An anti-fracking protest descended into violence when an estimated 100 police officers sought to control hundreds more Canadian protesters who set cars on fire and threatened officers mounted on horseback.
Tension spilled over Thursday when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) moved in to take down barriers erected by members of the Elsipogtog First Nation tribe in New Brunswick, Canada.
Activists and local aboriginals have held demonstrations for a week to protest shale gas exploration in the region. The method of gas extraction involves drilling shallow, low-pressure fractures into the earth, which adds thousands of liters of chemicals to groundwater and emits foul odors from the ground.
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At least 40 people were arrested Thursday for firearms violations, threats, intimidation, mischief, and violating a court-order injunction, the RCMP said. First Nation Chief Aaron Sock was among those taken into custody.
The RCMP claimed that at least one shot was fired Thursday by someone other than an officer and that at least five police cars were set on fire. They are investigating the possibility that explosives were planted at the scene and asserted that demonstrators were throwing rocks and bottles, along with spraying some kind of liquid at officers.
“The RCMP has worked diligently with all parties involved in hopes for a peaceful resolution. Those efforts have not been successful. Tensions were rising, and serious criminal acts are being committed,” RCMP constable Jullie Rogers-Marsh said in a news release.
“There have been threats made to employees who were working with a private security firm at the site, as all as firearms offenses, incidents of intimidation, mischief and other criminal behavior. For those reasons and to ensure public safety, police action was required.”
Chief Sock issued an eviction notice to SWN Resources Canada two weeks ago, warning the oil and gas company to leave native land. SWN seeks to begin seismic testing before it begins fracking for shale gas.
First Nation, mobilized in the belief that the energy exploration constitutes an invasion of tribal land, started blocking Highway 11 between Rexton and Sainte-Anne-de-Kent. That action inspired an October 3 court injunction ordering protesters to stay off the road.
— Laura Brown (@01LBrown) October 17, 2013
The simmering fury came to a head Thursday morning when the RCMP moved on the highway to force demonstrators away. What exactly followed remains unclear. Native leaders maintain that the police provoked them by drawing their weapons, while the RCMP asserted that they had no choice but to engage.
Susan Levi-Peters, a former chief of the Elsipogtog First Nation, told the Toronto Globe and Mail that the conflict quickly escalated after Chief Sock was apprehended. Pictures of Sock in handcuffs were posted frequently on Twitter throughout the day, inspiring messages of solidarity for the tribe.
Others said the chaos began when shots were fired, either by the police or an activist.
“It is really very volatile,” Levi-Peters said. “It’s a head-to-head between the people and the RCMP right now and the warriors are in the middle surrounded by the RCMP and then the RCMP are surrounded by the people.”
— Todd Lamirande (@ToddLamirande) October 17, 2013
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This is how Canadian police respond to First Nation people peacefully protesting a shale gas company pic.twitter.com/ClzEUWMxv8
— Sophia Banks (@sophiaphotos) October 17, 2013
— Africando Bah (@africandobah) October 17, 2013