Canadian police said they arrested at least 40 people in eastern New Brunswick on Thursday at the site of a weekslong protest over shale gas development that turned violent when authorities attempted to enforce a court-ordered injunction that the demonstrators be removed — reflecting ongoing tension between energy companies and indigenous peoples in Canada.
"The RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) has worked diligently with all parties involved in hopes for a peaceful resolution. Those efforts have not been successful," Constable Julie Rogers-Marsh said.
The RCMP said the protesters, who include aboriginals from First Nations groups, were arrested for firearms violations, threats, intimidation, mischief and violating the injunction.
However, protesters contest those claims.
Susan Levi-Peters, the former chief of the nearby Elsipogtog aboriginal reserve, said the police had moved in aggressively on unarmed protesters.
"The RCMP is coming in here with their tear gas — they even had dogs on us," she said. "They were acting like we're standing there with weapons, while we are standing there, as women, with drums and eagle feathers. This is crazy. This is not Canada."
Since Sept. 30, activists and members of the Elsipogtog and Mi'kmaq First Nations tribes have blocked a New Brunswick road used by employees of the energy company SWN Resources Canada, a subsidiary of Southwestern Energy, which is exploring shale gas properties in the area.
The tribes have long opposed SWN's efforts to explore for gas in the region. They want a moratorium on shale gas exploration and say the company did not consult them before starting work.
The protesters contend that the process used to extract shale gas — hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking — could pollute drinking water. But proponents of the industry say such concerns are overblown and don't take into account the possibility of replacing coal and oil with cleaner-burning natural gas.
Robert Levi, a councillor with the Elsipogtog First Nation, said he went to the protest site early Thursday after hearing that the RCMP had moved in to begin enforcing the injunction against the protesters.
Levi said police pepper-sprayed dozens of people after 9:30 a.m., when he arrived with the chief and council.
"The chief was manhandled a little bit, and all hell broke loose," he said.
The RCMP said at least five of its vehicles were destroyed after they were set on fire, Molotov cocktails were thrown at officers and at least one shot was fired by someone who is not a police officer.
T.J. Burke, a lawyer for the Elsipogtog First Nation, later confirmed that Elsipogtog Chief Aaron Sock was among those arrested.
The tribes' efforts have been buoyed by the Idle No More movement, a grassroots effort to bring more attention to the poor living conditions on native reserves and to help aboriginal communities gain more control over natural resource projects.