N.B. anti-shale protest turns fiery

The big news: Aboriginal protesters refuse to give up traditional land

Andrew Vaughan/CP

“We have been asking for consultations for three years now and nothing has happened. Instead they just put our people in jail.” —Susan Levi-Peters, former chief of the Elsipogtog First Nation

James Anaya had barely left Canada, and five torched cruisers sat on a highway in rural New Brunswick. Had the UN rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples found his way to yesterday’s scene in Rexton, N.B.,  he would have borne witness to the terrible complexity of resource development anywhere near aboriginal land.

SWN resources, an oil and gas exploration company, is conducting seismic testing near the Elsipogtog First Nation. Protesters are afraid the company will establish fracking operations, the controversial extraction method that pulls shale gas out of the ground. Those protesters moved to build barricades that blocked SWN from its own equipment, and also nearby Route 134. SWN, which claimed to be losing $60,000 a day during the blockade, received an injunction to remove the protesters. That’s what the police tried to accomplish yesterday. And then 40 people were arrested and the RCMP lost five vehicles.

Anaya, who concluded a visit to Canada earlier this week, spoke to the perils of developing natural resources on aboriginal land in an interim report. “Resource development often proceeds at a rapid pace within lands that are the subject of protracted negotiations between aboriginal peoples and the Government, undermining the very purpose of the negotiations,” he wrote. “As a general rule, resource extraction should not occur on lands subject to aboriginal claims without adequate consultations with and the free, prior and informed consent of the aboriginal peoples concerned.”

That’s a fine general rule, worthy of discussion. But yesterday wasn’t so cut and dry. The Mi’kmaq are drawing a distinction between reserve land, where they have more power to negotiate, and traditional land about which they’re concerned. The Globe and Mail explains: “Although the compound is not on reserve land, it is on territory that the Mi’kmaq consider to be their traditional hunting ground, and they fear that SWN’s tests will lead to a fracking operation that will cause irreparable environmental damage to their community and the surrounding area.”

Further, Chief Arren James Sock of the Elsipogtog First Nation, who was among the arrested, said his people reserve the right to reclaim the land. The Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed that the Mi’kmaq “continue to have treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather towards earning a moderate livelihood” on their traditional land.* Sock says the Crown has used the land irresponsibly. “For centuries, the British Crown claimed to be holding the land in trust for his people,” CBC News explains. “But since the land is being badly mismanaged, First Nations people are taking it back.”

These arguments about traditional land, and centuries-old agreements, all came to the fore during Idle No More protests earlier this year. Successful as that movement was at raising awareness for a few solid months, no national consensus emerged about anything related to land claims. There wasn’t a sense that protesters were universally right, and governments universally wrong. Land claims are complicated exercises. Traditional hunting grounds are tricky to reconcile with parts of the country where non-aboriginal people and companies are living and doing business.

That disconnect is real and not going anywhere. Yet more clashes will occur, of that there is no doubt, and no practical resolution will avail itself to all involved. This conflict will stubbornly endure.


What’s above the fold

The Globe and Mail An aboriginal protest in New Brunswick turned violent.
National Post Five RCMP cruisers were torched during the protest.
Toronto Star Ontario will seek compensation for industries harmed by free trade.
Ottawa Citizen The Senate could suspend Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau.
CBC News Stephen Harper will announce a free-trade deal with Europe.
CTV News The free-trade negotiations lasted four years.
National Newswatch Canada’s dairy industry is not happy with the free-trade deal.

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*CORRECTION: This post originally stated the Mi’kmaq forfeited their traditional land to the Crown. We regret the error.