RCMP (contracted in New Brunswick to act as the provincial police) mobilize to protect the company’s activities. Police arrested several dozen people at that time (see video of one day of arrests, here). But protest actions continued to slow down or even halt work, including closing off access to equipment.
On October 17, the RCMP staged a major assault on the protest camp against SWN near the town of Rexton, Kent County. Armed with a court injunction, dozens of officers, including tactical squads armed with automatic weapons, staged a violent raid, assaulting many people and arresting 40.
Coady Stevens was one of those arrested. His talk in Vancouver on January 24 described the harsh prison conditions to which he and others were subjected, including being placed in solidarity confinement for three weeks. During that time, he was refused the right to communicate with family and was subjected to strip searching every few days.
Stevens got out of jail in December following a plea bargain. Two activists arrested in October remain in jail — Germain (Junior) Breau and Aaron Francis. Arrests and harassment of fracking opponents are ongoing.
A life renewed
Stevens’ talk was a moving account of the life journey that led him to seek out and join the protest movement at Elsipogtog and then become a member of the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society. The warriors are the traditional institution of many Indigenous peoples in North America that comes together in time of emergency for the purpose of community self defense.
“I am a product of 500 years of colonialism and genocide,” he explained. “I became a warrior because I have a three year old son to think about and protect.”
His talk described in particular, the harsh and lasting effects of Canada’s residential school system on Mi’kmaq society, including on the recent generations who never attended the schools but who live with the haunting after-effects. “The residential schools are not so long ago,” he said. “Their legacy has left my people in shambles.”
Stevens calls the entire system of Indian reservations in Canada “large residential schools.” Colonial rule in Canada brought natural resource plundering that has destroyed or seriously degraded the forests, lands and waters surrounding Mi’kmaq territories in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
He praised the Mi’kmaq of Burnt Church (Eskɨnuopitijk) in northern New Brunswick who waged a years-long struggle in the early 2000s for ancestral fishing rights. Their struggle was encouraged by a favorable federal court decision in 1999 in a case brought by Donald Marshal Jr. of the Mi’kmaq territory of Eskasoni on Cape Breton Island, the large island section of Nova Scotia.* Stevens described the renaissance of Mi’kmaq culture and tradition which that struggle helped to inspire at Eskɨnuopitijk.
“I have always looked up to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King,” he concluded his talk. “We [the Mi’kmaq] are in the forefront of the movements that will change Canada. This is the time for all of us to come together.”
The spider web of business interests controlling New Brunswick
Like Stevens and Donald Marshall Jr., Suzanne Patles hails from Eskasoni. Her talk described the cabal of business interests that has come together in New Brunswick to launch major gas fracking operations.
Patles says the most harmful consequence of fracking is the poisoning of freshwater. “I am in this to protect the water,” she says, “because nothing is more important to life than clean water.”
Prior to her arrival in Vancouver, she told the Georgia Straight, “This is also about pipelines. There are going to be pipelines coming through all of our territories. It is important that we realize that we have original title to the land, and that with anything that comes through our territories, the government and these corporations require our consent in order to proceed.”
There is an existing natural gas storage and export facility located at Saint John. It was built in 2004. Called Canaport, it is owned by Irving Oil. It sits unused as a result of the vast increase in domestic gas production in the U.S. in recent years, but it would come back to life if gas production in New Brunswick proceeds.
Canaport is also promoted by Irving and the federal government as a terminus of the multi-billion dollar, proposed tar sands pipeline from Alberta called Energy East that TransCanada PipeLines wants to build. That’s the company whose gas pipeline ruptured and exploded in southern Manitoba on January 25 and that wants to build the highly-contested Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S.
Patles’ talk described the breadth of opposition to fracking in New Brunswick. New Brunswick Premier David Alward has aligned his government squarely on the side of the frackers, refusing to heed widespread calls for a moratorium on the exploration work. But a broad, anti-fracking alliance of English-language residents, Acadiens (French language nationality) and Mi’kmaq and Maliseet Aboriginal peoples has been forged in the province.
In November 2011, 600 people from 28 allied groups rallied at the provincial legislature in Fredericton. An open letter by 27 organizations last April 30 declared that the provincial government and the gas fracking companies do not have a social license. Last July, the mayors in Kent County made a near-unanimous appeal for a moratorium on gas exploration. In 2011, 18 of the 40 large municipalities in the province voted for a moratorium.
The New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance has been formed, regrouping more than 30 community organizations. (The alliance has produced a Citizen’s Guide to Shale Gas.) Petitions in different parts of the fracking zones have been widely supported, including by 99 per cent of the adult population in the town of St. Ignace.
