Native leaders are warning that the violent clash between RCMP and the Elsipogtog First Nation – which last week saw police vehicles torched, rubber bullets fired and rocks thrown – is just the tip of the iceberg.
The protest against shale-gas exploration near the village of Rexton, N.B., took place as some aboriginal groups across the country are expressing frustration over being excluded from consultations, especially when it comes to resource development.
Last week's incident is galvanizing native groups, which have been sending statements of solidarity to the East-Coast band.
On Sunday, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Derek Nepinak, visited the community, just north of Moncton, to show his support. He attended a meeting and came out of it with the view that "people are resilient and people will heal."
He does not see an immediate resolution.
The two sides are entrenched. The protests have been going on for several weeks. Elsipogtog band councillor and former chief Robert Levy said "people are hurting" but adds: "Absolutely, there is no way Elsipogtog is backing down."
New Brunswick Premier David Alward told The Globe and Mail his government is focused on responsible development of the province's natural resources and he's not backing away from shale-gas exploration. He met Friday with Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock and said "it is important to continue dialogue" and to work to find the "path forward." More meetings between officials are expected this week.
SWN Resources Canada, whose parent company is in Texas, was trying to conduct seismic testing, exploring for shale gas, along the highway where the native protesters had blocked their equipment. Last Thursday's raid by the RCMP enabled the company to remove its trucks from the blockade.
Grand Chief Nepinak, like other chiefs, views the situation as more than a fight over provincial resources. It is one that involves the federal government, which has condemned the violent protest and said little else. "The right to protest comes with the responsibility to do so peacefully," Jean-Christophe de Le Rue, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, wrote in response to a request for comment. "We condemn the shameful violence that occurred as part of the New Brunswick protest. Canadians expect that those involved will be held accountable to the full extent of the law."
Grand Chief Nepinak in an interview said he is calling for a first ministers meeting on the issue of the type of resource equity arrangement the federal government is prepared to make with indigenous people.
"We are not going to sit back, we're not going to let the wealth leave our lands the way it has for the last 100 years, keeping us impoverished …" he said, noting Prime Minister Stephen Harper is travelling the world "trying to sell Canadian resource wealth … and he's doing that all in complete disrespect of the rights of indigenous people."
Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Ontario regional chief Stan Beardy is closely watching events in New Brunswick – and said he will travel to the community if he sees any escalation by the RCMP. He worries that the RCMP response to the protest sends a message to First Nations that this is how they will be dealt with if they try to stand up for their rights. The RCMP has said the force it used Thursday was justified because guns, explosives and other weapons were in the native encampment.
As for consultation about resource development, Chief Beardy's focus is also on the federal government, arguing it has little patience to consult.
"In Ontario, in the majority of cases, I have never heard any First Nation group say 'no, we don't want resource extraction,'" Chief Beardy said. "All we are saying is there has to be broader consultations … at the end of the day, we have the same objectives. The purpose of resource extraction is to create wealth … and we want to be a part of the global economy … to be in a position to capture economic spinoffs. That's all we are asking for."
He said his people are "getting very desperate. I think what you are seeing on the East Coast can very easily flare up in any part of the country because of the frustration that is there by the people." In British Columbia, for example, First Nations people protested against the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. In Manitoba, Grand Chief Nepinak said there are potential "powder kegs" over extraction of minerals.
But not all native groups are unhappy with the federal government. Dayle Hyde, a spokeswoman for Alberta's Fort McKay band, said over the past 15 years it has built good relations with the federal and provincial governments and industry. "We're not passing any judgment with what is happening in New Brunswick," she said. "Every situation is different."
AFN's New Brunswick and PEI regional chief Roger Augustine said he believes there should be some mediation to try to resolve the conflict in New Brunswick. He worked on the conflict at Burnt Church between native and non-native fishermen that erupted into violent confrontations.
He is also concerned by the "silence from the federal government."
"This is still a federal issue," he said, noting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for consultation on numerous issues, including conservation and protection of the environment and resource development. "We'll be waiting and demanding something from the minister of indian affairs and will be demanding a statement from the Prime Minister on the issue."
Chief Augustine said protests around the country over mineral extraction or pipelines or fracking are all little flashpoints that could escalate. "It's going to be all over Canada and it's going to be a hard one to stop."