Cars burn at the scene of a shale gas protest that turned violent today. Courtesy of Gilles Boudreau
Explosive devices, firearms, knives and ammunition were seized during Thursday’s clash between shale gas protesters in Rexton, N.B., and RCMP, police said during Friday’s news conference in Fredericton.
“We became aware for a number of factors that changed this situation in Rexton, that included firearms and other weapons on site,” said RCMP Assistant Commissioner Roger Brown. Brown told reporters that police had no choice but to respond with force once the weapons were discovered.
He said it was a difficult decision to engage with protesters.
“We are no longer talking about a peaceful demonstration and there was a serious threat to public safety. Therefore we took the necessary steps to guarantee public safety," he said.
RCMP Chief Supt. Wayne Gallant said police found pipe bombs constructed using large commercial-grade fireworks packed into cylinders with shrapnel in the form of shotgun pellets or small crushed rocks.
All of the devices used a fuse ignition system designed to be thrown. Each of the devices was safely defused at the scene, said Brown.
The firearms and ammunition found at the scene were legal, he said, but hidden, suggesting they were not intended for hunting.
“In the normal context of hunting, maybe, is one thing, but when you see firearms that are hidden underneath a tent with ammo and fully accessible at a moment’s notice — that is not the context that one would normally find firearms,” said Brown.
He said there were people with firearms when RCMP reinforcements arrived at the scene and some of the firearms were hidden inside trucks and tents at the site.
It was a long and difficult day for everyone, Brown said.
“I have to say that we are fortunate today that nobody yesterday was seriously hurt. No protesters, no bystanders and no police officers.”
It “could have been a very different press conference,” said Brown.
Brown recently took command as New Brunswick RCMP’s assistant commander on Oct. 1.
In addition to Thursday's events, RCMP said at 2:30 a.m. Friday, vandals attempted to burn down the Elsipogtog First National RCMP office. The building, which is owned by Elsipogtog First Nation, suffered only minor damage.
Elsipogtog chief calls for peaceful protest
In a statement released after the RCMP news conference Friday, Elsipogtog Chief Aaron Sock, said weapons have no place in peaceful protests.
He called for at least a month of calm, without a heavy police presence and without seismic work conducted by SWN Resources Canada, the company at the centre of the dispute.
Sock urged supporters not to block roads and instead "aim at respectfully communicating the First Nation point of view on our rights."
"Guns and bombs, if any, have no place in our peaceful efforts,” he said.
"The only path forward is peaceful insistence on respect for our Aboriginal rights … This means respect for our lands and resources. It means that we must have meaningful involvement at the strategic planning level in decisions on resources and development, with a real possibility of changing the policies and choices made, in this case as regards shale gas development."
Sock was one of the protesters arrested Thursday. He was released later that night.
Brown met with Sock late Thursday night in Fredericton. Both agreed the discussions were peaceful and constructive.
Sock and other First Nations leaders began a meeting with New Brunswick Premier David Alward Friday at 4:30 p.m. AT.
Several people charged
Eight of the 40 people arrested Thursday have been charged following the violent clash between RCMP and protesters.
The charges Friday include:
- Breach of an undertaking to keep the peace.
- Unlawful confinement.
Some of the protesters arrested will remain in jail over the weekend out of a concern for a protest revival, a Moncton court was told Friday. A bail hearing is scheduled for Monday morning.
The first of the protesters appeared in Moncton court Friday afternoon. Court appearances are also scheduled in two other communities.
Also taking place is a court hearing in Moncton, where SWN Resources is seeking an indefinite extension to the injunction prohibiting anyone from impeding its exploration work. The company says it lost $60,000 a day while its exploration vehicles were blockaded by protesters in its vehicle compound off Route 134.
Premier David Alward said Friday that "yesterday was a very concerning day."
Alward said he was not consulted on the RCMP's decision to take action against the protesters.
"What became clear to the RCMP is that encampment that was in Kent County was dangerous," he said. "It provided significant security issues for the people of New Brunswick."
Energy Minister Craig Leonard said Friday that negotiations involving provincial officials, the protest coalition and Elsipogtog leadership seemed to be deteriorating in the days leading up to Thursday's action by the RCMP.
"Unfortunately, over the last week or so, the discussions — as the premier indicated yesterday — he was having trouble getting in touch with the chief," said Leonard. "And clearly tensions were starting to escalate at the blockade and the RCMP felt it was time to move in to ensure the safety of everybody."
Susan Levi-Peters, a protester from Elsipogtog and former band chief, says aboriginal leaders want the provincial government to consult with the aboriginal community about shale gas exploration and development in New Brunswick.
"It was a Supreme Court ruling there should be public consultation about accommodation and agreement with the government, saying there's supposed to be public consultation, accommodation, before anything like this happened," said Levi-Peters. "That's all we've been asking."
As events unfolded Thursday, First Nations elsewhere in New Brunswick established roadblocks in their communities in solidarity with the Rexton protest. Solidarity protests also took place elsewhere across the country, including Ottawa, Winnipeg and Calgary.
The solidarity protest movement continues Friday. In Fredericton, protesters gathered near an intersection on the Vanier Highway, a key thoroughfare leading to the Trans-Canada Highway.
Protest violence described as worrisome
Ken Coates, a historian who authored in 2000, said Thursday's events are worrisome for all parties.
"This is one of those conflicts that has the potential to explode on a national scale," said Coates, now a Canada Research Chair at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.
"It's the kind of a standoff and a protest that generates a lot of support from other First Nations who feel they're facing similar circumstances, who are worried about an accelerated pace of resource development that basically leaves them out of the equation or does not include them sufficiently."
Speaking prior to Alward's announcement that no meetings are planned with aboriginal leaders, Coates said any meeting may be coming too late.
"When you get to this point, sometimes you've been waiting too long and you've got a situation where First Nations have basically concluded 'We've got nothing to lose in this regard, we can't let this development take place because we haven't got enough assurances that our concerns are being taken seriously,''' he said. "And, so it actually is hard to get back from this place.
"We can't just say we're sorry, and shake hands and go forward. You actually have to make some much broader commitments to finding different solutions that work for the longer haul."
The protest on Route 134 in Rexton began on Sept. 30 when protesters erected a barricade on the road leading to the compound where SWN Resources Canada had parked its shale gas exploration vehicles. Barricades were subsequently established on Route 134.
A court injunction was issued on Oct. 3, ordering an end to the protest. That led to negotiations between the province, protesters and leaders from Elsipogtog, but the protest remained in place, although one lane of the highway was reopened on Oct. 12.
On Thursday, more than 100 RCMP officers with guns and dogs moved in on the protesters to enforce the injunction. SWN Resources, which said it was losing $60,000 a day due to the blockade of its exploration equipment, was allowed to remove its vehicles from the compound Thursday.
Leonard believes "outside influences had somewhat taken over the situation" at the protest.
"It got to the point where security guards looking after equipment were getting threats, there were weapons at the site," he said. "The RCMP, while looking for a peaceful resolution, they obviously thought moving in yesterday was the proper approach to ensure safety for everybody."