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How Grassroots Activism Saved a Small Town in “Water Warriors”

By Joy Kwak

· Advocacy Stories

Grassroots activism has defied countless odds and ensured numerous environmental victories over the years. The unique strength and resilience of grassroots activism is highlighted throughout the film “Water Warriors”, a documentary which describes the monumental standoff between New Brunswickers and SWN in 2010. The documentary opens with the sound of water and a single line: “nothing in this world can live without water.” That sentiment, which pushed hundreds and thousands of people to protest fracking in a small town in New Brunswick, is the motivating factor behind many, if not all, climate protests and marches for water today. Although water is undisputedly necessary for the survival of every organic thing on this planet, it is frequently exploited, privatized, and stolen from local communities by multi-national companies. “Water Warriors: Nothing In This World Can Live Without Water” recounts the story of one of Canada’s most historic grassroots victories over corporations -- in this case, SWN, a trans-national shale gas company based in Texas, US. The company was given the provincial government’s approval to look for natural gas deposits, which would be fracked if found in abundance. When it was revealed that the potential fracking would occur on residential areas and near Mi’kmaq territory, the threat of contaminated water and health concerns drove the worried citizens to protest SWN’s efforts.

The rest of the film delves into how the community reacted; it shows the road blockade manned by Mi’kmaq water warriors, the flyers spread to alert other residents about SWN, and the rainy marches where hundreds of New Brunswickers held signs that read “No Shale Gas”. However, with a rise in populist protest and civil disobedience inevitably comes the firm hand of the law. Local RCMP, police forces, and SWN security guards were dispatched to the blockade and demonstration, where the standoffs escalated; the police advanced on the protestors while activists tried to resist, and Molotov cocktails were thrown into police cars while many protestors were detained, jailed, or rough-handed.

The civilian pushback in the form of civil disobedience illustrates how the urgency of the climate crisis pushes many communities to risk fines or jail time in order to safeguard their natural resources and health. In this particular case, SWN’s fracking in proximate areas would have negatively impacted the quality of the town and the band's drinking water, as well as ruin the surrounding ecosystems and biodiversity. When protestors showed that they wouldn’t back down from defending their water, the company began to work in quieter ways and the trucks began to reroute to different remote areas to search for deposits. When they did, protestors relied on community networks and local relationships to locate the vehicles, and gas station employees and passers-by that witnessed the slew of trucks on the highway notified protestors, who would alert others. In such ways, grassroots activism empowers and fuels itself.

Another crucial point made by the film is the importance of cross-cultural, inter-generational, and trans-national cooperation in civilian activism. As the only bilingual province in the country, New Brunswick boasts of an extensive Acadian (French-speaking) and Anglo (English-speaking) population and is where two Nations are located (Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik nations). The documentary particularly draws on the symbolism and significance of water to the Mi’kmaq peoples, emphasizing the reasons why the people were fighting to preserve Mi’kma’ki (the land). The stand against SWN was described by one Anglo activist as a time when everyone came together to fight, and symbolized a unifying desire across cultures and nations to have clean water. The fight spanned generations as well -- young Mi’kma’qi were taught to keep the sacred fire lit, while many activists cited their children and grandchildren as the main reasons for why they were fighting, despite not being activists “by nature”. Finally, the protest exceeded Canadian borders in 2010 when the coverage of the protest went viral, drawing hundreds of supporters and attention from Europe and the Americas. The scale of support shown to the water defenders was so enormous and pressuring that eventually, SWN closed its Moncton office due to “uncertainty about the shale gas industry in New Brunswick” and a new elected premier issued a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracking until specific conditions were met by companies.

The importance of defending water is a personal and important issue to all of us. The case of New Brunswick in 2010 shows how civilians and normal, everyday people can achieve enormous change when they advocate and react together. Through collaboration, communication, and unified advocacy, all of our climate concerns can be turned into victories for the people.