Elsipogtog epic: How a tribe’s fight against an energy company caught fire
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a grassroots movement rarely catches the attention of the media until a car is on fire.
There were several cars on fire on Oct. 17, 2013, and for a few days the world was interested in what was happening in a remote part of New Brunswick. Media attention moved on, as it does, but the story it left behind is worth revisiting.
Partly, it’s just a great tale — of how a small First Nations tribe allied with locals and faraway sympathizers to throw a major wrench into a big energy company’s plans to explore for natural gas. Beyond that, it’s also representative of a host of new regional battles over pipelines, rail networks, and refineries across the U.S. and Canada. They’re being fought by small bands of people who, in may cases, do not even consider themselves environmentalists. Together, they have large implications for global energy markets and climate change.
Five months before October, and the burning cars, political organizers began to arrive in the area occupied by the Elsipogtog tribe, at the invitation of Elsipogtog Warrior Chief John Levi. Among them was Chris Sabas Shirazi. She was there not as a climate or fracking activist but for social justice reasons: she had trained in nonviolent direct action and had a law background and an interest in aboriginal rights. The Elsipogtog, who were part of the Míkmaq tribe, lived in territory that was so remote that it had never been ceded to the Canadian government. The closest thing the Canadians had to a paper trail was a Peace and Friendship Treaty that the group’s chief had signed with the British in 1761, before Canada even existed.
This meant that Canada saw Elsipogtog as part of New Brunswick, Big Cove Reserve No. 15, and New Brunswick saw itself as definitely in a position to grant exploration licenses to Southwestern Natural Resources (SWN), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Houston-based Southwestern Energy Company, in exchange for an investment of $47 million in the district. But the Elsipogtog thought they had a pretty good case that the only group who could hand out licenses to SWN to explore for gas reserves were the Elsipogtog themselves.
The Elsipogtog weren’t interested in handing out leases to anyone. Abandoned infrastructure from the energy industry continues to haunt some First Nation communities, and they decided the risk of compromising their water supply was not worth any temporary reduction in the tribe’s 32 percent unemployment rate. And so the Elsipogtog focused their opposition on a dual approach — litigation in civil court and direct action in their own backyard. SWN was already on the move that summer, drilling test holes, setting off explosive charges, and laying out geophones (devices that record the vibrations generated by said explosions) in order to map the geology of the area.
Under those circumstances, direct action wasn’t easy. The test crews were moving around a lot, and so activists spent a lot of time just looking for crews to confront directly. Once they found their confrontation, they had to argue with the Mounties called in by SWN to arrest the protesters — and make the case that the energy company was the party that was breaking the law here.
Much of the footage of Elsipogtog protests was shot by Shirazi, and in its early form, there is much Mountie-arguing, with what appear to be SWN employees quickly moving out of view of the camera. One memorable interchange in July is between a lone protester in yellow rain boots who has tied herself to a pile of geophones. “My name is Pocahontas,” she says, archly. “I’m here to save my land and my water.”
When the Mounties arrive and ask her to untie herself and leave the geophones alone, they are clearly on a first-name basis already. “Come on, Anna,” one of them says. She gives each officer a handful of tobacco and asks them, repeatedly, to stop shoving and roughing up protesters. “You guys are supposed to be here protecting us,” she says. “Not the SWN. This is our water.”
“You’ve got to understand,” says one of the officers. “We’re not here to protect anybody.”
“No laying on anyone like that again,” she says firmly. “When you cops take that tobacco down, you’re promising me.”
“We have a job to do,” one of them says, apologetically. “I hope you understand that too. I abide by the law. I have to do what I’m told to do.”
Things got tense enough in July that both SWN and the Elsipogtog mutually agreed to step back for a month. SWN would stop exploring for reserves, and the Elsipotog would stop tying themselves to things. When September rolled around, SWN returned with Thumper Trucks.
It’s not entirely clear why SWN did this. Earlier seismic testing equipment had been moved in and out of the area by helicopter. Thumper Trucks — which are mounted with a large metal foot that pounds the ground over and over, creating sound waves that can be picked up by geophones — were strictly ground-based, and their arrival was a strategic boon for the Elsipogtog: All the trucks were parked at a single rental lot, meaning that a well-organized group could simply block the road out of the lot and prevent the trucks from leaving.
