Indigenous leaders warn of protests, halting developments over shale gas exemption
'It is our job to ensure the protection of lands and waters for our future generations': Chief Ross Perley
Top Indigenous leaders are warning that the Higgs government has made "a serious mistake" on shale gas that may reignite protests like those seen in the Rexton area in 2013.
They say the province's duty to consult Indigenous people is clearly defined, and the government should have known how to proceed as it tries to restart the industry in one part of the province.
"It's not as if this is all new," said Roger Augustine, the regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. "The blueprint is there."
"There's a lot of case law," said Chief George Ginnish of Natoaganeg First Nation. "There are actual court cases. ... If he needs clarity, we'll certainly provide clarity if that's what he needs."
Augustine said the Progressive Conservative government's decision to lift the moratorium on fracking in the Sussex area risks alarming members of First Nations communities.
"When a reckless voice speaks out, be it the premier or the prime minister, they should realize what could happen, what it causes in communities," he said. "Once we've got outrage out there, and we've got roadblocks, we've got cars burned."
He was referring to anti-shale gas protests near Elsipogtog First Nation in 2013 that saw violent confrontations between protestors and police.
Ginnish warned that Mi'kmaq chiefs may pursue "whatever remedies might be available to us otherwise, legally" following the snub.
"In a partnership approach, you talk to your partners before you make a decision, not after," said Ginnish, who co-chairs Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Inc., made up of the nine Mi'kmaq bands in the province.
"You would think going forward a new government would want to build a good relationship and perhaps learn from the mistakes of the past."
Higgs given instructions
This week Premier Blaine Higgs revealed that his cabinet had approved an order to end the moratorium in one part of the province. It would allow Corridor Resources to resume fracking its wells near Penobsquis, in the Sussex area.
Higgs said he met with Augustine last week to discuss the issue. Augustine told CBC News on Friday that he's unhappy that Higgs told reporters, even after their meeting, that the duty to consult is "vague" and "undefined."
He said he left notes with the premier after the meeting explaining how the duty to consult — laid out in several Supreme Court of Canada decisions on resource development projects — should work.
And he said that begins with Higgs saying publicly in the legislature that he honours and respects Aboriginal and treaty rights as laid out in the 1982 Constitution.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jake Stewart sounded a conciliatory note at the legislature Friday, acknowledging that "there's lots of questions today on whether or not we did it wrong."
Stewart has said repeatedly this week that he recognizes Aboriginal treaties and Aboriginal rights, and he committed again Friday to meeting with chiefs and inviting them to lay out how they want consultations to unfold.
"As tricky as that issue it, that's a good starting point to at least get the consultation process right," he said. "Maybe this is the reset we need to sit down and say, 'How can we define this? How would you like this to go?'"
Augustine said it's not too late for a reset. He said he has offer to assemble Indigenous representatives to talk to provincial officials about the process.
But he wouldn't say whether communities would ever consent to shale gas development. "That's down the road," he said.
The government said there's a potential investment of $70 million if Corridor can restart its fracking near Penobsquis, but no new development is likely before 2021.
The Opposition Liberals, who brought in the provincial moratorium when they were in power, say the PC government has gone against the definition of the duty to consult from a 2010 Supreme Court decision.
That ruling said that the duty arises "when the Crown has knowledge, real or constructive, of the potential existence of the Aboriginal right or title and contemplates conduct that might adversely affect it."
'Happened over and over'
Augustine, who has been dealing with governments on resource issues for four decades, said he warned SWN Resources before they began seismic testing in 2013 that they needed to follow a consultation process.
"Every protest that I've seen across the country has already been the industry thinking they can just plow their way through the territory and pay no attention to the rights of the people, pay no attention to the history and culture of our people," he said.
"That was a big mistake and that's what happened over and over again."
Stewart maintained Friday that until cabinet approved the order to exempt the Sussex area from the moratorium, there was not much to consult on.
But he said he and Energy and Resource Development Minister Mike Holland were set to meet four Mi'kmaq chiefs and an elder later the same day.
Wolastoqey Nation opposition
In a statement released Friday by the Wolostoqey Nation, comprised of St. Mary's, Woodstock, Madawaska, Oromocto, Tobique and Kingsclear First Nations, leaders denounced the "shocking, unacceptable, and unlawful" lifting of the moratorium.
The letter said part of the area where the moratorium is being lifted includes unceded Wolastoqey territory.
"The Province's attempt to secretly open the door to fracking in our Territory is shocking, unacceptable, and unlawful. They need to restore the Moratorium immediately, and they need to have a serious dialogue with Indigenous peoples before taking any more steps in that direction," said Patricia Bernard, Chief of Madawaska First Nation.
The statement also quoted Ross Perley, Chief of Tobique First Nation, saying he is disappointed by the move and promises to stop development.
"It falls short of the Higgs Government's promise of defining a new relationship with the Wolastoqey and Mi'kmaw Nations," he said. "It is our job to ensure the protection of lands and waters for our future generations and we will unify with our Mi'kmaw brothers and sisters to stop this development."