Showdown in Elsipogtog: Seven months of shale gas resistance in New Brunswick

Date of publication: 
14 January 2014

K’JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX)—In early June, I walked with Suzanne Patles from Eskasoni First Nation and two Mi’kmaq women from Elsipogtog First Nation along Highway 126 near Harcourt, New Brunswick. People told us not to go, not to approach the seismic testing trucks; that people had been arrested earlier in the day; that there would be trouble.

I knew Patles, to some degree, as a shy and hesitant person but highly intelligent. At Millbrook First Nation, earlier in March, I had watched her read from prepared documents as Shelly Young and Jean Sock starved themselves in an attempt to get the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq chiefs to withdraw from the Made-in-Nova Scotia Process and the risk of a modern-day treaty it presented. I had strained to hear her above the din of the crowd in the Porcupine Lodge.

In a few years writing for the Media Co-op, I’ve done a bit of frontlines journalism and developed a small sense of heightened awareness when it comes to situations where resistance meets authority. Sometimes, often smoking a cigarette, I can almost taste electricity in the air.

As I watched her approach a line of green safety vest-clad police officers, behind whom were idling five seismic testing trucks, or “thumpers,” my first thought was to put myself between her and what I saw coming. I could taste electricity.

“Got your camera?” Patles asked me calmly, as she opened a pouch of tobacco and began to sprinkle a line of brown flakes across one lane of highway. I did, and obligingly began snapping shots.

A crowd of about 15 RCMP officers, who had been regarding us with the interest a pride of lions might display towards a lost gazelle, huddled in a round and began to converse in hushed tones.

This was before all that was to come; before all the confrontations and violence and abuse and “less-lethal” rounds and pepper spray and failed and false negotiations and tire fires that may take years to recover from. If ever.

The fight against fracking in 2013 in New Brunswick was, at that moment, new and fresh. Perhaps on both sides there was still hope that the scene might not devolve into a seemingly endless grudge match of anti-shale gas organizers and First Nations land defenders versus the provincial government, Texas-based gas giant Southwestern Energy (SWN) and their business-class supporters.

Either that or the outcome was always set and these were only the initial hesitant jabs and dodges served out along the highways and dirt roads of New Brunswick, meant to test the adversary for strengths and weaknesses.

These warning shots would eventually escalate. It has now been seven months of communities putting themselves on the line against SWN and their RCMP protectors. There have been numerous blockades, both temporary and more permanent, dozens of arrests and hundreds of people who have come out to stop seismic testing for shale gas.

In 2010, New Brunswick’s provincial government, then under Premier Shawn Graham, issued exploratory gas licenses to SWN Resources Canada, a subsidiary of SWN. Graham, who won the Kent County political seat in 1998, hails from one of New Brunswick’s dynastic old-money families. His father, Alan Graham, is a significant landowner in Kent County and represented Kent County in the provincial legislature from 1967 to 1998, serving as Minister of Natural Resources under the Frank McKenna government from 1991 to 1997.

In early 2013, after seeing a 2011 seismic testing campaign thwarted in an adjoining New Brunswick county, SWN turned its sights to Kent County, the Grahams’ seat of power. Seismic testing lines were slated to pass directly across land owned by Alan Graham, who stood to receive royalties from the development of any shale gas deposits.

Elsipogtog and the surrounding Mi’kmaq communities have a history of resistance to industrial and government schemes. SWN’s 2013 plans to conduct seismic testing in Kent County did indeed take into account the potential of Mi’kmaq resistance, especially from Elsipogtog, one of the largest reserves in New Brunswick.

Which brings us back to Patles and the RCMP. I watched and photographed–and smoked–as Patles sprinkled a circle of tobacco around herself. She crouched down, hands clasped, then knelt into a ball on the pavement. Kathy Levi, one of the Elsipogtog women, pounded her drum, singing the Mi’kmaq honour song in a voice made unsteady by a now palpable tension.

