HALIFAX – Justice Minister Peter MacKay is calling for an end to any confrontations and the resumption of talks to resolve a dispute over shale gas exploration in eastern New Brunswick.
MacKay was briefed early Friday on the incidents a day earlier near Rexton where the RCMP arrested at least 40 people during protests that saw police vehicles set on fire and the Mounties allege they were the target of Molotov cocktails.
“There’s obviously a need to respect the law and to avoid violence and return to discussions,” he said at a roundtable discussion on justice issues in Halifax.
“That is what we’re all encouraging and hoping for, but when violence erupts you can expect the police are there to keep the peace and to protect citizens.”
The Mounties say the arrests were made after Molotov cocktails were thrown at officers and police vehicles were torched when officers began enforcing an injunction to end a weeks-long demonstration.
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 a protest.
Protesters were arrested for firearms offences, threats, intimidation, mischief and violating the court-ordered injunction.
Rogers-Marsh said police decided to enforce the injunction because threats had been made against private security guards at the site on Wednesday night. 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 police pepper-sprayed dozens of people after he arrived at a protest site in the Rexton area with the chief and council on Thursday morning.
The RCMP blocked Route 134 on Sept. 29 after a protest there 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.
In other parts of the country, demonstrations were held to support the protests in Rexton, with more scheduled for Friday.
The mayor of the village of Perth-Andover in western New Brunswick said about three dozen protesters from the Tobique First Nation blocked traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway for several hours Thursday before ending their protest at 8 p.m.
Peter Ritchie said truck traffic was backed up for several kilometres on both sides of the highway.
In Winnipeg, about 50 protesters disrupted traffic at Portage and Main in support of the Rexton protesters. The demonstration was relatively peaceful, but protesters did burn a Canadian flag before making their way to the RCMP building on Portage Avenue.
In southern Ontario, provincial police said 30 to 40 protesters shut down Highway 6 on Thursday between the communities of Hagersville and Caledonia. A local news agency, Turtle Island News, said the protest by Six Nations members was also staged in solidarity with the protests in eastern New Brunswick.
Levi said he expects a meeting Friday between New Brunswick Premier David Alward and Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock in Fredericton.
Levi and Sock were among the dozens of people arrested Thursday. The protesters, who include members of Elsipogtog, want SWN Resources to stop seismic testing and leave the province.
Alward has also said he wants a peaceful resolution, adding that he still believes a shale gas industry can be developed in the province both safely and in a sustainable way.
In a statement issued Thursday, New Brunswick’s Green party leader said Alward has missed an opportunity to reset his government’s relationship with First Nations in New Brunswick.
“The people of Elsipogtog and local residents of Kent County were simply trying to protect their right to safe water and the well-being of their communities through peaceful civil disobedience,” David Coon said. “Their cause is just and deserves respect. The decision to respond with force will deepen the conflict.”
SWN Resources issued a statement Friday saying it is in the early stages of exploration in New Brunswick.
“Our employees are dedicated to the safety of people and the environment, as well as ensuring we are in full compliance with all regulations,” it said.
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