Keep the frack off our land

October 22, 2013

Brian Ward and Ragina Johnson report on the defiance of First Nations peoples in Canada in the face of the energy industry's fracking boom--and the violence of police.

IN THE movie Thunderheart, a fictionalized account loosely based on the conflicts and repression on Indian reservations in the 1970s, Walter Crow Horse says to FBI agent Ray Levoi: "You know, you guys are just the second coming of the same old cavalry."

On October 17, in the eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) acted out the centuries-old role of oppressors inflicting violence on Native peoples with an assault on demonstrators standing up against fracking.

RCMP agents, dressed in full riot gear and heavily armed, raided a two-week-old blockade aimed at stopping a Texas company from using the destructive hydraulic fracturing drilling method. The blockade was organized by the Mi'Kmaq people of the Elsipogtog First Nation. Forty protesters were arrested in the raid, including Chief Arren Sock and tribal council members.

Protesters say the RCMP used overwhelming force, including rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and dogs. The police were "protected" from demonstrators by snipers. Robert Levy, a former chief of the nearby Elsipogtog First Nation and current council member, said that this was "one of the ugliest days I have seen...This is like Egypt or something in Iraq."

Mi'kmaq tribal members lead a march during their blockade against fracking in New Brunswick
Mi'kmaq tribal members lead a march during their blockade against fracking in New Brunswick

David Alward, the premier of New Brunswick and leader of the province's Progressive Conservative Party, claimed the raids were necessary because the blockade was an "armed encampment," and not a "safe and secure place." The RCMP made sure to find firearms and explosives in the camp after demonstrators were cleared. But based on the history of the relationship between the settler government and Native peoples, this could very well be a lie.

When police moved in against the barriers erected by Mi'Kmaq demonstrators, they were met by resistance--a shower of rocks, bottles and paint. Several police cars were set on fire.

As news of the assault spread, more than 45 solidarity actions were organized across Canada and into the U.S., and Native activists from across the country traveled to New Brunswick to continue the protests in solidarity with the Mi'Kmaq people.

In the wake of the violence unleashed by the RCMP, New Brunswick Justice George Rideout said he wouldn't extend the injunction used against the anti-fracking blockaders--an important legal victory. Meanwhile, Chief Arren Sock met with Alward, and went on to call for a 30-day moratorium on both fracking and protests.

THE ELSIPOGTOG reserve is located in the eastern part of New Brunswick, about 170 miles from the Maine border. It has a population of about 2,400 people and an 80 percent unemployment rate, according to Robert Levy. Around 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30. As a result of a housing shortage, as many of five families live in each home.

Levy said the threat that fracking would pollute their drinking water was the last straw. "We've been pushed into such a little corner in Elsipogtog," he said. "A little postage stamp is all we have left."

The fracking threat was brought to Elsipogtog by the Texas-based company Southwestern Resources Canada (SWN).

The drilling method--in which a mixture of water, sand and toxic chemicals is pumped into the ground at a very high pressure, breaking up underground rock formations to release natural gas and oil--is behind a new and very profitable boom in fossil fuel production in Canada and the U.S.

But people in both countries--in communities stretching from Texas to the provinces of Canada, and the Northeast U.S. to the Pacific Coast--are rebelling against fracking. The latest protests came on October 19 with the "Global Frackdown" day of action, which saw actions in all 50 U.S. states and more than 20 countries around the world.

The urgency of these demonstrations reflects the scale of ecological devastation caused by fracking. The toxic chemicals used in drilling often leach into groundwater, with the result that some nearby residents have discovered they can set fire to the water coming out of their taps, because of the high methane content. The mixture of water and chemicals remains toxic after it is pumped back out of the ground, and massive containment pools are poorly maintained, according to activists.

Reports of serious health problems apparently related to fracking are emerging, but the energy companies refuse to take any responsibility. And that's leaving aside the grim fact that fracking has led to a boom in the production of exactly the same fossil fuels that have already caused measurable climate change, with devastating consequences globally, and worse to come.

NO WONDER, then, that the Mi'Kmaq people decided to take action against SWN's fracking operation. In a speech at a protest on October 1, Chief Arren Sock read out a resolution passed by the nation that called for the eviction of SWN's equipment:

Therefore, let it be resolved at a duly convened band council meeting, let it be known to all that we as Chief and council of Elsipogtog are reclaiming all unoccupied reserved Native lands back, and put in the trust of our people. Furthermore, we have been instructed by our people that they are ready to go out and stake their claims on unoccupied Crown lands for their own use and benefit.

As activist and journalist Roger Annis reported in the Vancouver Observer:

The Mi'kmaq say the fracking is taking place on traditional hunting lands and is a violation of their sovereign rights. Their concerns are shared by many other residents in the region and across the province. All are deeply concerned about the pollution of fresh water and land that fracking will cause.

