Elsipogtog: an opportunity to rebuild trust

This week’s blog is written by Christina Farnsworth, MCC representative for the Maritimes. She is based in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Friendship seems too to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel faction as their worst enemy; and when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.  – Aristotle, Nichomanean Ethics, Book VIII, translated by W.D. Ross

The well-being gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada has not narrowed over the last several years, treaty and aboriginals claims remain persistently unresolved, and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among aboriginal peoples toward government at both the federal and provincial levels. – James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Statement upon conclusion of the visit to Canada, October 15, 2013

In a blog posted here in September, I reflected on the importance of bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples together to work out how we can live in peace and friendship. The need for peace and friendship has arisen still more urgently as I have reviewed coverage of the recent confrontation at Elsipogtog and the Sacred Fire Encampment near Rexton, NB.

KAIROS Elsipogtog

Mi’Kmaq Elder Billy Lewis and members of the Halifax KAIROS cluster participate in a solidarity event on fracking. New Brunswick, June 2013. Photo courtesy of KAIROS.

Since July, a coalition of Mi’Kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Acadian and other Maritimers has gathered to protest against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick. On October 17th, the RCMP moved in to enforce an injunction to remove protestors who had been blocking access to SWN Resources equipment since September 29th. The situation deteriorated into violence with the RCMP using non-lethal force and pepper spray. Five RCMP vehicles were burned by the protestors, and it is reported that some protesters threw Molotov cocktails at officers.

Aristotle says, “When men are friends they have no need of justice,” and this sentiment is echoed in the Bible when Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:30). If we loved our neighbours and cared for them and their interests as much as we care for our own, would we need to be reminded by laws to listen to those who are struggling to make their voices heard?

The media has been full of images of burning police vehicles, police snipers, Elders and Indigenous People facing off with lines of RCMP officers. If we focus on the events of October 17th exclusively, I believe that we will miss a greater reality and opportunity: there is a legacy of struggle and distrust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous People in Canada; and we have the chance to build new bridges if we choose to engage in respectful dialogue around our differences.

The Sacred Fire Encampment has brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to peacefully protest shale gas exploration (also known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) and industry in New Brunswick. When I visited the encampment this past July, I met people of all ages and walks of life who share concern for the environment and have worked together to make their concerns known. Much of the proposed fracking is on traditional Mi’Kmaq territory, including that of Elsipogtog First Nation; it should be noted that no land was ceded by Indigenous Peoples in the Peace and Friendship Treaties of the 1700s.

We cannot reduce what was over three months a non-violent protest uniting New Brunswickers of all backgrounds to a face-off between Indigenous People and the RCMP. As Canadians and as Christians, we need to be asking how we can re-build trust, how we can ensure that all involved are heard and valued.

We also need to be cognizant that this protest is speaking to two issues. One is a deep concern around the protection of the environment; the other confronts a lack of awareness of Aboriginal rights and responsibilities related to land and resources. This is not the first time Canadians have witnessed dramatic events that link these two issues. Some have referenced Oka when talking about the October 17th altercation. Others have pointed to the Ipperwash Inquiry Report as a resource that could have been useful in averting the violence. If we truly want to be inclusive, honourable and selfless as a country, as Governor General David Johnston described Canada in his recent Speech from the Throne, we cannot allow ourselves to write off legitimate problems because of the methods that were used to highlight them.

After he wrapped up his recent nine day visit, James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, noted in his Statement upon conclusion of the visit to Canada that “resource extraction should not occur on lands subject to aboriginal claims without adequate consultations with and the free, prior and informed consent of the aboriginal peoples concerned.” Until the question of rights over land and resources is addressed, how can we discuss the use of resources in good faith? And are we as Canadians requiring that our governments and our industries meet the requirement of free and informed consent before beginning any development on Indigenous lands?

Our society is deeply divided with fear, misunderstanding and a lack of safe space for dialogue. Elsipogtog, and other contexts like it, provides a new opportunity for creating such space, bridging gaps of mistrust and fear, and building a reconciled community. It offers a possibility for deeper and more just friendships.

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