By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The RCMP moved in on the anti-shale gas protest near Elsipogtog First Nation after some individuals at the site issued death threats, brandished weapons and forcibly confined security guards in a compound holding vehicles belonging to a Houston-based energy company, according to the force’s superintendent of national Aboriginal policing.
The RCMP has faced criticism from First Nations leaders across the country over last Thursday’s raid last which led to 40 arrests, the seizure of three rifles and improvised explosive devices and intense clashes between Elsipogtog residents and RCMP officers.
Supt. Tyler Bates said he didn’t agree with the criticism his force used heavy handed tactics to try and break the protest encampment which was blocking the entrance to a compound holding vehicles belonging to SWN Resources Canada. The company had been conducting shale gas exploration work in the region.
“If my life was in jeopardy and I had been threatened with harm I would expect the police to take some action to protect me,” said Bates. “There was a criminal element there that escalated matters.”
Bates did not provide details on how long the guards were trapped in the compound, what types of death threats were issued or what types of weapons were brandished. He said it was up to the RCMP’s J-Division in New Brunswick to release those details.
“We were left with no option but to intervene to protect those under threat,” said Bates.
The security guards at the compound were employed by Industrial Securities Ltd. The security company is owned by the Irving family. The Irvings, through Irving Oil, have an interest in seeing shale gas deposits developed in the province. The New Brunswick-based company sees shale gas as a cheap energy source to expand its refining capacity. Irving Oil is eyeing Alberta bitumen which could soon flow to the province if TransCanada gets approval for its proposed Energy East pipeline.
Two members of the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society, who were arrested during the raid, were released on bail Friday. The two men, Jason Augustine and David Mazerolle, face several charges including unlawful confinement, obstructing a peace officer and assaulting a peace officer.
Another member of the Warrior Society was denied bail Thursday and two others remain behind bars awaiting bail hearings including James Pictou, one of the lead spokesmen for the Warrior Society, who is also facing a charge of unlawful confinement.
The Mi’kmaq Warrior Society was in charge of security at the encampment, which still sits on Route 134, at the time of the raid. Video taken from the morning of the raid depicted RCMP officers walking into the site unencumbered. The encampment, which is in Rexton, NB, is about 15 kilometres northeast of Elsipogtog First Nation and 80 km north of Moncton.
The RCMP raid freed SWN’s vehicles.
The encampment was the latest incarnation of long-running protests, lead by Elsipogtog residents, against shale gas exploration in the region. This past summer saw nearly 30 arrests related to protests, including on June 21, Aboriginal Day.
Grassroots activists in the Mi’kmaq community fear the discovery of shale gas would lead to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which they believe threatens the environment.
SWN, however, has been courting First Nations leaders in the province for over a year. Last October, members of the Assembly of First Nations of New Brunswick Chiefs’ consultation committee visited the company’s operations in Arkansas. It remains unclear who paid for the trip.
Bates said the raid had reverberations across the country and impacted the RCMP’s ongoing relationship with First Nation communities. The RCMP is the main police force in many First Nation communities.
“Sometimes, depending on the perspective of what people choose to believe as the reality of the situation is concerned, it takes a long protracted effort to rebuild trust,” he said. “There is a level of trust that exists that we can build upon. It is unfortunate when these types of outcomes occur and there is a residual impact. The rebuilding of trust has to occur.”
Bates said the RCMP has no intention of preventing protests, but, in this circumstance, he said it was forced to act.
“There has been misinformation to suggest we would react differently to Aboriginal protests,” he said. “The response to demonstrations will continue to be a measured response. We would just encourage that things remain peaceful and that there be no unlawful activity that transpires.”
Bates said the injunction obtained by SWN against the protest played a minimal role in the RCMP’s decision to move.
“When there are injunctions by the court that prohibit protest activities, the RCMP is in a position where we apply police discretion in terms of a resolution,” he said. “We don’t unilaterally move in and executive an injunction because an injunction is issued. Our interest was not to enforce an injunction but to get parties at the table.”
Bates said the RCMP was trying to negotiate a resolution before the raid.
“There was an injunction in place for quite an extended period of time. There were negotiations and mediation and an effort to get people to the table that needed to get to the table,” he said.
First Nations protests, which have overtly historical and political elements to them, always put the RCMP in an awkward spot.
“It is not my place to point fingers at any particular party. There are differences of opinion in terms of a variety of issues, whether environmental or resource extraction. We are sometimes caught in the middle of opposing interests,” said Bates. “Unfortunately, in this instance, clearly there is progress yet to be made.”
Bates said the RCMP’s national Aboriginal policing branch was no involved in the operational details of Thursday’s raid which were handled by the commander of the RCMP’s J-Division in New Brunswick.
He stressed there was “no military involvement” during the raid.
Bates said he couldn’t comment on whether Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSET) were used in Thursday’s raid, describing the issue as an “operational” detail.
INSET teams include RCMP officers along with agents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada Border Services Agency and other federal departments.