In recent months, there have been protests against shale gas operations near Rexton, New Brunswick. Residents of the area have been trying to prevent an American resource company from drilling exploratory wells and carrying out 2D seismic imaging that will determine if underground shale beds contain so-called “natural” gas. If there is gas, SWN Resources Canada Inc. (which is owned by Southwestern Energy Company, based in Houston, Texas), would use hydraulic fracturing – known as “fracking” – to extract the gas.
Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of pressurized, chemically treated water into shale rock. The fluid, injected up to two miles underground, creates or widens cracks in the rocks, freeing methane gas. Each frack uses millions of gallons of water laden with hundreds of different chemicals. Resource companies don’t have to disclose the chemicals they use because of patent protections, but scientists have identified the presence of carcinogenic compounds such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. Protestors say that fracking leads to human and animal illness, as well as the contamination of underground and above-ground sources of drinking water due to faulty well construction and spills. Contaminated water from fracking has been identified in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, and Ohio, and residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania, can light their tap water on fire due to post-fracking methane contamination.
Concern about fracking is rising throughout the United States and the practice has been banned in France. There is currently a moratorium on fracking in Quebec and Newfoundland. The Council of Canadians is calling for a country-wide halt on fracking operations in Canada. Fracking is clearly one of the most important environmental issues of our time – yet the situation in New Brunswick is being portrayed in the media as an Aboriginal issue rather than an environmental issue. The Toronto Sun describes the situation near Rexton as a “violent First Nations protest,” and canada.com (which is owned by Postmedia, the parent company of the National Post) calls it a “First Nations anti-fracking blockade.” The protestors have been described as “First Nations demonstrators” by The Globe and Mail.
Although the Rexton protest is near the Mi’Kmaq community of Elsipogtog/Big Cove and residents of that community are taking part, in fact, the protest has been organized and attended by a mixed group of New Brunswick residents and Canadian citizens with the support of various non-profit and non-governmental agencies and faith communities. This is an important distinction. When media portray the issue as an Aboriginal issue, they are creating and playing into the “What do the Indians want now?” stereotype that portrays Aboriginal peoples as constant complainers living off the government trough. By relegating an important environmental issue to the Aboriginal fringe, it shifts the focus away from corporate power and citizen control – also the issue with Bill C-45, by the way, which sparked the Idle No More movement – and into a place where many Canadians feel they don’t want to or don’t have to get involved. The truth is, Canada has been undergoing a significant shift over the past 25 years, with free trade deals and legislation such as Bill C-45 giving more control to business interests. The issues in Rexton, New Brunswick – of corporate versus citizen control, and of the effect industry has on communities and the environment – are of the utmost importance to all Canadians. In essence, then, Aboriginal peoples are on the forefront of defending the rights of all Canadians – although you wouldn’t know it, given media portrayals.
Non-Aboriginal protestor Dallas McQuarrie, writing for a New Brunswick-based blog, says that the Rexton protest has “united English, French, and First Nations peoples around a single issue, something rarely seen here. Many businesses have anti-shale gas signs in their windows. The Catholic church where I attend … has ‘stop shale gas’ signs on its doors. The New Brunswick College of Family Physicians is calling for a moratorium on shale gas development. The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has expressed serious concern. … The opposition to shale gas is home grown. The protestors are the folks one sees at farmers’ markets every summer. Demonstrations seem like family reunions with parents, grandparents, and children much in evidence, along with teachers from nearby schools, local business people, doctors, clergy, and even elected officials.”
The Rexton protest has garnered widespread public support outside of New Brunswick. Public rallies opposing fracking have taken place in Vancouver, Victoria, Whitehorse, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Sault Ste. Marie, Kenora, Windsor, Ottawa, Iqaluit, Montreal, Moncton, and around the world in Chicago, New York City, Paris, the Netherlands, and Houston, Texas (home of fracking company SWN). Groups as diverse as the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the NDP, the Canadian Nurses Association, and the Ontario Federation of Labour have expressed public support for the protestors. And the second annual Global Frackdown: An International Day to Stop Fracking took place on October 19, 2013, with worldwide events such as film screenings, assemblies, and protests.
Fracking isn’t just an Aboriginal issue – it’s about all of us and the world we want to live in. As John Levi, the warrior chief at Elsipogtog, said to the Christian Peacemakers Team, which attended the Rexton protest and wrote about it on their website, “We have to protect our waters. We can’t live without water. The water flows into the streams, the streams flow into the rivers, the rivers flow into the ocean. Water is a gift from the creator, and should remain that way.”
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the U.S.-based Centre for Science and Democracy, recently wrote about fracking on the Union of Concerned Scientists blog. In his post, he says, “Industrial development isn’t set off and removed from the public, it is in our midst. A power plant, refinery, chemical plant, or fracking operation is situated where people live, and so the traffic, noise, pollution, as well as the jobs confront communities every day and we can’t pretend it is only about jobs or indeed only about pollution. A fracking operation may be on public or private land, but where is the truck traffic, where do the air emissions go, where do the workers live, where does the water come from, and where does the waste water go?”
Clearly, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples are speaking the same language. So why, you might ask, do media and government continue to position the Rexton protest as an Aboriginal issue? And why do journalists such as the National Post’s Christie Blatchford continue to write stories about how First Nations receive millions in government funding but “can’t handle [their] own financial house”? Because the creation of exclusionary ideology, the construction of “us” and “them” identities that accentuate differences, and the depiction of the targeted group as unworthy or inferior so as to justify action against the group are essential ingredients in what the U.N. refers to as “the framework for genocide.” Colonialism is just another word for capitalism, and Aboriginal peoples have always been in the way.
Rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada and by lower courts mean that government and corporations have a duty to consult and accommodate Aboriginal peoples when development is considered on their land – even when the land in question is non-reserve traditional land. Given that all land in Canada is indigenous land, this works in favour of all Canadians. Support indigenous sovereignty, and you support the ability of all Canadians to have control over what goes on in their communities.
Aboriginal peoples have always been ready to defend the land – and as we see in Rexton, New Brunswick, non-Aboriginal peoples are standing alongside them.