Nothing ignites media coverage and inflames public opinion quite like images of burning cop cars. The realization that authority’s symbols can go up in smoke, just like anything else, with the strike of a match is horrifying to many; strangely satisfying to some.
But though news and opinion will inevitably focus on who started the conflagration (both literal and figurative) on a rural stretch of New Brunswick highway last week – a bonfire that claimed five police cruisers and resulted in the arrest of 40 native people protesting shale gas development in the province – the rooted issues are harder to untangle in an era when disenfranchisement is the normative language of public engagement.
Adam Huras’s excellent first-hand account, in the Telegraph-Journal, of the Thursday-morning raid of the protesters’ encampment near Rexton suggests that the RCMP may have overdosed on bowls of Wheaties the night before.
“On Thursday morning, at either end of the protest encampment were only a handful of RCMP officers learning up against a few cars,” he wrote for Friday’s edition.
“‘It was a slow night, you didn’t miss much,’ said one officer. ‘It’s quiet,’ added another.
And then it wasn’t. In an instant, two police cars flashing red and blue lights, closed off the road. ‘Move!’ yelled an officer. ‘And don’t you text anyone, not one person. Don’t touch your phone.’ I was being walked back to my car when the order was given to move in.”
At which point, he reported, the stuff really hit the fan: “Roughly two dozen unmarked cars, a large police van and a bus converged on the area at 7:15 a.m. – the vehicles flying down both the on and off ramps of Route 11. Jumping from them were police in full camouflage brandishing guns. About 20 Mounties entered the protest area and 20 more stood at the barricade. Wave after wave of reinforcements arrived.”
Then came the fires, set by angry protestors.
It’s tempting to think that the violence on both sides is exclusively about natural gas. The Elsipogtog First Nation, like many other groups in New Brunswick, is genuinely concerned about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on supplies of drinking water. In this, they’ve chosen to believe fellow opponents from other parts of North America who have longer experience with the industry.
But gas merely fuels the fire that lies beneath.
An inchoate rage burns across the land. For Canada’s First Nations, it finds expression in the Idle No More movement. For others in towns and cities just about everywhere in the western world, it generates an irresistible desire to “occupy” something – a public park, a government quadrangle, the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown London.
The suspicion that governments no longer represent the interests of average people, but only those of powerful lobbies and corporate interests has evolved into a conviction. The evidence, many believe, is everywhere.
What, they point out, was the financial meltdown of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession except an implosion of greed and avarice perpetrated by the few at the expense of the many?
What, they ask, is behind widening gaps in income and economic opportunity except the wholesale abrogation of democratic principles of equal and fair representation before the juggernaut of privilege?
Why can’t legislators in Washington keep their nation open long enough to do the people’s business? Why can’t lawmakers in Ottawa respect their own environmental regulations?
Shale gas protest, though specific in its own right, in New Brunswick is also a species of this unease with, and mistrust of, public institutions.
The only way to address it is to talk candidly and openly with one another.
No long ago, Premier David Alward and First Nations leaders in the province made a good start. In fact, according to The Canadian Press on October 6, they arranged to “continue talks Monday in an effort to resolve a growing dispute over shale gas exploration. Alward and three of his cabinet ministers met Sunday with Elsipogtog council members and other opponents of the shale gas industry at a hotel in Moncton, N.B., in an effort to end a protest that has closed a highway in eastern New Brunswick for a week.”
If last Thursday’s events are any indication, the need for dialogue has never been more urgent.