It is supposed to be a day that commemorates the signing of the 1752 Treaty of Friendship and Peace between the Mi’kmaq and the Crown, a day spent promoting Mi'kmaq culture and history across Atlantic Canada.
Instead, Elsipogtog First Nation leaders and members marked Mi'kmaq Treaty Day by defending their land from fracking. First Nations in New Brunswick said they've had enough of shale gas exploration in their territory, and they want a Texas-based exploration company to leave.
On October 1, Elsipogtog Chief and Council announced they were reclaiming all unoccupied reserve lands from the federal and provincial governments and issued an eviction notice to SWN Resources Canada, a subsidiary of Houston-based Southwestern Energy Co. Dozens of protesters blocked the main road traversed by company vehicles. The community was backed by the Signigtog District Grand Council, which represents Mi'kmaq communities across southern New Brunswick and northern Nova Scotia.
At a media conference in nearby Rexton, Elsipogtog Chief Aaren Sock said that the lands, never ceded or sold, had been held in trust by the Crown—but that the trust has been betrayed.
“The original people of the territory, together with their hereditary and elected leaders, believe that their lands and waters are being badly mismanaged by Canada, the province and corporations to the point of ruin,” Sock said. “Now facing complete destruction, they feel that the lands are no longer capable of providing enough to support the populations of the region.”
These threats to their survival and way of life left the Mi’kmaq of Signigtog no choice but to resume environmental stewardship in order to “save our water, land and animals from ruin,” Sock said.
The controversy began last spring, when SWN began seismic testing in Kent County near Elsipogtog First Nation. Mi'kmaq have been fighting the company and the province ever since. Twelve people were arrested in protests in June.
The company said it is only in the exploratory stages, but First Nations and their supporters say it's only a matter of time before shale gas is found and the company employs the controversial technique known as fracking to get at it. Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping water and chemicals underground at high pressure to fracture shale gas formations, making it easier to extract natural gas. Although the method is being used in other parts of Canada and the U.S., countries such as France have banned it, and the practice is under contention throughout Indian Country.
The Elsipogtog leadership also posted an eviction notice demanding that SWN remove all exploration equipment by midnight on September 30. However, it is unclear whether the notice was actually delivered to SWN officials, and as of October 2, SWN had not departed. Still, said members of the local Mi'kmaq warrior society, a group of Mi'kmaq who are defending Mi'kmaq lands and communities, the company needs to leave.
“Right now we're standing our ground and asking [SWN] to pull their equipment out of New Brunswick so that it will resolve peacefully,” said John Levi, the warrior chief of Elsipogtog First Nation. “We're not going to back down.”
Support is growing. First Nations in New Brunswick and their supporters have set up three resistance sites since SWN first brought in equipment.
“People from other communities, native people from Nova Scotia, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and there's other natives from New Brunswick,” said Levi of the indigenous nations on the ground.
Acadians, Metis, non-natives and environmental groups have also showed up. On Tuesday, 400 people came. Many supporters have been sleeping on the ground with just a blanket.
Some of the protesters, including a pregnant woman and several elders, have been hurt while facing off with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and private security forces. Lorraine Clair, 44, of Elsipogtog was struck by an RCMP vehicle during an incident this week. She was also injured in an earlier confrontation with the RCMP.
“She's a fish plant worker, so her wrists were already weakened, and she was still healing from that, and then when they arrested her they broke her wrist,” said protester Willie Nolan.
Nolan said he also witnessed Clair getting struck by the cruiser.
“There is a lot of bullying taking place,” said Levi about the RCMP and security.
But the protests seem to be having some effect. The activists have succeeded in stopping the SWN workers from proceeding.
“All the equipment has been fenced off,” said Miles Howe, a reporter with New Brunswick Media Co-op who has been following this story closely since the beginning. Howe said five SWN seismic testing trucks were still present in their compound.
“As of right now, we're not going to let [SWN] come out and do their work on the highway, that's for sure,” said Levi. “We will let them out but not let them back in.”
To date there has been no response by the New Brunswick government.