Nova Scotia RCMP arrested three people and closed a rural road north of Halifax as they enforced a court injunction removing protesters from a blockade at the Alton Gas site near Fort Ellis, N.S.
The women, described as “grassroots grandmothers,” were taken into custody without incident for “civil contempt of an injunction order,” RCMP said on Wednesday.
The trio were not charged and were released from the RCMP detachment in Enfield around 3 p.m.
The blockade at Fort Ellis was set up more than two years ago by Indigenous protesters and supporters opposed to a plan by Alton Gas to store natural gas in large, underground caverns about 12 kilometres away.
The protesters, who say they’re defending the land and water, fear the nearby Shubenacadie River will be irrevocably polluted if the company moves ahead with its plan to create the caverns by using water from the river to flush out salt deposits and then dump the leftover brine into the river.
The grandmothers who were arrested – Kukuwis Wowkis, Kiju Muin and Darlene Gilbert – said they occupied the site on their unceded territory to protect its resources for the next seven generations. They question the science submitted by Alton Gas and approved by legislators that claims there will not be significant, permanent damage to the ecosystem and its spawning fish.
“We decided in wise council that we were going to go get arrested together under this so-called Canadian law, which we do not recognize, because our treaty law supersedes all Canadian laws as long as we’re following the seven sacred teachings,” Kukuwiswowkis told Global News outside the RCMP office in Enfield.
“We’re standing there to protect even their own children’s human rights of living and healthy food,” added Kijum Muin, referring to RCMP present on the site, and the Alton Gas workers themselves.
It was unclear what happened when police moved in on Wednesday morning. The RCMP set up roadblocks, preventing journalists and other grandmothers from reaching the site. Officers cited security concerns as their justification for the blockade, but declined to tell reporters what those concerns were.
The women who were arrested later told Global News that they were treated respectfully by female officers.
“The RCMP is absolutely impartial in this,” Clarke told reporters at the roadblock, about three kilometres from the work site. “We respect Indigenous culture and we also respect the company’s right to conduct their business.”
While the roadblock has been disbanded, she said police will maintain an “increased presence in the area to monitor the situation.”
Elder Dorene Bernard, an academic and member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation in nearby Indian Brook, N.S., referred to those arrested as “grassroots grandmothers.”
“We have a long fight ahead of us,” she told reporters at the roadblock. “This is our treaty right. It should be our and other Nova Scotians’ right to stand up to protect their water.”
“We’re going to always stand and protect the sacred,” added Mi’kmaw treaty scholar, Michelle Paul. “Mark by words Alton Gas, you’re not going to be successful, because the people of Nova Scotia, they know. They’re going to follow their hearts.”
She encouraged Nova Scotians to read up on the project and familiarize themselves with Alton’s plan.
In an emailed statement, Alton Gas said it required an injunction in order to safely access its equipment and infrastructure on the site. The project does not yet have all the legal approvals required to begin construction.
“At Alton, we respect the right to peaceful protest, but for safety reasons, the work site itself is open to Alton employees and approved contractors only,” wrote spokeswoman Lori Maclean.
“We are committed to working with government, the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia and local communities on the next steps regarding development of the Alton Natural Gas Storage Project.”
Down the road, where the company had set up a fenced-in area for protesters to make their views known, there were no demonstrators to be seen. However, about 10 red dresses were left hanging on the fence – symbols meant to draw attention to the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
WATCH: Global News coverage of the Alton Gas project
The injunction, issued on March 27 by Justice Gerald Moir of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, says that protester Dale Poulette, his partner Rachael Greenland-Smith and others must stop occupying a small homemade house on the site. They left the site shortly after the injunction was granted.
The court order also laid out a small patch of fenced land where protesters will be required to remain as they continue to occupy the unceded Mi’kmaw territory. Opponents have dismissed the official “protest site” as a “playpen.”
The court order says the RCMP may arrest any person who violates the order. It also says the protesters must conduct their protest peacefully, only during daylight hours and cannot set up “any inhabitation” at the site.
As the Canadian Press reported earlier this month, the order prohibits people from interfering by force, threats or coercion with Alton Gas and utility workers seeking entrance to the site at 625 Riverside Rd. for the “purpose of investigating a recent power outage and assessing and repairing property damage arising therefrom and for all other operational and security purposes.”
Protesters have gathered at the site for several years, arguing that the plan poses dangers to the traditional fisheries of the Mi’kmaq and risks harming the river used by Indigenous populations for thousands of years.
Critics of the Alton Gas project say it poses dangers to traditional Mi’kmaq fishing grounds, which have been used for more than 13,000 years.
Residents in the area saw an increase in police resources in the Stewiacke area throughout the day.
“It’s important that there are officers available to respond as needed,” said Clarke.
“For public and police safety, body-worn cameras will be used.”
—With files from Elizabeth McSheffrey and the Canadian Press