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DSU cancels bus trip to Elsipogtog protest

DSU cancels bus trip to Elsipogtog protest
Supporters drive down Highway 11 between the barricades near Rexton, NB (photo by Bryn Karcha)
written by Bryn Karcha
October 25, 2013 12:00 pm
Supporters drive down Highway 11 between the barricades near Rexton, NB (photo by Bryn Karcha)

Supporters drive down Highway 11 between the barricades near Rexton, NB (Photo by Bryn Karcha)

Last weekend, several Dalhousie students travelled to Rexton, NB in solidarity with members of the Elsipogtog First Nation to protest shale gas exploration.

The Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) had originally organized a bus to transport students to meet members of the Elsipogtog First Nations Community, but violence between police and protesters on Thursday, Oct. 17 led to the event being cancelled.

“We had a trip planned for a while to go all the way to Montreal, stopping at Elsipogtog on the way to meet organizers of social movements and understand why they were organizing,” says Sagar Jha, DSU president. “Once things at Elsipogtog became violent and there was an injunction, nobody was allowed in there. We decided to cancel the trip altogether.”

Katerina Stein, the primary event organizer for the trip, says they were aware of the injunction.

“I think it was at the back of our minds. We realized anyone going on this trip would have to be briefed. We’re university students. We’re old enough to make our own decisions.”

While the DSU withdrew its support from the trip, some students are still critical of the decision to fund the bus trip in the first place.

“With any of these sort of events or protests, you have no control or knowledge or guarantee of what’s going to happen or what turns that might take; whether it will stay 100 per cent peaceful or whether it will turn violent or whether whatever else happens. You have no way of doing any assessment of that,” says Matthew FitzGerald-Chamberlain, a Dal computer science student. “The injunction was passed in early October. They have had several weeks knowing it was an illegal protest.”

Stein also says the number of people who wanted to go increased following the violence on Thursday

“After it happened, I got a ton of emails. We realized that we could go up, and we realized it was important to be there. More people wanted to go.”

Despite the cancellation, about 25 Dal students organized their own rides and traveled to Rexton, showing support and participating in ongoing protests and roadblocks along Route 134. Some students are also upset by an email that was sent to about 900 students, reading:

Students gathered together at the protests (photo by Bryn Karcha)

Students gathered together at the protests (Photo by Bryn Karcha)

Violence has escalated in Elsipogtog First Nation where the community is desperately defending their land from destructive shale gas extraction and defending themselves from police rubber bullets, tier (sic) gas and continued aggression. They have called for support and solidarity and students at Dal will respond.

Jha says the email was not endorsed by the DSU and should not have been sent out.

“All communications have to go across either my desk, or Ramz’s desk, the VP internal, or Lindsay’s desk, our communications officer. And it didn’t go across anyone’s desk. It just went out.”

He also says the DSU will be following up with the people who received the email. A retraction was issued on the DSU Facebook page, stating:

The DSU strives to provide students with means to foster interests and support causes that are important to them, however, due to potential safety ramifications that could affect our members, by going to Elsipogtog, at this time, we have decided not to provide transportation.

Jha also added the DSU has not taken a stance on the protest surrounding Elsipogtog.

“We won’t make a statement about something publicly without consulting our DSU council first. If it’s something that’s an urgent matter that needs to be made the day of, it will have to go through all five of the executives, plus the general manager, and we’ll consult with the communications officer and see if it’s ok.” Some students who saw the planned trip took it as a sign that the DSU had already taken a position on the issue.

“The fact of the matter is that the DSU needs to keep its priorities straight and give a critical look to what is in the best interest of students and not make stretches to make that work,” says FitzGerald-Chamberlain. “In a lot of cases, those environmental protests or social protests are not in best interests of students who aren’t consulted on these sorts of things.”

Despite the controversy, the protests on Saturday were largely peaceful and non-confrontational. Students joined hundreds of protestors on the highway or helped control traffic, while others were just there to observe.

“A lot of people are going up. Hundreds of people have come up from Halifax, people are coming from all over Canada, just to show solidarity with the folks here,” says Aaron Beale, VP academic and external. “A bunch of friends and students decided to share rides and facilitate a group to go up together and just witness what’s happening here so we can come back to Halifax and be better educated.”

While there was police response to the protests, the only visible police presence from the barricades was an aircraft that continuously circled the protesters.

“We weren’t planning to attend or engage in protest,” says Jha. “We were planning on going to Elsipogtog to learn something. That was the purpose of the trip, and that purpose was unattainable, so we had to cancel.”

2 comments on “DSU cancels bus trip to Elsipogtog protest

  1. Krysta Sero on

    As someone who went on this trip, I can say with some degree of authority that those who went to Elsipogtog did indeed learn something while they were there. We spent the drive to Elsipogtog discussing what we knew about fracking on Indigenous land, talking about other protests started by Indigenous nations that revolved around improper use of land, explaining what it means to be an ally, how and where to seek information that escapes the familiar rhetoric of mainstream media, et cetera. Those who went on the trip had varying levels of knowledge: there were some who had little to no awareness about what was happening in Elsipogtog; many who had read a few newspaper articles; those who have been dedicated allies since early summer and had visited Elsipogtog previously; and those who are members of First Nations. Some of us knew more about fracking than we did about Indigenous issues and vice versa. We shared what we knew, what we had read, and what we thought on the drive to Elsipogtog. I read newspaper articles and blog posts on Elsipogtog, Indigeneity, and provincial politics with those in our van.

