It was a July evening in Elsipogtog, and while our fearless reporter – who I was shadowing as part of my summer student work experience — was out gathering intel in Kent County, New Brunswick, Serena and I were sipping tea from Tim Horton’s in her dining room.
Elsipogtog means “river in fire” in the Mi’kmaq language. People like to speak about how the seismic testing lines on line four and five cradle the reserve – there must be something underneath us, they say. One elder says there is a belief among the other nation elders that the white man will try to exploit it, and that the indigenous man will ultimately help him cheat his own people.
We were staying with Serena, who was considered to be an elder in the community. Our reporter liked to play word association games with her, and when I joined in by saying the name “Elsipogtog,” her response made me laugh: in that sweet, grandmotherly accent with her pursed vowels, she said the words “sports bar.”
So I asked her, one day, to take me to her sports bar.
It was a rather Spartan place, but one that she was inimitably proud of – portraits of athletes from the community and her family lined the walls, her brother worked the bar, and they had a great relationship with the greasy breakfast diner which was just a call away from free delivery. I wanted to buy her and our reporter a drink one Friday night simply as a break from the constant hyper-vigilance and tension of a social movement, but our reporter doesn’t drink, so Serena and I took a rain check.
Serena would generally spend her evenings on “the Facebook,” monitoring the Medicine Pickers group that was presumably composed of community members who’d go out to look for medicines to mark the land in accordance with treaty rights. Her house overlooked the Richibucto River, and had a large paper letters spelling out Idle No More on her windows. “No Fracking Way,” said a sign on her lawn. Most houses on the reserve carried such a sign, and in this respect, very little is different from the scenario for the big-budget Hollywood, who-knows-who-bankrolled, Matt Damon-laden “Promised Land.” You knew who was anti-fracking and who was not. Well – you thought you knew. There was always doubt and skepticism as to who to trust. If someone gave you the slip it was cause for concern… Were they working for the RCMP or SWN?
Of course, my point now is to only relay the atmosphere around a social movement in a particular community in a particular point in time. More disciplined, analytical journalism will one day reveal the extent to which the RCMP operates in our communities, and throughout indigenous communities in particular. There’s already ample investigation into that underway.
In other words, if you’ve made a phone call from a particular location at a particular point in time, they’ve likely got a file on you. So deep does the police state work in the psyche that after I returned from New Brunswick, I found myself taking out my cell phone battery every time I merely touched upon my experiences there. For a while I was convinced my phone was tapped. I suffered intense paralysis of thought, deed, and action because of the intense police presence on reserve.
I will never forget having to pass through a particular check point en route to a seismic testing site one day, and the female cop who stopped us. Someone uttered the words “corporate whore.” I wince at these things. I like to give humans the benefit of the doubt, and tend to believe – abstractly – that there is a inexplicable logic to the station each occupies in life. Chalk it up to my dramatic or literary sensibilities.
I was sitting in the back seat of the truck. She asked me what my name was. Someone else advised me I didn’t have to answer. So I refused. She said she’d have to take my photograph. The lady in me did protest internally, but I remained relatively silent, as far as I can remember.
What she did next will never escape me.
She walked around the front of the truck to the passenger side. She opened the door, and with a small, handheld smartphone camera, she held it close to my face, which was turned away from her, but still in profile – and snapped my picture. It was one of the most mortifying moments in my life. The open door, the full-statured woman in uniform – the same officer, mind you, I had let escort me to a “bathroom” in a wooded lot behind a cemetary a previous day – and the act of recording me as though I was a suspect or a criminal – all of my fear coalesced and froze in that moment. She got me. There was no consent between us.
She was an RCMP police officer.
To be frank, I felt violated.
“Did she at least get your good side?” someone joked at camp later that week.
But to return to Serena. It was a full buck moon that July evening. We discussed spirits in photographs – you know when there are those orbs in the photo, and you’re not sure where they came from? They were spirits, said Serena. See? She showed me a photograph where a spirit was hovering over a teacup. There were spirits in the photograph our reporter took with his Canon digital SLR camera the night a SWN truck was seized by the old Skidoo shack on Bronson Road – and others in the community found it to be a very spiritually charged photo. Some wanted it to be blown up for rallies and protests.
I showed Serena a picture I had taken of her sitting on a rock on the beach in the ironically Irving-owned and created provincial park at Bouctouche, New Brunswick. There were spirits there too.
Let me finish some Facebook and let’s go howl at the moon, she said.
OK, I said.
We spread a picnic blanket and sat on the yard overlooking the river. The moon was a full and yellow and impervious to my lame attempts to photograph it. The river was full of its light. Tiny – her big, shedding, woolly sheepdog – ever happy, ever shedding large swaths of its fur – came to join us.
Then we three sat by the riverside and howled at the moon.
Since then, Serena’s car was boxed in by the RCMP while she was simply trying to reach her family. She has filed a complaint with the police commissioner of New Brunswick. As what many likened to Oka when images of burning police cars and reports of molotov cocktails emblazoned the news, please remember that trouble was brewing in corners of experience unrelated to Warriors, sniper cops, or any of that – though they are at the centre of one narrative. It was already brewing in countless peaceful protests of seismic testing work, countless nights huddling around social and sacred fires at blockade camps, at least one lawyered eviction notice sent from the Mi’kmaq band council to SWN, and a further untold many instances of state officials promising – than failing – to meaningfully consult the people for whom exploitation of resources matter most.
In other words, trouble was already brewing at the bottom of a Tim Horton's coffee cup.