By Jorge Barrera
ATPN National News
The two New Brunswick RCMP officers knocked on Malcolm Ward’s door Wednesday morning while the Mi’kmaq man played with his one year-old son River in the living room.
He answered the door and the officers told him he was under arrest for getting too close to equipment owned by SWN Resources Canada, a Houston-owned energy company conducting shale gas exploration work in the province.
“I was holding my son at the time,” said Ward, shortly after his release from jail Wednesday evening.
Then his wife came home.
“I told her that I am under arrest and my wife broke down for a bit and pleaded with the RCMP to leave me alone,” said Ward, who is a fisheries officer for Metepenagiag First Nation, which overlooks the Little Southwest Miramichi River.
Ward said he picked up his son and gave him a kiss just before the officers led him out the front door and into the back of a police cruiser.
“I got emotional, I thought I wasn’t going to see him for a long time,” said Ward.
Hours later and 1,178 kilometres away, while he sat on a thin mattress in a cell at the RCMP’s Moncton, NB, detachment, Ward’s name emerged during a policing panel session involving two top RCMP officers at the Assembly of First Nations special chiefs assembly in the Lac Leamy Casino in Gatineau, Que.
“A man named Malcolm Ward got arrested today,” said Amanda Polchies, a woman from Elsipogtog First Nation. Polchies intervened during the policing panel because what she heard upset her.
Polchies is the woman captured in the now iconic photo kneeling and holding an eagle feather aloft before a wall of police officers on Oct. 17 when heavily-armed RCMP tactical units raided a Mi’kmaq-led anti-fracking camp in Rexton, NB.
She travelled to Gatineau from Elsipogtog, which sits about 113 km south of Matepenagiag and 92 km north of Moncton, to challenge the chiefs to support the grassroots Mi’kmaq’s battle against shale gas exploration in their territory. The discovery of shale gas will eventually lead to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the Mi’kmaq fear the controversial extraction measure threatens the region’s water and environment.
After smudging from a bowl of smouldering sweetgrass offered by Dene Nation Chief Bill Erasmus, Polchies accused the RCMP of mounting a campaign of intimidation against the Mi’kmaq people.
“I heard people get threatened from the RCMP…I heard them taunt us, say they are going to throw us in jail. What are you going to do? I want to know,” said Polchies.
Polchies said the raid destroyed years spent building a relationship between the RCMP and the Mi’kmaq in her community.
“What took 15 years to build, on Oct. 17 got destroyed. People in my community will never look at an RCMP officer the same again,” she said.
RCMP Supt. Tyler Bates, head of Aboriginal policing, and Saskatchewan RCMP commanding officer Brenda Butterworth-Carr sat on the stage listening, but did not respond.
THE ANTI-FRACKING FIGHT
Mi’kmaq from Elsipogtog led a months-long fight against SWN Resources Canada throughout the region’s highways and back roads.
The Oct. 17 raid triggered a day-long clash between Elsipogtog residents and RCMP officers who used pepper spray and sock rounds in attempts to control the people. The RCMP said it raided the camp on public safety grounds and later displayed three rifles, ammunition, knives and crude explosive devices seized during the raid as proof.
Six RCMP vehicles were also torched and police arrested a total of 40 people that Thursday.
The raid, however, did little to slow demonstrations and arrests continued throughout the fall as the Mi’kmaq, along with supporters from surrounding Acadian and Anglophone communities, mounted almost daily rallies against SWN’s exploration, twice burning tires on Hwy 11.
SWN ended its exploration work last Friday.
The RCMP continues a number of investigations stemming from the protests, according to RCMP spokesperson Jullie Rogers-Marsh. The demonstrations destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of SWN’s and its sub-contractor’s equipment.
But the ongoing police action is also increasing tensions between the RCMP and the Mi’kmaq.
“Why are people still being charged? Why is it when SWN leaves we have to go through these investigations? Why can’t they leave Oct. 17 on Oct. 17?” said Ward, who has two children in Elsipogtog.
Ward said the RCMP is targeting him because he’s been outspoken an outspoken critics of police actions on Oct. 17. Ward said he was one of the people who witnessed a black-clad RCMP tactical unit member taunt demonstrators by saying, “Crown land belongs to the government, not fucking natives.”
Ward also said he witnessed RCMP officers pushed by their colleagues into a crowd of demonstrators that same day.
