The New Brunswick government is challenging charges that it failed to consult with the aboriginal community about shale gas exploration and development.

That idea has been put forward by aboriginal leaders, anti-shale groups and political opponents of the Alward government as a contributing factor to the violence on the protest line in Rexton last Thursday, when 40 protesters were arrested and five police vehicles were set on fire.

On Wednesday, Premier David Alward declared his government has been engaged with First Nation communities "more than any other government in New Brunswick's history."

"The evidence is there that there has been a very significant level of consultation taking place with First Nations communities across the province," said Alward.

The New Brunswick premier is also the cabinet minister responsible for aboriginal affairs.

"I've taken that responsibility on personally and have been very engaged from Square 1," said Alward. "We've also said we need to continue with consultation."

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Energy Minister Craig Leonard disputes charges New Brunswick's Alward government hasn't sufficiently consulted the aboriginal community about shale gas exploration and development. (CBC)

In a statement released late Tuesday, Energy Minister Craig Leonard said the government "has gone above and beyond to ensure that First Nations have full details about the current program."

Leonard released a list of more than a dozen workshops and meetings that involved aboriginal communities or leaders and SWN Resources Canada dating back to July 2012. Some of the most recent initiatives listed are:

  • July 2013, an elder information session involving 23 elders representing First Nations in the Assembly of First Nation Chiefs of New Brunswick.
  • August 2013, an invitation by SWN Resources Canada to the chief and council Elsipogtog First Nation to visit Arkansas.
  • September 2013, a presentation to New Brunswick First Nations by the Indian Resource Council, a group representing First Nations involved in oil and gas production.

"We, as government, have also been consistently meeting with the chiefs and councils of New Brunswick First Nations and the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs of New Brunswick to discuss how we can ensure natural resource development provides significant economic opportunities to First Nations,” said Leonard.

Benefits to aboriginal community?

SWN Resources had been carrying out seismic testing in Kent County this summer to gauge the potential for shale gas development. The province issued a permit to SWN to carry out the testing, and the government states the seismic program "was determined by the Crown to have a negligible risk of adverse impact on Aboriginal land use or treaty rights."

It was also recommended that SWN notify the adjacent First Nations about the seismic program and compile information on the traditional use of the proposed seismic route and discuss related issues and concerns.

Further consultation with First Nations would happen if shale gas development proceeds in the province, said Leonard.

"As we have said all along, if oil and gas reserves are found through the exploration process, the government and proponents would have to enter into further consultations with First Nations to ensure that the environment was protected and that Aboriginal peoples benefited from oil and gas development, in addition to abiding by regulations such as the environmental assessment and permitting processes required by the province before any drilling or extraction was to take place."

Leonard said previously there is a "sliding scale" when it comes to its duty to consult.  And in the case of seismic testing, Leonard had maintained the duty to consult is met when the province notifies aboriginal communities that the testing is going on.

Bail hearings grind on

Meanwhile, six men arrested amid the violence in Rexton last Thursday will spend at least one more night in jail.

'Why don't you just release them and we'll go to trial?'- Susan Levi-Peters, former chief of Elsipogtog First Nation

The six face 37 charges including uttering threats, forcible confinement and obstructing a police officer. 

Their bail hearings have been proceeding for two days with no end in sight, which has their supporters upset. One of the three lawyers representing the men, Gilles Lemieux, said he's done many bail hearings and would expect these kind of charges to be dealt with in a few hours.

The Crown and the police want all six men in jail until their trial out of fears they will get involved in a revival of the protest.​ 

About 40 people, many from Elsipogtog First Nation, came to show support for the accused. Former chief Susan Levi-Peters said the delays are a way of punishing them.

"It's too long," she told CBC News outside the Moncton Law Courts. "This is the seventh day the boys, the men, have been incarcerated … It's like a delay tactic or something. I even told the Crown that this morning. Why don't you just release them and we'll go to trial?"

Non-native protesters were also upset. Peter Dauphinee said the police want to send a message, "to scare the protesters. 'People that want to protest, stay away.'"

Both the Crown and the police say they're not allowed to do interviews. 

There is a publication ban on the Crown's arguments, but the judge repeatedly said their evidence wasn't very relevant.