On Oct. 17 near Rexton, New Brunswick, over 75 RCMP officers clad in paramilitary regalia and armed with sniper rifles and canine units moved in to enforce a court injunction against the blockade erected by anti-shale gas protesters. The protesters were mainly indigenous peoples, primarily the Mi’kmaq of Elsipogtog, but also include the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Acadian francophones, and anglophones, all united against SWN Resources Canada, which was conducting tests in the area. A standoff between the protesters and the police resulted in six torched RCMP vehicles and over 40 arrests.
In reaction to these events, solidarity protests and blockades appeared all across the province with other solidarity actions appearing across Canada, the USA, and parts of Europe.
To simply frame the situation in New Brunswick as yet another skirmish between the Canadian state and its indigenous citizens is to miss the vital fact that the aboriginal protesters enjoy a great deal of support from the non-aboriginal part of the anti-shale gas movement. Two out of every three Atlantic Canadians oppose fracking, which has been linked to the contamination of ground waters and other environmental impacts.
Being opposed to shale gas development in New Brunswick does not equate being opposed to the economic development of the province. The protesters oppose the imposition of fracking because they understand the very real risks involved in this process and because the company has refused to enter into serious consultations with the local community.
This confrontation follows a pattern of ignoring aboriginal land claims and sovereignty. SWN Resources, with the assistance of the NB government, wishes to exploit the traditional lands of the Mi’kmaq without consultation and without economic benefit to the indigenous population; meanwhile the Native population has to deal with the environmental damage. This is unacceptable.
Much has been said about the need of the Natives to “follow the law”. However, the Mi’kmaq have never ceded their land rights in this area and there has been no negotiated treaty to resolve ownership and compensation. Therefore, even under Canadian law, there is the legal obligation for the state and SWN to negotiate in good faith with the indigenous population, resolving issues of local economic benefit and environmental remediation, before any development can proceed. It is the New Brunswick government, SWN, and the RCMP who are breaking a much older and more important law — and the Mi’kmaq have more than a just right to resist such law breaking.
Elsipogtog is just another flash point in the decades-long oppression of Canada’s indigenous peoples so that corporations can exploit material resources. In Elsipogtog, unemployment tops 80 per cent and as many as twenty people are forced to crowd into one house, in a community that needs 500 new homes built. The new push for resource extraction, led by the Harper federal government, is coming up against the unwillingness of the federal and provincial governments to fairly negotiate treaties with First Nations peoples that resolves land title.
The anti-shale gas struggle inserts itself in a broader struggle against capitalism's inherent tendency to exploit the land for the profit of corporations. It also highlights the hypocrisy of the bourgeois state that has all the resources to terrorize poor indigenous communities, but no resources to properly investigate the hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women, or to enforce aboriginal title against corporate encroachment.
The labour movement and the NDP must support the protesters in this struggle, and oppose the heavy-handed tactics employed by the police. Indigenous communities and the wider working class face the same enemies and have an obligation to unite. An injury to one is an injury to all.
Unfortunately, under the right-wing leadership of Dominic Cardy, the NB NDP has reacted in the most condemnable terms by siding against the protesters and calling on Premier David Alward “to immediately order the end to all road blockades before starting meaningful consultations with First Nations communities on the development of the shale gas industry.” (www.nbndp.ca/node/862). Cardy is only open to talks with the aboriginal protesters “once the rule of law is enforced on our province's roads,” revealing his strong prejudice against the just actions of the Mi’kmaq.
Thankfully, there have been other voices in the NDP. Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for Timmins–James Bay, which has a large native population facing similar issues, released the following statement, “Like so many Canadians I was shocked by the images of snipers and tactical squads being used against the people at Elsipogtog First Nation. A blockade in a rural region is not a sign of radicals. It is a sign that there has been a failure to consult. Without a social license these projects cannot be forced through with guns and arrest”.
Cardy has been shown to be further to the right of the New Brunswick government that has re-entered into negotiations with the Mi’kmaq while the protests continue and SWN’s injunction against the protesters has been lifted. Dominic Cardy’s statements damage the NDP in New Brunswick and across Canada, and the party’s supporters deserve far better representation and leadership.
There is such a legacy of abuse, violence, and lack of consultation with First Nations communities in Canada that it would not be surprising for the people to never trust the corporations, their hired guns in the RCMP, and their government. Fightback calls for:
1) A moratorium on environmentally dangerous techniques such as fracking until there is incontrovertible evidence that it can be conducted safely, proved by scientists independent of the oil and gas corporations.
2) No development on Native lands without the full and comprehensive negotiation of local economic benefits (including training and employment of local workers), environmental protections, and the resolution of related issues.
3) For the speedy and fair resolution of unresolved Native treaties so as to end the poverty and degradation that indigenous populations face at the hands of corporations and the Canadian government. Native people must be able to democratically control their own fate.
4) The labour movement and the NDP, in New Brunswick and across Canada, must fight for the victory of the Mi’kmaq of Elsipogtog.