Cars burn at the scene of a shale gas protest that turned violent today. Courtesy of Gilles Boudreau
An anticipated meeting today between New Brunswick Premier David Alward and leaders from Elsipogtog First Nation appears unlikely to proceed, a day after a clash between protesters and police over land used for shale gas exploration.
Elsipogtog Coun. Robert Levi said he and Chief Aaron Sock were to meet Friday with Alward, but the premier says no meetings are scheduled.
Alward did enter into negotiations with aboriginal leaders and members of the protest coalition on Oct. 5, after a court injunction was issued ordering an end to the protest.
However, Energy Minister Craig Leonard said Friday those negotiations seemed to be deteriorating in the days leading up to Thursday's action by the RCMP to enforce an injunction to end the protest that was approved earlier this month.
"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."
Sock and Elsipogtog Coun. Robert Levi were among 40 people arrested Thursday as RCMP enforced an injunction to end a weeks-long demonstration against shale gas exploration involving a coalition of native and non-native protesters. Five police vehicles were among six vehicles set ablaze and destroyed during the clash.
Susan Levi-Peters, a protester from Elsipogtog and former band chief, says aboriginal leaderswant 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."
The 40 who were arrested are scheduled for court Friday morning in three different communities.
As events unfolded Friday, 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.
Ken Coates, a historian who authored "The Marshall Decision and Aboriginal Rights" 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. Barricaudes 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."
Violence erupted after chief arrested
Levi-Peters said the tipping point in Thursday's violence was when word spread that Sock had been arrested.
"It was heating up because the elders were being sprayed with pepper spray and rubber bullets were being shot, and there were dogs put on the people and everything like that."
An RCMP spokesperson denied rubber bullets were used, but said "sock rounds" — a type of non-lethal bullet — were employed on two occasions to diffuse the situation when protesters were throwing rocks, bottles and spraying police officers.
"The chief and council were behind the barricade negotiating with everybody and then the people on the other side heard — we heard they were put in jail and everybody got really upset and trying to go through the barricade because the chief and council were arrested.
"Then everything else blew up and the RCMP tried to push the crowd toward — there were RCMP vehicles there and the next thing you know they were up in flames," she said. "It was chaos, really crazy."