Tensions flared last week in New Brunswick as First Nations protesters set police cars ablaze, and threw rocks at RCMP officers in a violent anti-fracking demonstration. An attempt by the federal government to begin fracking on lands of the Elsipogtog First Nation has reopened questions about the legality of federally funded development on indigenius lands without their consent. Enduring concerns about the dangers associated with fracking make the potential venture even more contentious.
Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ is a process through which pressurized mixtures of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped into the ground. The pressure creates fissures in shale rocks found below the surface, releasing natural gas, and allowing it to be extracted. Although researchers have detected dangerously high levels of methane, ethane, and propane in wells in close proximity to fracking sites, studies on the threat fracking poses to the environment and residential health have reached varying conclusions. Proponents of fracking have denied the dangers that have been associated with it, such as groundwater contamination and increased seismic activity. The head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, even stated that she was, “not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself” had affected water quality.
There seems to be a strong enough correlation between fracking and the contamination of drinking water that its practice should be discontinued in populated areas until further research is able to prove its safety. Despite the potential dangers, New Brunswick Premier David Alward fully supports shale gas exports, calling it critical to the province’s economy. Part of Alward’s willingness to overlook the risks associated with fracking stems from its economic benefits.
Fracking is relatively cheap compared to most other forms of energy. Making use of the abundance of shale reserves in North America would also decrease reliance on foreign countries for oil, and would create job opportunities in New Brunswick. Alward has promised the Elsipogtog First Nation community that they would also profit from the establishment of a fracking site on their traditional land. But are the economic benefits of fracking enough to outweigh its environmental and health risks? Who gets to decide?
Canadian law requires the government to consult and accommodate First Nations communities in situations of resource development on their land. The principle of aboriginal title, established in the precedent of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, grants First Nations sovereignty over their traditional lands. The failure of the government to appeal to the communities before exploring opportunities for fracking in Elsipogtog justifies their indignation. The spiritual and cultural relationship of First Nations with their traditional land further underlines their anger at the government’s unwarranted and illegal attempts at exploiting it.
Premier Alward’s disregard for the wishes and health of the Elsipogtog First Nation justifies their anger. The government will most likely not succeed in gaining the right to frack on the Elsipogtog First Nation land given the principle of aboriginal title, and previous failed attempts by the government to secure resources on aboriginal land.
Regardless of the intentions of the government or the anger that they may have roused, the unnecessary use of violence by the Elsipogtog First Nations only aggravated an already tense situation and delegitimized their cause. The two sides are now locked in a conflict in which both have acted irrationally, and the likelihood of a peaceful settlement has diminished. We can only hope that the provincial government will concede with the wishes of the Elsipogtog First Nations, and that their welfare may be secured without any further violence.