That is exactly what, on Sept. 30, the Elisipogtog proceeded to do. On Oct. 1, Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock issued an eviction notice to SWN Resources. As word got around that a group of Míkmaq were holding gas exploration trucks hostage, more and more people appeared at the blockade.
Sometimes movements that are genuinely local also turn out to have wider implications that catch the attention of idealists further afield. This was proving to be one of them. Elsipogtog was already collaborating with the Acadian community that also lived in the area, and groups like Upper Environment Watch and the Míkmaq Warrior Society, but other people began to appear as well: representatives from other First Nations tribes. Mennonites. Random curious onlookers.
Living at the blockade was a struggle against boredom, and so people traded stories to pass the time. For the first time, Shirazi found herself talking about her faith: She had been raised Quaker; as an adult, she became an Episcopalian and joined Christian Peacemaker Teams. She was attracted to the group for the same reasons that made it appeal to Warrior Chief Levi in organizing the fight against SWN: It only goes where invited, it leaves when asked, and it doesn’t proselytize. “Honestly, with First Nations, Christianity has a lot to apologize for,” she says. “Children ripped from their families, put in state-run schools, forced to convert. People are wary for a reason.”
As the blockade dragged on, SWN sought, and won, an injunction against the Elsipogtog, claiming that the blockade was costing it $54,000 every day its trucks idled. The injunction meant that the Mounties could break up the blockade at any time, and as the weeks dragged on and more Mounties gathered, a raid was clearly in the works. Early on Oct. 17, a day before the injunction was set to expire, a group of heavily armed RCMP arrived at the blockade and ordered the protesters to disperse.
When they refused, the Mounties fired rubber bullets and pepper spray into the crowd and arrested 40 people, while SWN drove away with the Thumper Trucks. In one video, a line of Mounties, looking extremely armed and extremely uncomfortable, walk past a man who is kneeling in front of them and holding up an offering of tobacco. The camera pans past the Mounties, and the screaming crowd confronting them, to a cloud of smoke rising in the distance.
“I was there when it happened,” says Shirazi. “People were trying to say it was provocateurs. But it was very angry young men. They had just found out that Chief Arren Sock was going to be arrested. They were smashing the windows of police cars and throwing in what looked like Molotov cocktails.”
Suddenly, Elsipogtog was international news — though what effect the publicity had on their cause remains to be seen. A few, smaller protests continued to erupt. A group returned to the blockade site, even though the Thumper Trucks were gone. The site wasn’t owed by SWN; it had been leased from the Irving family, a local family who had made their fortune in the oil and timber business.
SWN filed a lawsuit against 13 of the protesters, seeking $650,000 in damages as a result of the protests. Its exploration was taking so long, it said, that it would have to return in 2014 to finish. It had already spent at least $20 million in New Brunswick, SWN added, including what it described as “a large and expensive” security team to protect its equipment.
The Elsipogtog raised money to file their own injunction against SWN, but struggled over how to frame their argument. SWN could claim immediate financial hardship when the Elsipogtog interfered with its gas exploration; how could the Elsipogtog quantify the dollar value the tribe stood to lose if they failed to keep the landscape the way it was? Was the tribe’s lawyer, the former assemblyman T.J. Burke, most famous for spontaneously rapping the chorus to the song “Pants on the Ground” at a Conservative opponent, too much of a political insider to push the tribe’s case hard enough? Insiders argued that Burke’s injunction was too narrow in its scope; it failed to raise the issue of the Elsipogtog’s territorial claims, which would bestow land rights under (seemingly valid but widely ignored) rulings of the Canadian Supreme Court in the late ’90s.
A week later, on Nov. 18, a judge ruled on the case after only 20 minutes of deliberation. The Elsipogtog’s injunction was denied. Protesters continued to block Highway 134. The RCMP continued to arrest them. Activists continued to visit the former site of the blockade, and talked about it as a test case for activism against the Northern Gateway pipeline.
On Friday, Dec. 6, SWN announced that it had completed its seismic testing. Within a few days, it was gone. It would not be back in 2014 after all. 2015, maybe. A hasty retreat, said some — the company probably hadn’t even finished. An attempt to wait for the opposition to die down, said others.
Shirazi, meanwhile, is back in Toronto in January to think out a legal strategy with a group of lawyers, including Elsipogtog elder Kenneth Francis. She’s hoping the world will continue to watch this story — even without the lure of flaming-auto footage.