New Brunswick can count on a huge backlash if it follows through on its recent comments about fracking natural gas, six First Nations chiefs in the province say.
“The issue could get ugly here,” Chief Allan Polchies Jr. of Sitansisk, St.Mary’s First Nation, told Canada’s National Observer.
In the past few months, Premier Blaine Higgs has been ramping up his support for fracked gas, a fossil fuel made mostly of methane. On Wednesday, he reportedly told business publication allNewBrunswick he would pursue fracked gas development regardless of buy-in from First Nation communities across the province.
According to a press release from the Wolastoqey Nation, Higgs told the publication if First Nations don't want to be involved, “There comes a time when you just gotta find a way to move on.” The comment marks a stark contrast to his State of the Province Address in February, where he said he wouldn’t pursue fracking without collaboration from First Nations.
On Thursday, the Wolastoqey Nation — which represents the Matawaskiye (Madawaska), Wotstak (Woodstock), Neqotkuk (Tobique), Bilijk (Kingsclear), Sitansisk (St. Mary's) and Welamuktok (Oromocto) First Nations — spoke out against Higgs’ comments. The nation called out the premier for dodging his responsibility to consult and get support from Indigenous communities.
Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc. (MTI), a group representing the nine Mi’gmaq communities in New Brunswick, also criticized the Premier's remarks.
“To date, the Province has not been willing to commit to a proper consultation and impact assessment process, instead trying to force First Nations leaders to sign agreements supporting development without consultation. As a result, there are no active discussions on natural gas development between the Government of New Brunswick and the communities MTI represents,” the press statement said.
“Higgs should have learned from 2013, the last time his government had frack-dreams shut down by Indigenous people. We’ll do it again, and we’ll do it with the support of New Brunswickers,” said Chief Shelley Sabattis of Welamukotuk, Oromocto First Nation.
In 2013, heated protests against fracking in New Brunswick led to dozens of arrests and a review of the way the police handled the demonstrations. The following year, the province placed a moratorium on fracking. According to the provincial government, the moratorium will not be lifted until “a social licence [is] in place” and “a process [is] in place to respect our obligations under the duty to consult with First Nations,” among other requirements.
“Higgs should have learned from 2013, the last time his government had frack-dreams shut down by Indigenous people. We’ll do it again, and we’ll do it with the support of New Brunswickers,” said Chief Shelley Sabattis of Oromocto First Nation.
The Wolastoqey Nation also pointed out the dangers of fracking. Fracked, or shale, gas is extracted through a drilling process that injects water, chemicals and sand underground at extremely high pressures. The process has been found to leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Shale gas extraction in the United States was partly to blame for a global spike in planet-warming methane emissions, according to 2019 research from Cornell University. There is also evidence fracking contaminates groundwater and that the chemicals used in the process cause health problems in nearby communities.
Canada’s National Observer reached out to Higgs’ office for further comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.
The premier, who is a former Irving Oil executive, has been in Europe this week pitching fracked gas to European markets, along with small modular nuclear reactors and hydrogen. As reported by the CBC, Higgs is presenting fracked gas as a “transition fuel” as the world moves away from other fossil fuels like oil and coal. On Wednesday, New Brunswick’s Port of Belledune signed a green hydrogen agreement with the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The pushback comes amid rising tensions between the province and First Nations communities over fracking industry development. In March, Higgs sent First Nations in the province letters encouraging their support for the development of a shale gas reserve near Sussex, saying they could see significant profits come their way if the plan moves forward.
Last April, the premier said he was pulling out of gas revenue tax-sharing agreements with 13 Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqey First Nations. The agreement meant First Nations kept the majority of on-reserve gas tax revenue, an important source of income.
Pabineau First Nation Chief Terry Richardson told Canada’s National Observer on Tuesday that the pullout, followed by the request for Indigenous buy-in for shale gas expansion, feels like “blackmail” and stresses he does not support any development of the fossil fuel.
Chief Tim Paul of Wotstak, Woodstock First Nation, summed up the Wolastoqey Nation’s position. “Our message to any country or company placing their energy hopes or plans in Blaine Higgs is simple: keep looking,” Paul said.
“This man has repeatedly gone back on his word and attempted to bend our own words against us. He is not a suitable partner for any sort of business.”