The news coming out of New Brunswick last Thursday was headline-grabbing: images of police vehicles on fire, tear gas sprayed, Molotov cocktails thrown, ‘bean-bag’ dispersion shots fired, more than 50 people detained, and stashes of weapons and explosives seized on display.
The conflict erupted as tensions boiled over during an attempt to serve an injunction against a group of natural gas-fracking protesters associated with an area First Nation.
The protesters had been occupying a camp along a highway since the summer to prevent a resource company from carrying out exploratory work for which it carried the required permits. Protesters and supporters describe the protest as an exercise of their right to protect traditional territories from development fundamentally incompatible with their views on respecting and preserving the land.
Does any of this sound familiar?
The question that naturally comes to mind is; will we avoid this kind of violent confrontation here when pipeline companies come to town to begin their own preparatory survey and geological work?
We are assured by political leaders (most recently, MP Nathan Cullen, see page two) that conversation and dialogue can avoid these kinds of eruptions.
It’s true, dialogue and conversation can avoid conflict, but only when all involved in the conversation feel they have a real say. Implicit to First Nation talk of ‘nation-to-nation’ dialogue over resource development is the concept of sovereignty.
A sovereign nation can say no to another sovereign nation. This is the heart of the issue when it comes to pipelines through traditional First Nations territories. Passions flare because it is not fundamentally an environmental debate but a debate concerning what the phrase ‘First Nation’ means.
When the province, the federal government or multinational corporations talk about First Nations consultation, it isn’t clear what proponents will do if they can’t ‘get to yes’.
Pipeline consultation with First Nations, at least as far as natural gas is concerned, seems to mean make the best of the inevitable pipelines coming through. Too much rides on the back of natural gas development, the construction of natural gas facilities on the west coast, and long-term contracts with Asian markets – none of which, incidentally, have appeared yet – for consultation to mean anything else.
For the federal perspective, just replace ‘natural gas’ with ‘diluted bitumen’ in the last paragraph.
But this isn’t what consultation means between two sovereign nations. That’s the impasse industry, government and First Nations face out here.
None of this lends itself to a simple solution as no clear and coherent concept of First Nation sovereignty is on offer. An person could be forgiven for believing that the majority of First Nations actually support natural gas pipelines, especially given the large number of First Nation councils that have signed on in one way or another.
Maybe the majority of First Nations do agree with natural gas pipeline development. It depends on who you take as your authority on the subject.
Do elected band councils represent the will of their people? They are, after all, responsible for the economic well-being of their citizens. Are they the voice of sovereign First Nations? How will band councils and those who claim to represent the will and interests of traditional First Nation clan structures resolve the disputed authority at stake?
Barring a last minute surprise, none of this will be resolved before pipeline companies start laying pipe.