Indigenous Canadian fracking protesters refuse to back down

Demonstrators defy court injunction intended to keep them from interfering with Texas-based company’s seismic testing

Protesters, led by Mi’kmaq indigenous people, after setting a fire to block a New Brunswick highway, begin a traditional round dance, Dec. 2, 2013.
Candi Simon/APTN

OTTAWA, Canada — Anti-fracking demonstrators set tires ablaze to block a New Brunswick highway Monday in a fiery response to a judge’s decision to extend an injunction limiting their protests against a Texas-based shale gas exploration company.  

In a courtroom in Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, Judge Paulette Garnett ruled to continue through Dec. 17 the injunction obtained by SWN Resources Canada against a coalition of protesters led by Mi’kmaq indigenous people from the Elsipogtog First Nation.

The injunction, which SWN obtained on Nov. 22, is designed to keep protesters from interfering with SWN’s seismic testing work. It requires that demonstrators remain at least 250 yards in front of or behind contractors and their vehicles and 20 yards to the side.

The Mi’kmaq have argued that SWN is conducting exploration work on land that they never ceded to the crown when they signed treaties with the British in the 18th century. 

New Brunswick’s government granted SWN licenses to explore for shale gas in 2010 in exchange for investment in the province worth approximately CA$47 million (about US$44 million).

The protesters fear that exploration will inevitably lead to gas extraction by means of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which water and chemicals are injected into shale rock to release gas deposits trapped inside. Opponents say fracking can contaminate the environment, especially water.

SWN has been trying since mid-November to complete the final 10 days of work it says are left in its exploration season. The company has claimed in court documents supporting the injunction application that each day of lost work costs about $54,000 and that vandalism by protesters has resulted in damage to more than 1,000 geophones — pieces of equipment used for seismic testing in conjunction with specialized trucks.

Daily confrontations

But the injunction has not deterred the anti-fracking alliance of indigenous people and members of New Brunswick’s Acadian and anglophone communities, a grouping that has consolidated since Elsipogtog residents began trying to stop SWN’s exploration work last May. Over the past week there have been daily confrontations with police, as protesters — who prefer to be known as protectors of the land and water — have persisted in their efforts to slow the seismic-testing operation.

“This isn’t just a native issue,” Edgar Clair of Elsipogtog First Nation told Al Jazeera from the site of the blockade on Route 11. “But the natives want the world to know that this is Mi’kmaq territory, and they won’t back down, and they won’t abide by this injunction.”  

Earlier Monday afternoon protesters blocked Route 11 — the latest front line in this conflict over shale gas exploration — after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who decide how and when to enforce the injunction, arrested several people on or near the highway. People at the site said that there were more than 100 RCMP officers in the area, that some were armed with rubber pellet guns often used for crowd control and that at least one K-9 unit was on hand.

As night descended, there were reports that police in riot gear were near the blockade. The RCMP could not immediately be reached for comment.  

“Our people are tired, and this is a response to the justice system,” said an Elsipogtog community member who was at the site and asked to go by the name Jane Doe 372, for fear of being targeted by police. The moniker is a reference to the injunction that names five individuals and a John and Jane Doe. “We’re tired of not being taken seriously and that the treaties we agreed to are not being taken seriously.” 

Dancing around burning tires

As the sun set and round dances were held around the burning tires at the blockade, drumming and singing could be heard in live video streams broadcast from the site.  

SWN’s original application for an injunction was supported by the provincial government. In an affidavit accompanying the filing, Bill Breckenridge of the Department of Energy and Mines maintained that the company “is engaged in lawful exploration activity along New Brunswick Route 11, a designated highway under the administration and control of the province.”

This is not the first injunction that members of the Mi’kmaq-led coalition of fracking protesters have defied.

At the beginning of October, SWN Resources Canada obtained an injunction against occupants of an encampment of protesters blocking a lot where the company had parked seismic-testing trucks. The camp effectively trapped the equipment.  

On Oct. 17, a day before the injunction was due to expire, the RCMP enforced it. Dozens of officers entered the camp with automatic rifles, dogs and beanbag guns. As the day progressed, RCMP pepper-sprayed elders and women from Elsipogtog. Six RCMP vehicles were torched, and some 40 people were arrested.

Nonnative support growing

Across Canada on Monday, solidarity actions unfolded in support of the Elsipogtog. Demonstrators set up a temporary blockade at Vancouver’s port and rallied in the western city of Victoria. In Toronto there were banner drops, and a group of protesters photo-bombed an interview by Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a local news station. A small rally was held on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the nation’s capital. And in Montreal, a solidarity blockade stopped traffic at an intersection until an angry motorist turned violent and ran his car into a protester.

“The call has been heard across Canada,” said Dave Goodswimmer, who traveled to New Brunswick with a small caravan of supporters from British Columbia more than a month ago. “We’re not going anywhere,” he told Al Jazeera by phone, adding that more people were expected to join the blockade as the night progressed.

“Nonnative support is growing and growing,” Clair said. “It’s becoming a bigger issue than a single corporation coming to bully us around. It’s becoming a small revolution. Canada’s going to change after this.”

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