Two days of talks between the premier and the chief of Elsipogtog First Nation about anti-shale gas roadblocks in Rexton ended late Monday afternoon with plans to form a working group.
Elsipogtog Chief Aaron Sock and other protest leaders emerged from the meeting in Moncton feeling hopeful.
“[We] did come to an understanding that we will be forming a working group,” said Sock. ”And basically, yeah, that’s where it’s at.”
Meanwhile, demonstrators at the eight-day blockade of Route 134 told CBC News they plan to wait for more details about the meeting before deciding their next step.
They are trying to put an end to seismic exploration work by SWN Resources Canada in the area, and have also blocked a staging and storage area where the company had vehicles parked.
Although the company obtained a court injunction last Thursday, neither protest site had been removed, as of Monday, and support for the demonstrators appears to be high.
“I know they are not going to stop, and the people around our neighbourhood, they say that’s good and they say that if [they] need to have people go and support them, they will,” said Peggy Clements, who runs a daycare on the Elsipogtog reserve, about 10 miles from the protest site.
“And it’s not just Elsipogtog, it’s other communities as well,” she said.
Miles Howe, who has been covering the conflict for the Halifax Media Co-op since the road was first closed, says reports of division within the groups are overblown.
He says supporters from surrounding communities bring the protesters blankets, coffee and food.
“I think people are here to stay,” said Howe. “I don’t think people will back down at this point,” he said.
Talks started Sunday
Negotiations aimed at ending the weeklong blockade continued Monday after Premier David Alward, three members of his cabinet, and the Elsipogtog chief met with about 15 representatives of the protesters for three hours on Sunday in a Moncton hotel.
“People had an opportunity to voice their concerns. We had an opportunity to discuss what we’re focused on doing as a government,” said Alward after the Sunday meeting.
Denise Melanson participated in the session as a representative of the coalition of aboriginal and non-native shale gas protesters who have taken part in the blockade.
“Some of it was really emotional and really heartfelt,” said Melanson.
“It’s hard to find middle ground because the government is determined they want to go through with this and the people in that room are determined that they don’t want it to happen,” she said.
“We hope that things don’t get nasty and the chief really spoke in a heartfelt way that he doesn’t want his people harmed and he doesn’t want them in jail.”
‘Hopefully something good and positive comes from this first step.’- T.J. Burke, lawyer
A peaceful resolution will require time and more meetings, Sock had said.
“Right now, I just really hope that they hold off and don’t move in on our people while the talks are on-going,” said Sock.
A lawyer representing the First Nations protesters says the recent meeting with the premier is a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact when leaders come together and try to resolve their differences,” said T.J. Burke. “It’s great that the premier has moved toward having an open line of communication with the chief and his council.”
“I think what is important is the parties are speaking now, whereas before there wasn’t really any effective communication,” he said.
“Hopefully something good and positive comes from this first step.”
Court order not yet enforced
On Sept. 30, the protesters cut down trees and established a barricade at the staging and storage area off Route 134 where SWN Resources Canada had parked its vehicles. The protesters also blocked Route 134, which connects Rexton to Route 11.
On Thursday, a court order to remove the barricades was authorized by Court of Queen’s Bench Justice George Rideout. The protesters have not complied and have been surrounded by dozens of RCMP officers.
Alward said it’s up to the police and SWN Resources to decide when to enforce the court order.
The protesters are opposed to SWN Resources exploring for potential development of shale gas wells in the area. The shale gas is obtained by injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the earth to fracture shale rock and allow the gas within it to be captured. Protesters fear that process could harm groundwater.