A letter to Premier David Alward by Amnesty International Canada on November 1, 2014 expressed concern over his government’s pro-fracking policy and related police conduct. It was also signed by Kairos and the Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers). At least three unions have declared their opposition to gas fracking — the New Brunswick section of PSAC (federal government workers) and the CUPE and Unifor national unions. The latter are the largest public sector and industrial unions, respectively, in Canada.
Writer and activist Dallas McQuarrie, who lives in St. Ignace, says Premier Alward has always treated shale gas as a fait accompli. “There never was any government consultation. The Premier talked to business leaders who applauded the plan. When the government’s so-called scientific assessment of gas, The Path Forward, was exposed as a fraud, the government simply began using force to achieve what it could not do democratically.
“The government shale gas policy is founded on junk science forced on the province by violence.”
Following the police action in October, the Mi’kmaq of Elsipogtog attempted to obtain a court injunction to halt SWN’s activity on their territory. That application was lost on November 18, and on December 2, SWN won extension of a court injunction that orders protesters to keep a prescribed distance away from company equipment in Kent County. The company ended its 2013 work in early December. CBC reports that it plans to up the ante in the county this year by drilling two test wells.
The premier, meanwhile, reaffirmed his government’s “crystal clear” commitment to the shale gas industry in his annual state of the province address on January 30. The province spent $9.4 million to police anti-fracking protests in 2013 and Finance Minister Blaine Higgs has promised to keep up the spending in 2014.
Patles said the business interests that control New Brunswick’s economy have all but destroyed its forests and continue to plunder other natural resources. She says it’s not only First Nations who are harmed. “The whole province has this invisible hand of corporations and government surrounding it.”
She compared the business stranglehold on the economy to a spider web and said, “Everyone needs to do what they can do to stretch that web to its breaking point. The more ‘bugs’ like us that hop onto it, the sooner we break the web.”
Patles appealed for support for the two anti-fracking activists still in prison. The Anti-Shale Gas Coalition has launched a public education campaign that will continue through the provincial election to take place in September 2014. It will press candidates to support a ban on fracking or a long-term moratorium in their platform.
Tensions rising in BC as well
The Mi’kmaq speaking tour to British Columbia comes at a time of rising tensions and struggle in the north of the province against destructive fossil fuel projects.
Plans to build two Alberta tar sands pipelines to the BC coast are hotly contested. The National Energy Board issued a favorable recommendation last month for Enbridge Inc’s Northern Gateway pipeline, but the project now faces a litany of court challenges that will slow its progress and perhaps cripple it.
Kinder Morgan has formally applied for NEB and federal government approval to triple the volume of crude product it ships to Vancouver via Trans Mountain. That application assures that opposition will intensify.
The plans to vastly expand gas fracking in the BC northeast—BC Premier Christy Clark calls it the “centrepiece” of her government’s intentions — are being challenged by First Nations and other people in the affected regions. The fracked gas would feed multiple gas liquefaction plants to be built on the north coast and would require multiple pipelines to transport it there. First Nations in the northeast have expressed strong reservations or outright opposition to the plans to expand fracking.
One part of the fracking plan is construction of a new, multi-billion dollar dam on the Peace River, the third such dam on the river. The Treaty 8 Tribal Association has issued another strong statement opposing that project.
Concerns over gas plans will be heightened by CBC’s News’ revelation of a coverup by the National Energy Board of the safety violations that led to a massive gas pipeline explosion in northern Alberta in 2009. The NEB buried its report on the accident which was highly critical of the pipeline operator, TransCanada PipeLines. That company is partnered with the federal government in a highly delicate operation to win U.S. government approval to build the Keystone XL pipeline. The pair also want to build an ‘Energy East’ tar sands pipeline to Montreal and Saint John.
You can read a background article here by Halifax-based journalist Miles Howe on the prison conditions endured by the Mi’kmaq activists arrested at Elsipogtog on October 17.
*Donald Marshall Jr. is a heroic figure in modern Canadian history. He was framed up and jailed in 1971 at the age of 17 for a murder he did not commit. He fought his frame-up and won release from jail in 1982. His case led to a royal (federal government) commission of inquiry. Its report in 1990 exonerated Marshall.
A Globe and Mail article at the time of Marshall’s death in 2009 reported, “His name is synonymous with the fight for justice for the wrongfully convicted… A proud Mi’kmaq, Mr. Marshall is also a hero in the battle against racism toward aboriginals in this country. He spent six years fighting discrimination in the courts to challenge the federal government’s denial of the historic treaty rights granted to his people by the British Crown in 1760…”