New Brunswick is governed by a Conservative Party government elected in 2010. It supports gas fracking, but the issue is highly contested. In 2011, the Union of New Brunswick Municipalities voted by just 22-to-18 against a resolution in favor of a province-wide moratorium. Mayors in the eastern New Brunswick region where the RCMP assault took place voted 16-to-1 in July of this year to ask the government to impose a fracking moratorium in their region.

Since the raid on the Elsipogtog blockade, Dominic LeBlanc, who represents the area in Canada's parliament, called for a moratorium on exploration until the health risks of fracking could be determined.

Meanwhile, questions are being raised about SWN's right to frack at all. Stephen Augustine, the principal of Unama'ki College at Cape Breton University, told the CBC the Elsipogtog Nation never gave up land to the Canadian or British governments through treaties. "Those pre-Confederation treaties were just treaties of peace and friendship," he said. "The government of Canada has acknowledged that." In the recent past, the Elsipogtog Nation won important legal victories in the Canadian Supreme Court, establishing their rights to hunt, fish, trap and harvest lumber.

The brutal violence against First Nation peoples and solidarity activists in New Brunswick offers a window into a long history of land and resource theft in Canada. As author and health expert Dr. James Daschuk wrote in a commentary for the Toronto Globe and Mail, the expansion of the Canadian state was no less violent and deadly than in the U.S. Describing the "settlement" of Western provinces, Daschuk wrote:

[A] key aspect of preparing the land was the subjugation and forced removal of indigenous communities from their traditional territories, essentially clearing the plains of aboriginal people to make way for railway construction and settlement. Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border as the Canadian Pacific Railway took shape.

THE NEW Brunswick protests should be seen in light of the emergence of the Idle No More movement, founded in December of last year. Idle No More is a First Nations-led struggle to stop the breaking of treaties, 21st-century land grabs and the deregulation of environmentally protected area, along with other attacks on Native peoples.

Idle No More has contributed to a rise in resistance and consciousness of First Nations people across the country, and it has since spread into the U.S., with tribes and nations connecting to a growing anger against new waves of attacks against the environment, and water and land rights. A recent action by Nez Perce tribal members in Idaho to blockade a "mega-load" shipment of equipment bound for the Alberta tar sands is an inspiring case in point.

The Canadian government, led by Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper, claims the Idle No More movement has dissipated over the course of this year. But on October 7, Idle No More solidarity groups organized more than 63 protests and actions across Canada, with solidarity events taking place in more than a dozen countries. The October 7 date marked 250 years since England's King George III signed a proclamation setting out a relationship with Native Americans and the lands "reserved to them."

As Alex Wilson, an Idle No More organizer, told CBC News in an interview, the movement has brought together people who are tired of the attacks on their lives and environment, and are ready to do something about it.

Wilson said Idle No More's rapid early growth was due to "the combination of people's frustrations with the Harper government and people's readiness for real transformation and change, and it just happened to be the perfect storm and the perfect timing for all of those things to happen." She concluded that "little incremental things" continued to build up "to a point where all of the sudden, it's creating a tipping point where people have just had enough."

The RCMP's aggressive behavior in New Brunswick last week reflects the attitude of the federal government under Harper, who has shown no interest in consulting First Nations about measures that affect their lives and some of their sacred land.

For example, the government amended the Navigable Waters Protection Act, reducing the number of lakes, streams and coastal areas under federal protection from 2.6 million to just 87. It also pushed through amendments to the Indian Act, making it easier to lease Indian land to non-Natives.

This is all part of Harper's project to make Canada a resource extraction economy, in line with the agenda being pursued by U.S.-based energy companies. The Keystone XL pipeline and the expansion of fracking in Northeastern Canada are very much connected--in both cases, the right-wing government is driving through policies that will line the pockets of big corporations, without regard for the harm done to people and the environment.

That's why the courts issued the initial injunction to end the anti-fracking blockade organized by the Mi'Kmaq people. As in Canada's past, the RCMP was the agent for carrying out the interests of big business, through violent means. As Vancouver-based writer and activist Derrick O'Keefe pointed out: "Contrary to the myth of seamless and peaceful nation-building, the modern Canadian state was built through the projection of force over and against Indigenous peoples. The RCMP, and before it, the Northwest Mounted Police, was formed with this express purpose."

In a post to her blog, writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson explained that the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their land underlies many other symptoms of their oppression. She called on supporters of justice to challenge the media lies about the violence of the Mi'kmaq protesters:

We can seek out the image of strong, calm Mi'kmaq women and children armed with drums and feathers, and ask ourselves what would motivate mothers, grandmothers, aunties, sisters and daughters to stand up and say enough is enough. We can learn about the 400 years these people and their ancestors have spent resisting dispossession and erasure...

We can learn about why they chose to put their bodies on the line to protect their lands and waters against fracking, because, setting the willfully ignorant and racists aside, sane, intelligent people should be standing with them.

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