Mt. A students visit Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq Nation

On Nov. 25, professor Brad Walters and 18 students took a bus to Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq Nation, southwest of the colonial town of Rexton, N.B.

The students are part of the Introduction to Indigenous Studies course, which is co-taught and covers a range of topics, including Indigenous history, culture and environmental issues. The course was introduced to the curriculum this year and is offered exclusively to first-year students. Friday classes are dedicated to experiential learning.

“I took the course because I think it is extremely important to learn from Indigenous people and about their concerns and knowledge about the environment,” Mt. A student Molly Bowes said. “I’ve been learning a lot of meaningful lessons, especially from the experiential Fridays, including [taking a] trip to Fort Folly, meeting with keynote speakers, and viewing the Treaty Day flag raising.”

Brad Walters, a geography professor at Mt. A, said it was beneficial for students to meet Indigenous activists. “Given how prominent Indigenous activism has become in Canada in recent years, I thought it would be enlightening for the students to actually meet and learn from some of those activists first-hand about what they did, and why they did it,” he said.

Upon arrival to Elsipogtog, students were greeted at the Mi’kmaq Sports Bar by Kenneth Francis, Serena Francis, Nelson Augustine and Crystal Cookson, four of the forefront leaders of the 2013 anti-shale gas movement and the ongoing water protection movement.

The visit began with handholding and a traditional Mi’kmaq greeting sung by Augustine.

After listening to presentations and a documentary, students and representatives exchanged mutual concerns about land use in an intimate circle discussion. The slideshow and documentary portrayed the entire campaign and their efforts in ultimately stopping Southwestern Energy Company (SWN) from performing activity that would have had unaddressed consequences for the land.

First Nations representatives spoke of their activism efforts in 2013 that stopped SWN – which they referred to as “swine” – from working in the area and across New Brunswick. SNW is an independent energy company with corporate headquarters in Texas, U.S.A. Their efforts in New Brunswick included seismic testing and the extraction of shale gas through a process known as fracking.

Students viewed unedited footage of blockades and learned about the backlash the activists received and key strategies of their campaign.

Mt. A student Demarre Brown said the slideshow and presentation were “really interesting.”

Martin spoke honestly. Jacob Demers/submitted
Martin spoke honestly. Jacob Demers/submitted

“I saw what really happened, things that are not reflected in the media.”

The representatives introduced their next course of action, which will focus on protecting the environment through traditional land claims. They said that the best way for citizens to protect their lands from private companies seeking to exploit natural resources is to have their land become Indigenous land.

The Nov. 9 land claim of District 6, also known as Sikniktuk, was filed to protect waterways and stop industry from exploiting and destroying the province.

“Our intention is not to take away land from people, it’s to have a say in land management,” Francis said. He stressed how this would have a mutual benefit, since everyone depends on the health of the land for food, water and living space.

Kenneth said his first sighting of northern New Brunswick’s clear cut via aerial photography reminded him of an “animal being gutted and skinned.”

Students were then invited to the Kopit Lodge, where the reserve’s environmental activism is headquartered.

There, students met one-on-one with the activists over soup, sandwiches and traditional bannock bread. Activists urged students to get involved because it is their future at stake. After gifting each student with a book on First Peoples Law, Nelson ended the visit with a farewell prayer recited in Mi’kmaq.

Cookson, one of the Kopit Lodge representatives, encouraged student to stand for a cause of their choice. “If you don’t,” she said, “you will fall for something.”

Jacob Demers