Skip to main content

A police vehicle is seen in Rexton, N.B. as police began enforcing an injunction to end an ongoing demonstration against shale gas exploration in eastern New Brunswick on Thursday, Oct.17, 2013.The Canadian Press

A First Nations anti-fracking protest that erupted in violence this week was an "armed encampment," New Brunswick Premier David Alward says.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the Premier defended the actions of RCMP officers who moved in to enforce an injunction on Thursday, saying the site at the side of a highway was not a "safe and secure place."

First Nations protesters had been camped along the road near the village of Rexton, just north of Moncton, for several weeks to prevent trucks owned by SWN Resources, a Texas energy company, from doing seismic testing to search for shale gas. First Nations people and some other New Brunswickers are worried about what the province's decision to allow companies to search for shale gas and concerns will do to their water.

The protest escalated quickly into violence on Thursday when heavily armed police moved in.

One native leader, Robert Levy, the former chief of the nearby Elsipogtog First Nation and now a band councillor, called Thursday "one of the ugliest days I have seen."

"This is like Egypt or something in Iraq," he said.

On Friday, the Premier appealed to New Brunswickers for calm and for blockades in other parts of the province to be taken down.

Some villagers are questioning the aggressive force used by police.

"It's intimidation," said Dan Kelly. "It's ridiculous how they are trying to show their power on everybody. They expect them not to panic? When did we stop negotiating with people?"

At a news conference on Friday, RCMP officers displayed firearms, explosive devices, including pipe bombs, and knives seized from the encampment.

Six police cars were burned in the incident and rocks were thrown. Police shot rubber bullets, pepper-sprayed the crowd, and arrested 40 protesters, including Elsipogtog Chief Aaron Sock.

Chief Sock and several others were released, some on promises to appear at a later court date.

Native protesters say they do not condone the violence – and another former Elsipogtog chief, Susan Levi-Peters, said she did not see or hear about the weapons. "As treaty warriors, the first priority is peace and safety," she said.

She did not answer when asked if the discovery of weapons has changed her view of the protest.

Nearly 900 people live in Rexton and about 2,400 in nearby Elsipogtog First Nation. It is the largest reserve in New Brunswick. The two communities get along well, working together, for example, in the commercial fishery for lobster and crab.

But the reserve has nearly 80 per cent unemployment, said Mr. Levy, a band councillor. In addition, he said, about 70 per cent of the population is under 30 years old and as many as five families are sharing some homes because of an extreme housing shortage.

His reserve, he said, has issues coming at it "from all angles." The possibility of fracking nearby – and the concern about its effects on the quality of the water – was the last straw.

"We've been pushed into such a little corner in Elsipogtog," he said. "A little postage stamp is all we have left." He says that is why there is such strong resolve to stop the shale gas exploration.

And it's not just First Nations people who are worried. Dominic LeBlanc, the MP for the area, called for a moratorium on exploration until more is known, including health risks.

He said he is worried that burning police cars and defying court orders does not help the First Nations protesters with their public relations and is obscuring their real concerns.

"It's no longer about shale gas," he said.

It is not clear how any of this will be resolved. Mr. Alward said he is committed to his energy strategy, which he believes will bring prosperity to the province.

SWN is one of nine companies in the province with licences to explore for shale gas on 1.4 million hectares of land.

In a statement on Friday, SWN said it respects citizens' right to voice their beliefs and opinions, "when conducted in a safe and lawful manner."

"Southwestern Energy has been and will continue to work closely with local authorities and community leaders to conduct our operations safely and responsibly, and in full compliance with the law of the country and province."

With a report from The Canadian Press

Interact with The Globe