REXTON, N.B. – The RCMP say dozens of people were arrested after Molotov cocktails were thrown at officers and police vehicles torched Thursday when they began enforcing an injunction to end an ongoing demonstration against shale gas exploration in eastern New Brunswick.
“I’m just happy nobody got killed today,” said 36-year-old Lori Simon of the Elsipogtog First Nation.
Simon went to survey the damage of burnt police cruisers after the protest in Rexton calmed down.
“My heart was aching. I just wanted to cry.”
Donald Sanipass, 34, hopped up on the hood of one of the police cars, saying he wasn’t surprised the situation escalated.
“I knew it was going to come to this because the government doesn’t want to listen to the people,” Sanipass said, who attended the scene with Simon. “They didn’t handle this right at all.”
Const. Jullie Rogers-Marsh said at least five RCMP vehicles were destroyed after they were set ablaze and at least one shot was fired by someone other than a police officer at the site of the protest.
“The RCMP has worked diligently with all parties involved in hopes for a peaceful resolution. Those efforts have not been successful,” Rogers-Marsh said.
“Tensions were rising.”
The Mounties said at least 40 people were arrested for firearms offences, threats, intimidation, mischief and violating the court-ordered injunction.
The RCMP began enforcing the injunction at around 7:30 a.m. to end the blockade of a compound where energy company SWN Resources stores exploration equipment. Route 134 at Rexton and Route 11 between Richibucto and Sainte-Anne-de-Kent were closed to traffic for about 12 hours and schools in the area were closed early for the day after they were locked down as a precaution.
Rogers-Marsh said police decided to enforce the injunction because threats had been made against private security guards at the site the night before. She wouldn’t reveal what tactics police were using to contain the crowd and refused to comment on reports that officers had fired rubber bullets.
Robert Levi, a councillor with the Elsipogtog First Nation, said he went to the protest site early Thursday after hearing the RCMP had moved in to begin enforcing the injunction.
Levi said police pepper-sprayed dozens of people after 9:30 a.m. when he arrived with the chief and council.
“They sprayed the crowd that was there,” he said in an interview. “The chief was manhandled a little bit and all hell broke loose.”
Hours later, he was arrested as was Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock, he said in a subsequent interview Thursday night. Levi said there was a meeting planned with Premier David Alward for Friday.
The RCMP blocked Route 134 on Sept. 29 after a protest began spilling onto the road. Protesters subsequently cut down trees that were placed across another part of the road, blocking the entrance to the compound.
The protesters, who include members of the Elsipogtog First Nation, want SWN Resources to stop seismic testing and leave the province.
Alward called for a peaceful resolution to the protest, saying the violence that erupted Thursday was “very troubling.”
“In no way can we as a country of laws condone the breaking of laws and violence,” Alward said in Moncton, N.B.
“I fully support the work that the RCMP do to ensure that the laws of New Brunswick are protected.”
The government’s position that a shale gas industry can be developed in the province as long as it is done sustainably and safely has not wavered as a result of the protest, the Progressive Conservative premier added.
“We believe in the responsible development of our natural resources. The company has been following the regulations of New Brunswick.”
Last week, Alward and Sock agreed to set up a working group to find a resolution after meetings were held in Fredericton and Moncton. At the time, Sock said there were still many details to be worked out.
Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant urged the sides to resume talks to try to end the dispute.
“There is much angst and anxiety at the protest site and in the surrounding communities,” he said in a statement. “The dialogue must immediately resume in order to resolve the differences that have arisen.”
Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, wrote letters to Sock and Alward expressing his support for Elsipogtog.
“The images and actions we have seen and that have been reported are deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable,” Atleo said in his letter to Alward.
“I call upon you to take all actions to immediately cease this intervention and restore dialogue with leadership.”
First Nations communities elsewhere in the country also held protests in solidarity with Elsipogtog.
Assistant commissioner Roger Brown, the commanding officer for the RCMP in New Brunswick, said last week he was disappointed that discussions between the provincial government and the First Nation had failed to resolve the issue. He said the Mounties would take a measured approach to resolving the situation.
Opponents of the shale gas sector say the process used to extract the resource — hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking — could pollute drinking water. But proponents of the industry say such concerns are overblown and don’t take into account the possibility of replacing coal and oil with cleaner burning natural gas.