RCMP officers approached the crouching Patles. Sergeant Bernard, a man who in July would arrest several people at the anti-shale gas blockades—including me, on the later-dropped accusation of uttering threats—placed his sizeable hand on Patles’ shoulder blade. He told her, quite simply, to move or she would be arrested.

Lost in prayer, perhaps already aware of the crackles of almost visible electricity surrounding her and the impending clash, Patles remained absolutely motionless.

Bernard looked back, looked around at his cohorts in green vests, then reached down and began to lift Patles out of her crouch. He arrested her and read her her rights.

The look on Patles’ face seemed a mixture of disturbed surprise, coupled with a vague sense of amusement. She calmly explained to the congregated crew of RCMP that she was “sovereign” and was in prayer.

I will always remember Patles at this moment of her first arrest: “Don’t touch me. I’m sovereign.”

Before all the banner drops and international solidarity and visits from A-list Canadian environmentalists, there was this small group of on-the-ground activists in early June.

I arrived when no one had seen #Elsipogtog, the hash tag. It was clear that this wasn’t going to be anything taught in any journalism class, ever. And this battle wasn’t going to be over in the week I had packed for.

I slept in tents, or basements, or the back seats of cars, or not at all. I chased rumours and ghosts and sightings of equipment down dirt roads with guides who grew up in these woods. I flew with pilots who would rather remain anonymous in antiquated two-seater Cessnas, using secret grass runways in an attempt to find the Texas-based gas company conducting seismic testing somewhere in the New Brunswick bush.

The corporate media spotlight didn’t fall on the anti-fracking resistance until the RCMP raided the blockade on Highway 134 on October 17th, armed with assault rifles and K-9 units, ready to enforce SWN’s right to frack over the right to protect the land. I was surprised at the brutality, but not entirely: over the course of the summer I had already watched the RCMP arrest dozens of people, punch women in the mouth and tackle elders.

Peeling back the layers of this conflict has yielded the tangled roots of interconnected families and financial interests, the likes of which might only take hold in the unique, dynastically fertile soil of Canada’s Maritime provinces. In the Maritimes, perhaps above all other Canadian provinces, we have deeply entrenched power dynamics and old money. And we have sacrifice zones: sparsely inhabited areas where the populace ranks, statistically, among the lowest in income and education in Canada.

Kent County, New Brunswick, where Elsipogtog is located, is one such sacrifice zone, ruled by a class system so stratified as to appear neo-feudal. The very wealthy, very land-rich families in New Brunswick barely bother to hide their connections to political seats. Maybe families like the Grahams, the Irvings, the Leonards and the McKennas have been running the show for so long that they have gotten sloppy at covering their tracks—or maybe they simply consider themselves untouchable and act with the reckless abandon of an unaccountable royal class.

A look at the Aboriginal Consultation process, currently usurped in New Brunswick by the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs of New Brunswick (AFNCNB), uncovers a similar power dynamic: one of a ruling Indigenous class and an impoverished one. While a select group of chiefs gets wined and dined on all-expenses-paid trips to Arkansas for a white-washed tour of SWN’s hydraulic fracturing operations, the majority of Elsipogtog residents are unemployed.

There is hope, however, in Kent County.

In my mind, the keys to the struggle, after a summer and fall of watching protectors hold off the fifth largest gas company in North America, lie in an honouring of the original treaties of peace and friendship that exist between the Mi’kmaq, the Wabanaki Confederacy and the Crown and a continued fostering of intercultural unity.

The Maritimes were never ceded by First Nations peoples. The Crown has never produced a deed to the land, because no deed was ever signed. Yet Band Council chiefs, whose authority derives from the Indian Act rather than from traditional governance structures, have been complicit, to varying degrees, in allowing SWN Resources into traditional territory.

Grumblings about AFNCNB complicity are growing louder. Already St. Mary’s First Nation, Madawaska First Nation, Woodstock First Nation and now Elsipogtog First Nation have withdrawn from the AFNCNB. The organization—which needs to represent 51 per cent of the Indigenous population of New Brunswick in order to maintain its authority—is about one more withdrawal away from crumbling.

