Images of burning cars and narratives about Canadian natives breaking the law obscure the real story about the Mi’kmaq people’s opposition to shale gas exploration
The image of burning police cars played endlessly on the evening news. Television and talk radio blared out reports of “clashes” between police and indigenous protestors. Last Thursday in New Brunswick near the Elsipogtog First Nation, we were told the government had enforced an injunction against a blockade of a US shale gas company. There was nothing about the roots of a conflict years in the making. An appeal to the stereotype of indigenous violence was enough: once again, the natives were breaking the law; the police had to be sent in. Catching the headlines, Canadian could shake their heads and turn away their gaze.
But smoke and flames from police cars can only hide the truth for so long. The exact chronology is not yet settled, but this much is clear: on Thursday morning someone in government sanctioned the Canadian police to invade a peaceful protest site like an army. In a dawn raid, snipers crawled through the forest, putting children and elders in their cross-hairs. Police carried assault rifles and snarling dogs, and sprayed tear gas and shot rubber-type bullets. The result was predictable: shocked and enraged people, a day ending in chaos.
There is only one reason the police were unleashed. Not because of the New Brunswick Premier’s claims about the dangers of an “armed encampment”; protestors had been unswervingly non-violent for months. Ever since 2010, when New Brunswick handed out 1.4 million hectares of land – one-seventh of the province – to shale gas exploration, opposition had been mounting. Petitions, town hall meetings, marches on legislature had slowly transformed to civil disobedience, and in October, to the blockade of equipment that Texan SNW Resources was using for seismic testing. The company was losing $60,000 daily, and the non-violent defiance had put a wrinkle in the Premier’s plans for a resource boom. The blockade had to go.
The pundits howl or hand-wring about destroyed police cars, but say nothing about the destruction wrought by fracking. Short for “hydraulic fracturing,” fracking pumps a toxic cocktail of chemicals, sand and water into deeply drilled wells. It shatters the bedrock to free shale gas. The chemicals – many of which are kept secret by industry – are linked to cancer and other illnesses. The process contaminates ground water and even causes earthquakes. And it doesn’t just do violence to the earth: it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes massively to climate change. Such concerns have spurred citizen movements to win moratoriums in Quebec, New York and France.
But Premier David Alward, hell-bent on opening up the province to shale gas, has spurned consultation with First Nations and the rest of the population. His latest step is demonization. “Clearly, there are those who do not have the same values we share as New Brunswickers,” he cynically announced on Friday. But the opposition to the Premier’s shale gas agenda is not just a supposedly isolated Indigenous community: it is two of every three people in Atlantic Canada. Little wonder he has repeatedly rejected a referendum on shale gas. It turns out the residents of Elsipogtog aren’t criminal deviants. They are the frontline of a fight for the democratic and environmental will of New Brunswick.
“It is our responsibility to protect Mother Earth, to protect the land for non-natives too,” says Susan Levi-Peters, the former Chief of Elsipogtog. “My people are speaking up for everyone.” Others have heard. Since the beginning of the summer, Levi-Peters has seen indigenous Maliseet, Acadians and anglophone New Brunswickers drawn to this new epicentre of resistance on her community’s traditional lands. “People care about the water. People care about the environment. This isn’t just a native issue.”
But let’s be clear about one way this is a “native issue”: the rush underway for dirtier and more extreme fossil fuels and minerals, in New Brunswick and across Canada, is just the latest stage of colonial pillage. It’s a badly-kept secret that Canada’s oil, gas and mineral wealth, the key to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reckless resource obsession, are mostly on Indigenous lands. And if industry is to have them, the country’s national myths must be summoned. In last week’s Speech from the Throne, Harper praised the “courage and audacity” of the country’s “pioneers,” who “forged an independent country where non would have otherwise existed.” A day later, the raid on Elsipogtog was effectively a footnote.
Levi-Peters says the Mi’kmaq remember the “audacity” all too well. How their nation signed a peace and friendship treaty in 1761 to let the English settle but not to trample Mi’kmaq interests. How before they came for the shale gas, they came for the timber, the fish, the wildlife. And then for the children, locked away in residential schools and split from their connection to the land. The farms that were burnt to push them onto reserves. And how every act of resistance has been greeted by the same lectures from authority. “In no way can we as a country of laws condone the breaking of laws and violence,” Premier Alward reminded them on Friday.
Tell that to Levi-Peters and the rest of the Mi’kmaq, who have been betrayed again and again by the law. The Canadian Supreme Court’s judgment in the historic Marshall case in 1999 recognized the Mi’kmaq rights to fish for a living. But when the Mi’kmaq’s attempted to practice that right, their boats were rammed by government officials, their nets destroyed by non-native fishers agitated by state misinformation. That same judgment confirmed that the treaty of 1761 had never surrendered their lands. That Elsipogtog still owns, in fact, what SNW Resources now covets. And that the injunction order by a provincial judge is a convenient legal fiction, backed only by the power of brute police force.
This is the vast and enduring violence that is scarcely spoken of: a history of dispossession and resource theft under the guise of the “law.” What Harper and every premier now offers indigenous peoples are promises they will have “every opportunity to benefit.” They won’t. In Elsipogtog, unemployment tips 80 percent and they want jobs, but fracking is too great a risk. As many as twenty people crowd into one house, in a community that needs 500 new homes. Their share of a multi-billion dollar resource rush will be destitution and despair on its outskirts.
But in the protest movement against shale gas, many young Indigenous people have discovered a new reason for hope. Like one young man, 17 years old, who has camped at the site for the last weeks. “I’m worried about the water and the future of my children,” he says. He is among the terrifying warriors that shale gas-drunk politicians unleashed an armed police force on last week. Anxious that this might come, Levi-Peters sent a message this summer to the Premier. “You’re going to make criminals out of us, because there is no way we can allow the fracking,” she wrote him. His office never bothered to reply. She now has his response: Harper’s pioneers aim to march on.
Unless, of course, Canadians are prepared to break with the past. Many are. Tens of thousands have signed petitions, and many others marched alongside indigenous peoples in dozens of cities and towns since Thursday. It is a sign that the the actions of the New Brunswick and the Canadian government may backfire. What the government and corporate media crave now is more mayhem, to sell to the public the repression they have sought all along. What they fear most is a movement armed only with drums and eagle feathers and a sacred relationship to the land, touching the hearts of ever more Canadians.
Freed of the distractions, we will be left with a single question. Do we obey provincial dictates that grant a company license to pollute the water? Or the laws of Indigenous peoples, of the Supreme Court, and of our conscience, calling us to protect it? The answer will tell us everything about the kind of country we will have.