Courtesy Ossie Michelin, APTN
Ossie Michelin, below left, has been covering the anti-fracking protests in New Brunswick since June.

Behind the Front Lines of the Elsipogtog Battle Over Fracking

Vincent Schilling

Since June of 2013 the Elsipogtog First Nation community has gathered on Highway 11 to protest the seismic testing being conducted by a subsidiary of Houston-based Southwestern Energy Co. Since that time, several violent clashes between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and FN people have erupted. All the while, APTN Journalist Ossie Michelin has been there to document these moments in history.

On an interview on the Native Trailblazers Radio show, Michelin, of mixed Inuit heritage from Labrador in northeastern Canada, shared his experiences during his months on the ground—some good, some bad, but all of them life changing.

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You are driving right now as we are doing this interview.

Yes, I am driving down Highway 11, and this is the exact highway in which SWM Resources has been doing their seismic testing. 

How did you first find out about the events in Elsipogtog?

It was actually a YouTube video that someone had sent to me. Members of the Elsipogtog Nation led by former Chief John Levi had surrounded one of the SWM vehicles while it was gassing up on the rez. They had to be escorted to the local police station, where [police] would not let the vehicle leave.

When I saw the video I knew a little bit about what was going on, but I had no idea how big this would get or how far people would be willing to go to protect their lands and protect their waters.

When you started reporting back in June, what were the first things you started to see?

When we arrived, there were several encampments along the road, and it just rained the entire month of June. People were determined, but spirits were not high because we were all just cold and wet. But then the weather heated up, people’s spirits got high, people began to bring out the drums; they started to sing and have social fires.

Everyone worked to make everyone feel included. There has been a lot of unity here. First Nations protesters have been teaming up with a lot of local non-Natives. 

There are pictures of men in camouflage clothing who have dogs; do you know who they are?

They are part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police tactical units. These are the guys they bring out for hostage situations. I would say this is the most aggressive force the RCMP has at their disposal. They brought them out to take down the Warriors and their supporters.

Personally I have never seen the RCMP ever behave like this in any situation involving the First Nations.

There was an incident where the RCMP was holding a gun to a pregnant woman?

Yes, she was led away when people helped her away, people told her to just keep going. There was a diabetic elder who was there in the camp when the raid happened. Her health wasn't too good. I saw her come through the police line with guns pointed at the back of her head. I saw a young warrior step in between her and the police officer who said, 'You have to go through me first.'

One of the hardest things for me to see was the treatment of Amy Sock. She has a background in law and lives in Elsipogtog. This woman is one of the most peaceful people I have ever met in my life.

There was a line of police standing around cars, and she came up with a white flag. She said she needed to see her people and wanted to make sure they were okay. She tried to break through the police line and started running. I saw people running behind her.

She is about 125 pounds. I saw three big police officers tackle her to the ground like football players. They had her hands zip-tied, [pushing] her to the ground with her knee in her back, and the police officer looked up the same way a hunter poses over his kill. It broke my heart.

At a press conference she held up her bruised arms. When I saw this go down—and I am not the most spiritual person—I prayed for her because I knew that is what she would do for me if I were in that situation. 

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There are several pictures of police officers spraying water hoses on protesters.

Those were not hoses; that was pepper spray. I saw elders getting doused with pepper spray. I also saw people’s bruises from weapon-fired beanbags and rubber bullets, and police dogs and trucks all over the place. The dogs were barking so loud and jumping that these vehicles were shaking.

I've been covering this for months, and these are people I got to know fairly well. To see them literally getting stomped on by police officers was something else.

One of the young warriors was hit and had internal bleeding—he was in the lockup and did not get medical treatment for three days. He could have some serious problems with all that internal bleeding inside of his leg.

I also saw a lot of racism from the police officers, and part of it was them trying to egg on the protesters so they would have a reason to use force. Some of it was just over the line. I heard a police officer say, 'Crown land belongs to our government, not to effin’ Natives!' As soon as I heard that, I tweeted it.

As a Native journalist, how do you remain without bias?

I try to remain unbiased as much as I can, but at the same time we need a critical eye and we need people to be critical of the New Brunswick government and of SWM resources and of the RCMP. We need analysis, and I try my best to give my analysis and my critique. What I keep saying is that I can only comment on what I see and what I hear and what I experience. I can try to give analysis to put things into perspective.

A lot of the RCMP officers were not wearing formal identification, as seen in some of the photographs.

I would say a quarter to a third of officers during the raid were not wearing identification. Some people had badges that we had never seen before, so there has been a lot of speculation as to who they were. They were a special unit of the RCMP that you do not usually see. I have never seen them before until this came up.

At one point these RCMP surrounded a vehicle, and their identification just said things like J52 or J12. I asked them why was no name there, but they told me to refer to their communications person three hours away.

Will there be investigations after this?

I have heard people talking about lawsuits involving denied rights, police brutality and excessive force. This will be something that will have an impact on this area for a while. Local police officers were not present; people were brought in from out of the region so the local police officers would not have to deal with these protesters in regular life.

Other things disrespected?

The protesters had a sacred fire that was just trampled like it was nothing. A sacred fire is a fire that is blessed for four days and is kept burning, and a fire keeper watches it at all times. We never even filmed the sacred fire.

Do you have traumatic stress from all this?

I have gone through my own healing process. Even now little things give me twinges of anxiety. Yesterday when I saw the line of police all take a step forward in unison, my heart skipped a beat. I got a flashback. When someone said to me, 'I think I just saw the K-9 unit,' I went, 'Oh no.'

It is called secondary stress and secondary trauma, it happens to journalists. I have good people in my life, and I took some time off, I was exhausted and I slept for a few days.

Time is going on now and it's helping.

Last words?

There are good people there. Yes I've taken a little bit of bad into my life that I'm going to hang over my head for a little while, but the amount of goods and good people and good vibes and beauty because of this ... the bad just does not even compare to the good people of Elsipogtog. It never will. It has been a privilege to cover this. 

I wasn't here to speak for them; I was there to help them be heard.