The September 2014 New Brunswick election was not just an election. It was a referendum on shale gas and unconventional hydraulic fracking. 

The Conservative party tried to convince voters that the development of shale gas is New Brunswick’s only hope to create jobs and stop the exodus of young workers out west. But, most voters did not buy into this narrow one-sided view. Citizens elected a Liberal majority government on the promise of an immediate moratorium on fracking and David Coon, leader of the Green Party, became the first elected Green MLA in Canadian history. 

Opposition to fracking didn’t start and stop at the ballet box, and people didn’t just wake up one day and say “golly, fracking’s bad.” This election victory can be largely attributed to the success of the massive public outreach effort by grassroots activists and supported by the labour movement that began almost a year earlier called the Voice of the People Tour. 

A year of struggle

The anti-fracking movement has been alive and well in New Brunswick for years with many boots on the ground in communities all over the province. The tireless efforts of several individuals led to the organization of public lectures and forums. These public gatherings highlighted volumes of scientific evidence documenting the dangers of hydraulic fracking to public health.  

In October 2012, Dr. Eilish Cleary, Chief Medical Officer for NB, assessed the possible health risks of shale gas fracking and sited major concerns: “there are social and community health risks from this industry.”

Dr. Cleary’s findings were not what the Conservative government wanted to hear, but the science couldn’t be ignored. Prior to Dr. Cleary’s report, 51 municipalities and town councils passed moratoriums preventing fracking within town limits, including Moncton, Sackville, Bathurst and Quispamsis.

Twenty-one organizations have also called for a ban or moratorium on fracking, including three labour organizations, The New Brunswick College of Family Physicians and The New Brunswick Lung Association. 

When SWN Resources scheduled seismic testing on unceded land near Rexton, Indigenous activists set up a camp and initiated a blockade. The encampment was sustained for months and garnered support from many citizens’ groups and community organizations.

The blockade succeeded in preventing SWN from carrying out exploration for a time and represented a significant escalation in non-violent direct action tactics within the anti-fracking movement. By autumn, things came to a head in Elsipogtog when RCMP raided the camp, broke the blockade and arrested peaceful protesters.  

One thousand people marched and rallied at the legislature to condemn this police brutality and demand water protection. First Nations alliances lit sacred fires and occupied the grounds of the legislature with the construction of a longhouse as a symbol of true democratic government. Public pressure was increasing and the legitimacy and credibility of the government was being called into question. 

Labour organizes a peoples’ coalition

In the wake of the peoples’ blockade, trade unions got behind the struggle. The Fredericton and District Labour Council (FDLC) formed alliances within the environmental movement to mobilize progressive forces in the community.

At the same time, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Unifor passed resolutions at the national level calling for a moratorium on unconventional shale gas development and hydraulic fracking. This created an opportunity for the grassroots movement that had been mobilizing for years to gain broad national support from the labour movement and take things to the next level.

Drawing on the common ground and mutual goals between the FDLC and the anti-fracking movement, a coalition was formed comprised of the FDLC, Council of Canadians and the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance (NBASGA).

For the first time, trade union support and resources were available to the grassroots activists. Unifor provided much needed financing and CUPE provided resources in kind.

Together, the coalition organized the Voice of the People Tour. This was a non-partisan effort. The goal was a large-scale public outreach campaign to engage people on the issues, increase visibility of the movement and win support. The campaign ignited widespread interest. Over the next 5 months, community engagement flourished. 

Town hall meetings were organized in 28 communities across NB. The FDLC purchased thousands of anti-fracking signs for distribution at town halls. Bilingual presentations provided the facts about fracking and gave people a space to engage in informed discussion and test their ideas. The tour was not just critical of fracking; it provided real solutions and alternative energy strategies to the “jobs at all costs” narrative preached by industry and government. The job potential for green energy far exceeded that of oil and gas.

Through festive gatherings in church halls and community centers, the Voice of the People Tour provided a forum for citizens to do what they had been missing out on for some time — speak their mind and have their questions addressed — questions that had been ignored and marginalized by government. 

This type of ‘community consultation’ had been promised four years earlier by the conservatives, but had been quickly abandoned. Finally, through citizen action, people’s frustration about the corporate domination of their province and their feelings of political malaise were being heard and acknowledged.

Opposition to fracking was mounting and public support for green jobs and clean energy was expressed throughout the province, even in industry towns that are traditionally conservative. With the absence of political spin and corporate manipulation, the peoples’ thoughts were being expressed and their voices were being heard. 

The Voice of the People Tour harnessed the energy of activists from all backgrounds and generated more interest for the cause. The tour also re-energized some activists who were feeling fatigued and defeated.

Everyone had an important role that they carried out in the spirit of true community cooperation. Resources from the labour movement empowered community organizers to do what they do best — engage others.

Through the shared experiences, relationships were forged and solidarity was built between labour activists and community organizers. Now, greater capacity to organize and resist is in place for future actions.

As a labour movement, we need to learn from this kind of community engagement. It was the second time in recent New Brunswick history where the labour movement stepped up to the plate to support a grassroots initiative. The first time was the NB Power Not for Sale campaign in 2010 where people learned that engaging our neighbours, friends, families and colleagues to get active with a bottom up approach pays off. In both examples, governments either backed down or were forced out at the ballot box. 

But, the struggle is not over — it simply changes in content. Already, as anticipated, the right wing is attempting to undo our gains. We need to keep up the pressure now more than ever. 

Regular people are learning that they have collective power that can affect progressive change. The anti-fracking movement and the Voice of the People campaign was another example of people successfully pushing back government and industry. With each win, people are gaining confidence and realizing the strength of their collective power through the struggle.

Labour movement activists need to look for opportunities for community engagement of this sort. We can best change our image by changing our behavior in how we organize. We need to encourage more support for community organizing from the bottom up. Through this connectedness we can win over public support and become relevant in the lives of all working people again.  

Alex Bailey is President of the Fredericton and District Labour Council.