Civil disobedience last resort for shale gas protesters

The executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada is supporting New Brunswick demonstrators who have blocked seismic testing trucks during protests against shale gas exploration and development.

Sierra Club says government and companies have left protesters with no choice

John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, says government and industry have left citizens opposed to shale gas development with no choice but civil disobedience. (CBC)
The executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada is supporting New Brunswick demonstrators who have blocked seismic testing trucks during protests against shale gas exploration and development. 

John Bennett says the Sierra Club's policy does not permit civil disobedience, but the board is currently in discussions to lift its ban.

"Because of the way government in Ottawa and elsewhere across the country have been behaving in terms of limiting our ability to participate in environmental decisions and limiting the people's ability to say no when they have good reasons for refusing industrial development," said Bennett.

In a survey of its members, Bennett says 94 per cent of 1890 respondents said the Sierra Club of Canada should consider using civil disobedience.

Bennett says it's no surprise that protesters in New Brunswick are resorting to civil disobedience. He says it is the final option for people who want to defy an unjust law or draw attention to one.

"It's no different what's happening in New Brunswick than what happened in the United States when black people were required to sit at the back of the bus and they walked up to the front of the bus and sat there. That was against the law. Was it wrong? I don't think so."

RCMP officer talks to shale gas protesters in Kent County earlier this month. (CBC)
Bennett believes civil disobedience is "absolutely" appropriate in Kent County where protests have been going on for more than a week.

On Friday 12 protesters were arrested after blocking seismic testing trucks on Route 126.

"This is being imposed upon a community and imposed upon a First Nation without their permission and there has to be limits to what the government can do and what industry can do to force people to accept something that they don't want to accept." 

Bennett says New Brunswickers have done everything they can to convince the provincial government to stop the shale gas industry but no one is listening.

"It's the last tactic, it's not the first tactic, you know everything is done properly in New Brunswick," said Bennett.

"There have been public meetings, there have been petition campaigns, there have been protests, people have clearly communicated to the government their refusal to accept this new technology being imposed upon them and what else can they do at this stage? There are no legal ways of doing this."

'Duty to Consult' Questioned

Bennett says the provincial government has also failed to listen to its First Nations people.

Elsibogtog's chief has come out publically against seismic testing and shale gas development, and many of the protesters on Route 126 are aboriginal.

"They haven't even followed the proper consultation process with First Nations which is something that's in the Canadian Constitution so who is breaking the law here," Bennett asked.

The position of the New Brunswick government is that there is a "sliding scale" when it comes to its duty to consult.

Energy Minister Craig Leonard has said that the provincial Aboriginal Affairs secretariat has determined that the level of "duty" depends on the activity.

In the case of seismic testing, Leonard says the province has determined that the duty to consult requirement has been met when the province notifies aboriginal communities that the testing is going on.

Ken Coates holds a Canada Research Chair in social innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and has studied aboriginal rights in the Maritimes.

"First Nations engagement in the resource sector is a wonderful, wonderful thing," Coates said. "It will change the way we actually see both first nations and resource development."

He says the protests in Kent County show how governments and companies are still getting used to newly recognized aboriginal rights when it comes to natural resource development.

"Canadians will find out that First Nations people make great partners because they're not antagonistic, they're not opposed to development automatically."

Coates says consultation isn't enough and it's important that governments negotiate agreements with First Nations.

He says New Brunswick is only now getting a taste of what other parts of the country have gone through in the past couple of years, citing a recent $600 million agreement over uranium development, between the community of English River in northern Saskatchewan and the companies Cameco and Areva.