She kneels on the asphalt, head bowed, holding an eagle feather, almost supplicant, in front of a police line choking the road. Three women join her, singing and praying. The armed and obviously addled cops gape, jeer, and shiver.
On October 17, just before dawn, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided a protest camp of Mi’kmaq natives, Acadians, and Anglophone people near Rexton, New Brunswick. The community – led by residents of the nearby Elsipogtog reservation – lit a sacred bonfire at the entrance to a guarded lot holding massive Thumper trucks used for seismic testing to locate shale deposits rich with natural gas. The government of New Brunswick granted Texas-based Southwestern Resources company (SWN) permission to start hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Neither government nor industry obtained permission from the Mi’kmaq Nation, whose ancestral lands encompass the project – even though the law requires it.
Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas from shale rock deep in the earth. A mix of water, chemicals, and sand is blasted into the deposits to release the precious resource, poisoning groundwater in the process. The company promises 1,000 jobs. But locals fear the fate of their water and land. With no voice in the decision-making, they pitched tents and blocked the trucks. SWN estimated it lost $54,000 a day as the Thumpers gathered dust. The Elsipogtog band formed a Warrior Society. People in town donated provisions for the long haul. The company obtained an injunction to end the stand.
That autumn morning, men, women and children awoke in their tents to gunshots, threats, and snarling police dogs. Camo-clad goons crouched in the weeds, sniper-style, scoping with assault rifles. Chaos ensued. Then came a day of war. Forty people were arrested – some beaten unconscious. Police cars burned.
Tribal elders and women rushed to the frontline. The cops grabbed a great-grandma, praying her rosary, and pepper-sprayed her face.
That’s when the young mother, Amanda Polchies, knelt down.
“I just had this feather and I didn’t know what to do,” Polchies told Al Jazeera. “And the first thought in my mind was, ‘pray.’ I kneeled down on the road. I was praying for the women who had gotten sprayed. I was praying for my people, hoping that this will end peacefully. I felt like making a stand was the only thing left because no one was listening.”
She was arrested.
Chaos also ensued online. Weeks later, it’s still vexing to parse fact from rumor. Social media has been the conduit of communication, as mainstream news sources stick to stereotypes: The protesters are poor, ignorant thugs.
And the Canadian government is very invested in pushing that image. In 2012, environmentalists acquired federal documents labeling native people “adversaries” of Canada’s campaign to sell tar sands as the energy answer to the Obama administration and beyond. On November 21, the Vancouver Observer reported that the government, with it’s BFF, the oil industry, is spying on natives and environmentalists opposed to fracking and pipelines.
One of the targets is Idle No More, a movement started by four women fed up with the racism, the disregard and the abuse inflicted upon native people in Canada. Idle No More embraces direct action and community empowerment – and flash mobs and a flashy web site – but not top-down foundation funding or bottom-ignorant NGO campaigning. The inherent disrespect of land and ordinary people entombed in tar sands, pipelines, and fracking projects – the lack of consultation – is bringing people together under banners across the country.
Idle No More inspired the people of Elsipogtog, and they, in turn, inspired others. Just in the past month, dozens of actions popped up. In November, the Lubicon Nation pitched camp in the heart of the energy beast, Northern Alberta, to stop more fracking. On December 2, demonstrations occurred in the United States and Canada to honor the resolve of the Mi’kmaq. Protestors shut down the Port of Vancouver. People locked themselves to Enbridge pipeline equipment in Toronto. In Oregon, activists ambushed a huge rig lugging refinery supplies to the dreary tar sands.
In northern British Columbia, the Unist’ot’en Camp is blocking pipeline routes to the coast. They’ve planted a garden of kale and carrots in a clearcut, hunted and cured deer and moose meat, and stocked cabins with wood for what’s looking like a damned cold winter. They face daily helicopter surveillance and intimidation.
“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do, and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but their inhumanity,” wrote James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time.
People who are, indeed, simply fed up with a corrupt and insincere political process, corporate arrogance, the buying of institutional power – are now acting, a little at a time, humanely. If you blink and ruminate over the fatiguing news feeds, the empty presidential speeches, the egomaniacal pundits, the blather of blogs, you just might sleep through your own revolutionary moment. Who knows!
SWN Resources left New Brunswick on December 9, and said they’d return in 2015 for further shale gas exploration, men with guns behind them, no doubt, again. The Elsipogtog people say they’re healing, and they’ll be ready with another sacred fire next time.
Published in the December 2013 issue of CounterPunch magazine.