“I saw some RCMP push other officers to stay in the front…I actually saw one RCMP literally holding another officer like a puppy and pushing him toward the crowd,” said Ward. “It was just crazy. I thought it would be a good thing for me to step up and point out these RCMP officers did wrong. I guess they took it as a threat and to me as a huge aggressor.”
In a separate interview with APTN National News Butterworth-Carr and Bates remained unapologetic about the RCMP’s handling of the Oct. 17 raid and the protests against SWN’s shale gas exploration work.
“It is unfortunate when protest activity results in enforcement action. It is our intent to work to get parties to the table to discuss and dialogue and resolve their grievances,” said Bates.
“If there is indication of violence, if there is indication of threats, if there indication of anything that is going to take it to that level then there is going to be an enforcement response,” said Butterworth-Carr.
HANDCUFFED ‘SELFIE’ POSTED ON FACEBOOK
Ward said he was arrested for allegedly breaching a release condition on Nov. 12 to stay one kilometre away from equipment belonging to SWN or its contractors. Ward’s condition stemmed from his arrest on Oct. 17.
“I told them, ‘How can I breach my conditions? Every time I went down to the protest I asked the RCMP where my safe distance was,'” said Ward. “The RCMP told me where I could safely be. It was very, very confusing for me to figure what was going on.”
RCMP Const. Jullie Rogers-Marsh said she couldn’t confirm whether Ward was arrested Wednesday.
Ward’s arrest, however, played out in real-time on Facebook.
Half-way to the Moncton RCMP detachment, sitting in the back of the police cruiser, Ward realized his wife’s phone was still in his pocket. With his hands cuffed in the front, he dug out the phone and photographed himself and then posted the “selfie” on Facebook.
He also sent Facebook messages to people in Elsipogtog asking them to contact a lawyer on his behalf.
“Someone send me a lawyer,” wrote Ward on his Facebook page . “I been arrested. For breach of condition. Someone. Chief and council. Please Anyone! (sic).”
In another Facebook post, Ward said he was feeling “dizzy,” that his head was “spinning” and that he told the arresting officers he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I am scared of a jail cell. I was 14 when something happened to me. I can’t stay in. My heart can’t take it,” wrote Ward on his Facebook page. “I just want to be home with my family. I’m confused. And lost.(sic)”
In a Facebook message to an individual in Elsipogtog, Ward claimed that there were “two cop cars escorting me. I’m in the back of a cop car now.”
The Elsipogtog resident responded, asking for his cell number.
“They will take my phone if they see me call,” wrote Ward.
“My Facebook blew up so much it slowed down my phone,” said Ward, in a phone interview with APTN National News. “The notifications and inboxes going on the phone slowed it down so I couldn’t respond back to anybody.”
He said he managed to log out of Facebook and shut down his phone by the time he reached the detachment.
“When I got to the police station there was already a couple calls waiting for me from lawyers,” he said.
FALLOUT FELT IN BC
The events in Elsipogtog have also impacted the relationship between the RCMP and First Nation communities in other parts of the country.
The chief and council of the Skeetchestn Indian Band in B.C. recently wrote a letter to New Brunswick Premier David Alward and the New Brunswick RCMP expressing “outrage” over police actions in the province. Skeetchestn has a policing agreement with the RCMP.
“The shale gas exploration by SWN Resources Canada is clearly against the wishes of the Mi’kmaq people and is being conducted on land that was never ceded to the Crown and is clearly within their traditional territory,” said Dec. 6 letter. “The pepper spraying by the RCMP of elders and women of the Elsipogtog First Nation, who are engaged in peaceful protests, is a situation that violates everything that we ourselves hold dear as a nation and must stop.”
Mike McKenzie, who is representing Skeetchestn at the AFN gathering, hand delivered the letter to Bates and Butterworth-Carr.
Skeetchestn Coun. Terry Deneault said the events in Elsipogtog left his community worried.
“I have been hearing some rough stories about how our people were treated, our elders and our youth were pepper-sprayed and thrown to the ground. That shouldn’t happen,” he said. “I don’t know who the RCMP are really looking out for. Is it the health and safety of every Canadian citizen or the companies that are fracking?”
Butterworth-Carr said the RCMP plays a neutral role in all conflicts.
“It’s not in support of a community, it’s not in support of shale gas in this instance, it’s not in support of the government, it’s to maintain safety for everyone involved,” she said.
Butterworth-Carr said it was time to rebuild the RCMP’s relationship with Elsipogtog.
“It’s about starting again, it’s about making sure there is candidness in conversation and a rebuilding of trust,” she said.