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:
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.”