“We built little teepees in third grade history class. No mention that the real thing was just down the road. I grew up not many miles from the reservation. Never knew it was there.” Pamela took a drag on the morning’s fourth cigarette, and poured another cup of coffee. We were sitting in her rambling farmhouse in Rosaireville, New Brunswick, her at the kitchen counter, computer open, Peter, Garrett and I at a small table piled with kitchen items on the run from the mice. Her typing punctuated the endless storytelling. “That was the real meaning of the shale gas stuff for me. First Nations people, especially the women, led the way. They’re braver than white folk groups. In some ways they have nothing left to lose, in others, they have everything at stake.”
Ten thousand people like what Pam has to say. As Chair of the Council of Canadians Moncton Chapter and the founder of Moncton Anti-Fracking, it was through Facebook that she shared with the world much of the story of six months of vibrant resistance to natural gas exploration in Kent County. “Social media played a huge role to help gather people, supplies, and report sightings of the frackers.” She and Peter spent much of the latter half of 2013 living alongside hundreds of others at four protest camps on unceded Mi’kmaq territory near Elsipogtog First Nation, not far north of where he lives and works at a small software company in Moncton. All were there indignant, resolute in their conviction that Southwestern Resources (SWN), North America’s fifth largest natural gas extraction company, has no right to defile the land and water they call home. The night we met, over drinks in Moncton, I asked Peter how he likes the city where he has raised his two sons. “I didn’t much for a long time,” he said, and looked over to Pam. “Since getting involved with activism, I love it. These have been the most exciting times of my life.”
It was to an unassuming house in Elsipogtog that Pam and Peter brought us the following morning to meet some of their comrades from the shale gas protests. Kopit Lodge’s screened-in back porch looks out over a small garden to the Richibucto River, home to the Lodge’s namesake, the beaver, wetland creator and cleanser of fresh water, as well as the salmon whose habitat the beaver’s work supports. Kopit Lodge is the home at Elsipogtog for warriors similarly working to peacefully protect the water, formed after the 2013 protests to continue building the community needed to organize for the long haul. “We used to drive up these roads to the farmhouse and think nothing of it. Now we have all these memories after living on them for the summer,” Pam said, as we drove towards Elsipogtog. “Right here was where we stopped the first few days of the seismic thumper trucks doing their testing. The drivers seemed happy to get to go home early for the weekend. They all laughed when we asked if they wanted next week off too.”
We pulled over many times on our way north, each time the four of us and two dogs getting out of the car to look around a non-descript field or patch of land beside the road. Each place held the weight of many a memory. Pam and Peter walked amidst people, structures and moments that we could not see but for their stories, eagerly told. “Here was the cook tent,” or the sacred fire, or the police confrontation, Peter would say. “We had more food, better food, than you can imagine. Some people couldn’t be here, couldn’t sleep here, but my they could cook. Others brought tents and sleeping bags. One night we collected $360 in coffee can passed around to keep the port-a-potty here. The support was overwhelming.” Another field held the skeleton of a longhouse, birch saplings bent and bound around the former heart of the community. “The police started dumping rotting roadkill in that field just over there. They wanted the stench to drive us away, or maybe the scavenging bears. Most of us stayed.” But when SWN filed an injunction against the protestors, a lawyer informed those involved that they risked losing their home should they choose to stay. Pam shook her head. “Many of the white people disappeared.”
Pam pulled back a hefty conifer branch to reveal the remains of the final camp. A naked teepee, a toppling lean-to, stumps from which road-blocking trees fell. It was here that the summer of resistance burst into international consciousness in mid-October. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived one early morning with riot gear, pepper spray, sock round shotguns, rubber bullets and attack dogs. Peter pointed to the hollow ditch across the road. “They were waiting in there, all lined up for when the protestors woke up.” On the gray summer’s day we were there, it was hard to imagine. “Since when did the police act as a private security force for a foreign corporation?” he added. The camp had been situated around a temporary compound Texas-based SWN had built on land leased from the Irving Corporation to safeguard their trucks. “We found them there and promised we would only let them out if we could escort them to the border.” A van was parked across the entrance, around which a cookhouse rose and a sacred fire was lit. Drumming, storytelling, eating, community-building, all continued late into the night, most every night. People flooded in from all over the country, inspired by the insistent resistance of three formerly disparate groups. “It was beautiful, seeing us Anglophones, the Acadians and First Nations people all working together. There is still lots of racism in New Brunswick, however, even among people we used to consider friends.”
Other white people gathered alternating Sundays in Moncton for strategic planning and letter writing. “‘Just get out there and do something!’ I wanted to yell at them,” Peter said. “What use is strategic planning… The trucks weren’t stopped by a letter in the newspaper. They were stopped by the courageous people who chose to stand their ground out here.” Halted repeatedly by song, prayer, crowds and creative obstruction, SWN completed only 40% of the seismic testing they had planned to do. Nine months later the conservative government lost the provincial general election by a landslide on a pro-fracking platform. It was hard for us to conceptualize of extreme energy as a campaign topic at all, yet commentators described the election as essentially a referendum on fracking. The newly-elected liberals quickly passed a moratorium. The victory surely demonstrated the power of direct action to elevate consciousness of an issue to a level that demands political results. But “it’s a sortatorium, really,” Pam warned us. “We’ll be back out here and ready to stop their construction if and when the government changes their mind.”
Driving from the last camp towards Elsipogtog the stories kept flowing. “We haven’t had the chance to tell these to anyone yet,” they had warned us at the bar the night before. Pam rolled into another without a breath, recounting one time a man told her “you guys would have been better off without those indians,” at another shale gas rally. “I lost it. ‘What did you just say?’ I shouted at him, he swore at me, and I swore back and he backed off and left. How dare he talk about anyone like that,” she seethed. Someone started filming the shouting match, and the footage made its way to to a St Mary’s First Nation artist named Jay Paul. “He thanked me, and gave me an eagle feather carved out of wood. I’ll treasure it forever.” An eagle feather had become the symbol of the summer’s protests when lifted overhead by a kneeling First Nations woman before a line of riot police that fateful day in October. The photograph was shared around the world.
On the wall of Kopit Lodge’s screened porch is tacked an old map of northeastern canoe routes, along which shale gas protest veteran Gary Simon ran his finger to show us his own long journey undertaken at our age, thirty some years ago. A group of friends canoed from Boston home to New Brunswick, exercising their rights as First Nations people to cross freely over arbitrary international boundaries. Warrior Chief John Levi spoke lovingly of rivers too, his life as a salmon fisherman necessarily intertwined with protection of all water. “She’s the only one of you telling the truth about where she’s from,” he added, pointing at me. Conversation turned to a group of Mi’kmaq grandmothers settling in at a camp near the proposed Sisson Brook tungsten and molybdenum mine north of Fredericton. “No one can fight against grandmothers,” Pam said, between drags on a hand-rolled cigarette. A half hour passed while I sipped hot black tea and listened to further strategizing and reminiscing, heads nodding as Pam spun another yarn. Gary had left for home but soon returned with a neatly folded Mi’kmaq Grand Council flag. A gift for us, for our journey, his last remaining from the many that flew at the protest camps that summer. I shivered, humbled by newfound responsibility. We shall fly it in Paris.