In the fall of 2013 images of burning police cars and protesters confronted at gunpoint spread across the country as media outlets reported an RCMP crackdown on Mi’kmaq-led anti-fracking protests in Kent County, New Brunswick.
Dozens were arrested that day and in the year leading up to the state’s violent response to those who were going to great lengths to protect their land, water and air from a Texas-based oil company that was interested in doing seismic testing in the area for shale gas, and then use fracking to get it out of the ground.
But there’s much more to the story, says Miles Howe, an independent journalist with the Halifax Media Co-op who himself was arrested three times while covering the protests.
Howe and Annie Clair, a Mi’kmaq land defender from Elsipogtog First Nation who was part of the anti-fracking movement, are touring behind Howe’s new book Debreifing Elsipogtog, which documents the resistance movement and the oil industry and provincial government’s efforts to exploit unceded Mi’kmaq territory in search of riches.
“The response has been really good. We’re not living in 2004 anymore, so the knowledge of the dangers of fracking is starting to get around,” Howe said in a phone interview with The Independent Thursday from the Island’s west coast.
From New Brunswick to Newfoundland
With the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador currently awaiting the results of an external review of fracking, however, Howe and Clair say there are important lessons people in this province can take from the anti-fracking efforts in New Brunswick.
“Unfortunately I think what we wind up sharing is that notion that democracy isn’t necessarily working to our advantage where it’s been infiltrated by a large number of corporations and monied interests to the point where our so-called representatives in government are not necessarily hearing us, not necessarily hearing the people’s will,” said Howe.
“We definitely saw that in New Brunswick in the lead up to that struggle, that people were speaking out, that the majority of New Brunswickers did not want this, that the largest petition ever tabled in the provincial legislature was roundly ignored.”
Howe also said government, industry and media had neglected to acknowledge and respect Mi’kmaq treaty rights, given New Brunswick is part of Mi’kma’ki, the Mi’kmaq nation that spread across what today are N.B., Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and parts of Quebec, Maine and Newfoundland prior to European settlement.
“The importance of treaties, in terms of being able to provide a peaceful paradigm through which resistance can happen and a paradigm through which you can see this world and see this struggle specifically” is another crucial part of Howe and Clair’s message.
In Debriefing Elsipogtog, Howe also offers an in-depth look at the nature of the fracking industry, which ballooned across the United States a decade ago.
“Where does [fracking] come from? It’s birthplace down in America, and then what these companies’ track record is through the States, and the gutting of oversight at a federal level,” are all included in the book, which has been praised by notable writers such as Naomi Klein and Silver Donald Cameron.
“We see that being replicated here in Canada,” said Howe. “We’re just about a decade later.
“And then the notion of coming together as people and ultimately taking our democratic voices back — if this struggle takes three years…it’s still counted as a tentative win, or at least it still buys people time. That’s an important one, that ultimately, through all this pain and struggle, time has been bought and that this moment in time does have an impact on where we are right now in terms of provincial reviews going on across the Maritimes.”
Given the number of Mi’kmaq people living in Newfoundland, Clair hopes her message will resonate with people here, though she’s clear both First Nations and settlers equally share responsibility for protecting Mother Earth.
“As Mi’kmaq people we all need to work together and help each other. Not just Mi’kmaq people but the non-Native people as well,” she said. “And it’s not really a Native issue, it’s everybody’s issue.
“We all have to come together and we all have to help each other, and we are here to talk to the people and let them know that we don’t let the government control us and make the decisions for us, because as Mi’kmaq people we are the ones that have to stand up for what is right, and that is to protect the water, land and air for future generations to come.”
Clair was also arrested during the fracking protests when she tied herself to equipment belonging to SWN Resources, the company planning to explore for shale gas.
While the charges against Howe were dropped, Clair still faces six charges.
On the first stop of their tour Howe and Clair visited Flat Bay Tuesday to participate in a talking circle at the No’kmaq Village Band Office.
About 20 people showed up for the talking circle, and Flat Bay Vice Chief Joanne Miles said everybody left with a better understanding of fracking.
The only fracking operation ever to occur in Newfoundland happened just outside Flat Bay, where junior oil company Vulcan Minerals drilled and fracked two wells in 2004, though the government has said there is no environmental impact assessment on record.
“We spoke about…how the well was fracked, but we in the community did not know, we were not informed,” said Joanne Miles, Vice Chief of the Flat Bay Band, recounting the talking circle Tuesday evening.
“With Annie sharing her story and Miles giving us the facts, we realized that there are things that we are not aware, and of course the government is aware of but not letting us know,” she said. “So we could not do anything at that point, but we are more proactive now than we have been since we learned about fracking and about the dangers of fracking.
“But as a First Nations people, listening to Annie’s story about how her people came together — that’s true to our heart because we are First Nations as well and we know that we have to come together. We don’t want things to escalate like they did over in New Brunswick, so listening to the facts that Miles put out, and Annie’s story, certainly [gave a] better perspective to the people who came and listened to them.”
Clair said the visit to Flat Bay was a great experience, and that the people she heard from have concerns about fracking happening in or near their community.
“I’m really happy that I came here and talked to the people. I wish I could talk to the whole community. The rest of the community needs to know [about fracking] too.”
Upholding the fifth estate
Asked why he devoted so much time to covering resistance to fracking between 2011 and 2013, Howe said he saw an important story unfolding that wasn’t being told.
“A lot of journalists are doing the trade a bit of a disservice in terms of not really doing their homework into the issues, and [instead] say ‘find me one side that says this, find me one side that says that’, and then take the middle ground,” he said. “It’s not about taking a stand for anything, but it is about presenting what you know through your research.
“As journalists we need to do our homework on what we’re going to talk about in order to talk about it properly. And through doing that research, one of the main things that I’ve tried to do as a journalist in Halifax is recognize that we do live on unceded Mi’kmaq territory, that there are treaties that bind us as settlers to the indigenous populations, that those treaties are being overlooked [and] that we do have responsibilities to those treaties,” he continued.
“And then, in this context of fracking, that there exists dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies that say that this poses an imminent danger, and especially a localized danger, to our very water [supply], to our environment, to our health, to the health of the animals that we share this planet with — so when those two things intersect you’re presented with a story that, how could you turn away from that? You’re witnessing a piece of history in the making.”
Howe hopes through his book and speaking engagements with Clair the two can offer important context into the fracking resistance movement in New Brunswick and the police violence in Kent County in October 2013.
“That’s one of the things that the book tries to set straight, that the images that were getting beamed out of six burning police cars and this table full of armaments…that that is not indicative of what that movement was about — that was a very limited snapshot in time,” he said.
“I guess when you’re dealing with mainstream media in general, those are the kinds of images they feast upon, so that it’s a fire, it’s a destruction of state property that’s put above and beyond anything else. So the book, in a sense, I think is something only I could have written, in terms of being around that movement for most of the year of 2013, and having done some limited [coverage] in 2011, 2012, and then presenting it as a movement that had attempted everything possible under the sun, even in 2013, to avoid a conflict with the RCMP. And that included treaty rights, petitions, peaceful demonstrations, et cetera. So it’s certainly not aiming to endorse burning police cars, but it is an attempt to put it all into perspective that I don’t really think you’re getting anywhere else.”
Miles Howe and Annie Clair will visit the following Newfoundland communities as part of the “Debriefing Elsipogtog” book launch tour:
Miawpukek First Nation / Tuesday, June 30 — 3:30 p.m. / Miawpukek Administration Office