The possibility of a shale gas industry in New Brunswick is drawing a mixed response from the province's First Nations communities. 

There is concern about the impact of the industry on the environment and the level of consultation the provincial government has had with First Nations communities in New Brunswick.

Harry LaPorte, the Grand Chief of the Maliseet Grand Council, said he is concerned about the effects drilling and the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, which is used to extract natural gas from shale formations, could have on the province's water supply.

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Harry LaPorte, the Grand Chief of the Maliseet Grand Council, said he is worried about the impact shale gas development could have on the province's water supply. ((CBC))

"It has a tendency to leak into our wells, our drinking water, our lakes, our streams, our rivers," LaPorte said of the mix of water, sand and chemicals used in the process.

"And the things, the chemicals that they pump in to Mother Earth to cause this fracking, leaks out into our water. You know, our water is life, right? Nothing lives without water, so if our waters are contaminated that means no life around."

Angee Acquin, a member of the St. Mary's First Nation near Fredericton, said she agrees with LaPorte's concerns over the water supply.

She helped construct a large teepee on the front lawn of the provincial legislature the day of its opening session.

"This is our traditional grounds right here in downtown Fredericton," she said.

"We as First Nations people, we have a responsibility to Mother Earth, below the four inches that other people might own. We have a responsibility to be caretakers to the Earth."

Consultation concerns

St. Mary's Chief Candice Paul said she's heard from many members of her community who share Acquin's concerns.

But she also raises a different concern, the lack of government consultation.

The province is legally obligated to hold meaningful consultations with First Nations people before developments like shale gas can go ahead.

Paul said that hasn't happened, and is calling on the government to cancel all existing exploration licences, and come back to the table with First Nations.

"We're sending a message that we, you know, never surrendered our lands, and that we need to sit down and discuss what is going to take place," she said.

"And if it's dangerous or harmful to our environment, as all New Brunswickers, this needs to be brought forward."

Paul said if the provincial government doesn't consult, it could end up in court.

That could delay the development of any future shale gas industry.

Ken Coates, an expert on aboriginal rights in Canada, said if a court finds there wasn't adequate consultation, it can stop exploration, development and exploitation of resources, and force consultations with First Nations to start over.

"Out west people just do these things as a matter of course now," he said.

"It's only been less than a decade when this duty to consult has been in place, but the companies figured it out pretty darn fast ... You have to be prepared, if you get challenged, if the people have identified some really serious problems and you as a company or a government haven't taken them into account, then the courts are going to be a bit concerned."

Coates said the Maritimes are still a little bit late at coming to many of these kinds of aboriginal empowerment processes. He said the Maritime provinces haven't had the same history of engagement as other parts of Canada.

Economic opportunities

There are some First Nations people, though, who are wondering about the possibility of jobs and revenue.

Roger Augustine, the regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, representing New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, said there is a division within the community.

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He said he realizes that some enviromentalists are staging protests.

"Some of the chiefs are saying, 'OK, fine, but we need some scientific evidence that this has taken place.' We want to know if, in fact, this process has created some of the situations that are now being talked about contaminating the water, and the long-term effects of the environment," Augustine said.

"And then there's the others, who now are saying 'OK, what about the economic benefits?' Can we take a look at, for example, in different parts of Canada that are now involved, and there's a lot of concerns there, but I also know in some parts of Alberta, the First Nations are conducting business with mining companies that use the fracking system."

Elsipogtog Chief Jesse Simon, who is also the co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs in New Brunswick, is one who shares this view.

He said he agrees with the philosophy that First Nations people haven't been properly consulted or accomodated throughout the process.

But he's also waiting to collect information on possible economic and environmental effects, should a shale gas industry take off in the next few years.

"We don't want to get to that point and say, 'Let's do something about it now,'" he said.

"We're going to probably do it a lot earlier, demand more from what we rightfully think is ours in terms of the extraction of natural resources before it even gets to that point.  And who knows, it might not even continue on. We might see this whole thing as just a bad thing for everyone, and decide just to take an extreme stand on it. Or we might just say 'if it's going to happen, then at least we'd like to have some control mechanisms in place that it won't hurt the water, that it won't hurt the land, that we have some major decision-making on the whole process."