The non-Indigenous Acadians and rural poor of Kent County have also suffered state-imposed hardships. In angered whispers, seemingly bottled over decades, they tell of the dynastic origins of Kent County’s elite. These stories generally include cross-generational woes, treachery and a downward spiral from a life that was tough—but at least navigable via community and entrepreneurship—to a current state of disaffection, where stacks of resumes pile up for every menial Tim Horton’s job. The Acadians were the Woodspeople, with their own special place reserved in Mi’kmaq history and treaty.

An increasing number of non-Indigenous Kent County residents and Mi’kmaq people see themselves in this struggle, perhaps a final one, to save the water for future generations. While they might not be out in equal force on the frontlines, non-Indigenous residents are the ones bringing chicken fricco, poutine rappe and other traditional delicacies to the warriors and protectors. In any battle, without supplies, the frontlines are finished. So it is a testament to them, as well, that this struggle has lasted for so long, against so much state-enforced power.

It has been a difficult fight. But from the ashes of the encampment that faced brutal police raids and the polarizing—and eventually paralyzing—philosophical differences between those aligned with the Indian Act Chiefs—who cannot apply a treaty-based solution lest they acknowledge their own redundancy—and those calling for a Treaty solution, sprang an emboldened anti-shale gas movement.

In November, just as SWN figured to begin seismic testing again in Kent County, this time along stretches of Highway 11, a new encampment sprang up. Images of the brutal raid of October 17th had flashed across the country and solidarity from Indigenous supporters from various nations, as well as from non-Indigenous supporters from around the world, rained down upon Kent County. In this renewed anti-shale gas fervour emanating now from many corners of Canada, differences in philosophy suddenly became secondary to stopping the Texas-based company by any means.

Stymied again by the daytime slowdowns and nighttime raids on equipment, SWN sought another legally binding injunction against the anti-shale gas activists. When a judge granted the injunction, issuing the RCMP the right to arbitrarily arrest people within a 250-metre front-to-back and 20-metre side-to-side parameter of SWN equipment, protestors responded by lighting tire fires along the highway for three successive days.

For reasons that are still unclear, on December 6th SWN issued a press release stating that they had completed their seismic testing in New Brunswick and would return in 2015. The press release thanked New Brunswickers for their “continued support.”

Missing from the release was the fact that in Kent County, the company had only obtained about 50 per cent of their planned data. It remains unclear whether they are currently testing or have plans to test in the remainder of their licensed areas, which cover over a million hectares of New Brunswick.

The fallout from the 2013 anti-shale gas actions in Kent County continues to unfold. Four members of the Mi’kmaq Warriors Society remain incarcerated in connection with the raid of October 17th and alleged activities on the 15th and 16th.

The threats to water from SWN’s shale gas exploration program have sparked new allegiances between Indigenous communities and have galvanized non-Indigenous allies, especially in the “threat zone” of Kent County.

At the same time, many people have experienced serious trauma and relations have broken down between RCMP and members of the Elsipogtog First Nation especially.

This is certainly not the first “modern day” clash between the Mi’kmaq people and armed forces representing Crown and corporate interests.

But it was a clash that will resound in the lives of those who put their bodies on the land, in the path of the thumpers, in the way of state violence.

It will definitely resound in my life. Never mind attempts at journalistic objectivity. It hurts to watch people you have come to know get tackled or pepper sprayed or shot with less-lethal rounds. These were people that I sat with, laughed with, drank bad coffee with and smoked too many cigarettes with. I watched them pray by sacred fires and sing their honour song and I tried hard not to sensationalize them or abuse the trust they had shown me, an outsider to their community and a guest upon their unceded land.

For a brief amount of time, before the world woke up to Elsipogtog, I was, by default, the curator of this story. But the context that gave rise to shale gas resistance—and complicity—in New Brunswick extends before me and will go on after me. The fallout remains to be understood in the months to come.

Miles Howe is a member of the Halifax Media Co-op and an editor with The Dominion