    Once there, we were welcomed into a camp that was still buzzing from the RCMP raid that happened three days earlier. We heard stories from Mi’kmaq warriors and their communities about their experience on the Thursday previous; we saw the police cars that had been destroyed and learned why this course of action was taken. We heard conversations in the Mi’kmaq language; we learned the songs sung while watching the movements of the jingle dancers. We saw eagle feathers, we smelled sage; we learned of the importance of these sacred items. We saw and participated in the construction of a road block, watching a Mi’kmaq flag as it flapped from the top of a cage fence. I met Wab Kinew and spent the rest of the day sharing with others what I knew about 8th Fire, his rap career, his television appearances, and his position at the University of Winnipeg. Some people were invited to participate in a sweat with community members. We heard speeches of solidarity and support from Anglophones, Acadians and members of the Mi’kmaq Nation. We learned of the buses filled with First Nations passengers, travelling from Ontario and Maine to show their support. We saw the strength of a community united against shale gas fracking, even after being shot with rubber bullets, tear gassed, beaten, and abused by law enforcement officials.

    The original purpose of the trip, as stated by Dalhousie Student Union president Sagar Jha in this article, was “to meet organizers of social movements and understand why they were organizing.” He then says, “We were planning on going to Elsipogtog to learn something. That was the purpose of the trip, and that purpose was unattainable, so we had to cancel.” It would be foolish to argue that students did not obtain some degree of understanding of why organizing was necessary while we were in New Brunswick. How can one say that the purpose of the trip – “to learn something” – was “unattainable” and use an injunction as a reason for why the acquisition of knowledge was now an impossibility? The trip was cancelled because of the potential legalities that could accompany a DSU-funded trip to a location that could not guarantee student safety, not because of an inability to learn.

    Having the president and chief spokesperson of the Dalhousie Student Union stating that the DSU is now cancelling events based on their inability to facilitate learning is mind-boggling. Does this mean all DSU events are supposed to be academically stimulating? Was I supposed to reach a state of intellectual clarity during Frosh Week? I suppose the DSU-promoted event of binge eating all-you-can-eat pizza while listening to vinyl records at Tomavino’s guarantees an experience rich in learning and scholarship? Also important to consider: does the DSU Executive believe they possess the aptitude necessary to accurately determine the level of learning one can obtain at university events, especially after considering the VP Internal sends emails with “Wat up folks” as a salutation and the Free School posters in October consistently misspelled “beginners”?

    Learn something, indeed.

    The obvious apprehension the DSU has in showing support for Elsipogtog is disturbing. Why was it necessary for the president of the DSU to state that an email sent in support of Elsipogtog should not have been sent, then follow-up with those who received the message and publish a public retraction? Does circulating a statement of solidarity require that amount of damage control? Why can “urgent matters” within the DSU reach a resolution within twenty-four hours, but taking a stance on a protest that began in June requires a convoluted explanation about who the DSU needs to consult prior to making a public statement? Why is the DSU hesitant to share their stance on this issue? Does the DSU fear the negative response from students who have a limited understanding of colonization and subsequently see the issue at Elsipogtog as “an illegal protest”? Worse, does the DSU share the same mentality? What did the DSU think was happening in Elsipogtog if they “weren’t planning to attend or engage in protest” but approved a trip… to go to a protest? Does the DSU find it challenging to decide whether they support the protection of the land if Indigenous protestors aren’t doing a round dance?

    To some degree, I can appreciate why the DSU would feel it necessary to cancel an event if it compromised student safety. However, if student safety has always been a priority for the DSU, I find little logic in organizing a trip to a protest where an injunction was issued at the beginning of October against those who had mobilized to defend the land. I struggle to understand the rationality behind the DSU connecting their fear of violence and/or incarceration to a student’s ability to “learn something.” The lengths to which the DSU went to retract its statement of support for Elsipogtog does not demonstrate their priority to “foster interests and support causes” for students; instead, the DSU explains that the student interests and causes that are worth promoting do not include issues that may be seen as contentious. What is happening in Elsipogtog is an opportunity for Dalhousie students to engage in a dialogue about working together to protect the environment, to learn more about the Mi’kmaq nation and the unceded Mi’kmaq territory upon which our university was built, to discuss the representation of First Nations peoples in the media, to challenge personal biases and ways of thought. Students have already taken the initiative to continue learning based on their limited experience at Elsipogtog, organizing groups independent from the DSU to share what they have learned and inviting further discussion. Surely solidarity groups such as these are worthy of DSU endorsement; facilitating conversation is less likely to result in violence and/or incarceration than attending a protest, and it appeases those who believe a student’s ability to “learn something” can only come from a traditional Eurocentric academic experience.

    Supporting Elsipogtog, or supporting the broader issues of land and Indigeniety, does not mean there is an inherent obligation to stand on the front line of a protest and come face to face with law enforcement. Devaluing the learning potential of any experiences of solidarity is not the mandate of the DSU.

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