Op-Ed: Heavy-handed response to the Elsipogtog blockade in New Brunswick
Photograph by: Andrew Vaughan , THE CANADIAN PRESS
On Thursday morning, RCMP officers were deployed with rifles, non-lethal bullets, pepper spray, and dogs to enforce a court injunction and attempt to disperse a blockade of protesters on New Brunswick Route 134, about an hour north of Moncton. At least 40 people were arrested for continuing a protest against natural gas exploration in the area, which comprises traditional lands of the Mi’kmaq people.
Perhaps it can be seen as an extension of the Canadian “pioneer” spirit mentioned by Governor General David Johnston in the most recent speech from the throne. That spirit, according to the current government, pushed settlers to build “an independent country where none would have otherwise existed.”
Of course, Canada wasn’t depopulated when settlers arrived here from Europe. Our country’s wealth and prosperity has been built through the persistent and usually violent removal of First Nations from their traditional lands in order to make room for resource development — and, as we saw Thursday, that’s as true today as it was centuries ago.
As we watched the blockade, we also witnessed the violent response that often follows violent provocation. Although thankfully there were no serious injuries reported, five flaming police cars have a way of catching the attention of the general public. After RCMP officers converged on the blockade, Elsipogtog First Nation Chief Arren James Sock — who was allegedly “roughed up” in the process, according to at least one eyewitness — was among those arrested, and as matters escalated, police also began using non-lethal bullets, pepper spray, and physical confrontation in an attempt to break the blockade.
It seems that cooler heads have prevailed and the RCMP pulled back their offensive for the time being, but it’s unfortunate that the violence seems to be what’s generating headlines in the aftermath. It’s distracting many from the injustice of gas exploration and fracking around Richibucto and Canada’s relations with First Nations in general.
The Mi’kmaq people of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, including the Elsipogtog First Nation, have never signed a treaty relinquishing authority to the land on which the Route 134 blockade stands today, or that on which SWN Resources is conducting exploratory testing. They signed a Peace and Friendship Treaty in 1761, which was re-affirmed in 1982 with Canada’s Constitution Act and then again in a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision, but that agreement included no mention of the surrender of any lands. Although the federal and New Brunswick governments are currently engaged in exploratory discussions to address issues of land ownership, rights, and sovereignty, there has been no agreement yet.
Given this reality, SWN Resources’ exploration permits aren’t legitimate. Nor was the court injunction criminalizing the blockade, and the police action was ridiculously illegitimate, not to mention unjust, unreasonable in its heavy-handedness, and terribly bad public relations for the RCMP.
In the above-mentioned Supreme Court case, the federal government was encouraged to negotiate with all First Nations in Canada in order to resolve the many outstanding issues and fulfil its treaty obligations. The negotiation process takes a lot of time, but that’s the point. It’s designed to be a meaningful engagement to avoid violent confrontation and find a mutually acceptable solution to these complex issues. If we hope to avoid more destructive events like that which took place on Thursday in New Brunswick, negotiation is the only way forward.
Negotiations are taking place with the provincial government, too. Premier David Alward and Chief Sock met as recently as last week to find a way to end the blockade, and they agreed to form a working group with representatives from the governments of the province and the Elsipogtog First Nation as well as the energy industry. Why the RCMP felt that it was appropriate to intervene in what was at the time a peaceful protest in the midst of active negotiations is unclear, but thankfully all sides have agreed to resume negotiation now that the police have stepped back.
Before gas exploration continues, those negotiations must reach a settlement. Continuing them while the industry conducts testing is disingenuous, putting the cart before the horse and assuming that the settlement will allow fracking without any indication that it’s an acceptable component. If New Brunswick was negotiating in good faith, SWN Resources would be required to stop looking for shale gas deposits — and if testing were halted, the blockade and the hugely excessive police response that followed it could have been avoided.
This year marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which outlined the First Nations land rights. That proclamation was further guaranteed in 1982 within the Canadian Charter or Rights and Freedoms. With that in mind, it’s high time the federal government redoubles its efforts to resolve the many outlying issues that are causing conflicts such as that in New Brunswick.
Peter Raaymakers is an Ottawa resident who thinks 400 years should have been long enough to build peace between Canada and the indigenous people who live within its borders.