Environment

Shale gas company loses bid to halt Canada protests

After last week's protests over gas exploration turned violent, a judge ruled that demonstrations may continue

Members of the Elsipogtog First Nations group protest a shale-gas project near Rexton, New Brunswick, Thursday.
Courtesy 95.9 Sun FM, Miramichi, New Brunswick

A Canadian court ruled Monday to deny an energy company’s request for a permanent injunction to prevent interference with shale-gas exploration in New Brunswick. The ruling allows protests to continue and for demonstrators to once again occupy roads used by energy-company vehicles.

Justice George Rideout issued a ruling in the Court of Queen's Bench against the motion of Texas-based Southwestern Energy, known as SWN Resources in Canada.

An informal coalition of First Nations and nonnative protesters had blocked a road to prevent the company from continuing its exploration. The judge did not state the reasons for his decision but said a written statement would be issued.

SWN Resources, which did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, argued in court that the protest was costing the company $60,000 a day.

The barricade and protests, part of a wider movement by dozens of local community groups that have opposed fracking there for years, began last month on Route 134 near Rexton, about 515 miles east of Montreal.

The protests gained international attention last Thursday when an anti-fracking protest blocking the company’s activities in New Brunswick turned violent.

“This is not just a First Nations campaign. It’s actually quite a historic moment where all the major peoples of this province — English, French and aboriginal — come together for a common cause,” David Coon, head of the Green Party in New Brunswick, told Al Jazeera. “This is really a question of justice. They want to protect their common lands, water and air from destruction.”

A temporary injunction was issued on Oct. 3 ordering the protesters to leave. This resulted in negotiations with the provincial government, local residents opposed to fracking and First Nation leaders — but did not end the protest.

‘When cops show up with guns and pepper spray and arrest 40 people and take a situation that’s been peaceful and attack them — then suddenly it’s a big story,’ Bennet said.

Last Thursday, over 100 Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers arrived with guns and dogs to enforce the injunction, resulting in violent clashes

The RCMP reported it had seized weapons from some of the protesters and that protesters had torched police vehicles. Activists said the RCMP moved in aggressively — firing tear gas and pepper spray and setting dogs on them; about 40 protesters were arrested.

“In New Brunswick over the last three or four years, there have been continual meetings and demonstrations against shale-gas exploration, so clearly the people are not in support of the fracking industry coming to their province,” John Bennet, executive director of the Sierra Club Canada, told Al Jazeera.

He said the protests have been going on for years and have always been peaceful. He said he tried to get the media to cover the protests before but could not generate interest.

“Suddenly last Thursday, when cops show up with guns and pepper spray and arrest 40 people and take a situation that’s been peaceful and attack them — then suddenly it’s a big story,” Bennet said.

“For me it brings images of Custer and people attacking Indian villages to make them leave. It was done in the same spirit. They could have come in without weapons and tried to mediate. Instead the police did a dawn raid in camouflage. They caused the violence.”

Spoiling the land

Coon, who spent some time at the protest, described it as friendly, peaceful and welcoming.

“My impression was that the people were overwhelmingly local and all ages. The atmosphere was almost like a block party. People had lawn chairs out. They even had a turkey dinner,” Coon said.

Many local residents are opposed to fracking because they fear their water will be contaminated, their land degraded and air polluted, he told Al Jazeera.

“These are rural communities with very clear air, beautiful land, drinkable water. They don’t want to see that spoiled,” Coon said. “When energy companies move in, they industrialize the area, which completely changes the quality of life in those communities.”

Though the protest includes a diverse group of local residents who say they will not allow fracking on their land because of environmental and health concerns, the only legal argument can be made by its First Nations members.

‘These people have a democratic and constitutional right to be consulted about what happens on their land,’ Bennet said. ‘And if that’s not respected, then they have a right to protest.’

Since the mid-1980s, 186 rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada and lower courts have established a precedent that aboriginal people must be consulted and accommodated when development on their land is considered, according to Canada’s CBC news.

That’s because, unlike the rest of Canadian First Nations, the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet peoples — located in New Brunswick — never ceded their territory in treaties or lost it by force, giving them more legal rights over their land than most other First Nations.

“That certainly was not done when the license to explore the land was given to SWN," said Coon. "It was not done when those licenses were extended.”

Off tribal lands, oil and gas resources generally remain under the control of the provincial or federal government. A request for comment by the New Brunswick government’s energy branch was not answered.

New Brunswick’s Assembly of First Nations Chiefs called on the provincial government Monday to revoke shale-gas exploration permits issued to energy companies until they have been consulted, CBC news reported.

“These people have a democratic and constitutional right to be consulted about what happens on their land,” Bennet said. “And if that’s not respected, then they have a right to protest.”

Regardless of the result of the court ruling Monday, local community activists are determined to do everything they can to stop energy companies from moving into their province.

“Fracking will not occur there. Those communities will not allow it to happen,” Coon said. “To impose the industry on those communities … would require continued police presence and lots of protection around the clock for industry activities.”

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