FREDERICTON - The RCMP's commanding officer in New Brunswick defended the police response to a shale gas protest where officers seized firearms and improvised explosives, saying Friday that if the Mounties hadn't acted, lives could have been in danger.
"There came a point in time where we knew that this situation was no longer safe and that we had to do something before it turned into a situation where, regrettably, somebody could've been injured or even killed, and that's what triggered the decision," assistant commissioner Roger Brown told a news conference in Fredericton.
Chief Supt. Wayne Gallant said the improvised explosive devices found by police Thursday were modified to discharge shrapnel and used a fuse-ignition system. Officers also seized guns and knives after moving in to enforce a court-ordered injunction to remove protesters at the site of a compound in Rexton where SWN Resources stored exploration equipment.
The Mounties said six police vehicles including an unmarked van were burned and Molotov cocktails were tossed at them before they fired non-lethal sock rounds — beanbag type bullets — and pepper spray to defuse the situation. But Brown said no officers discharged their firearms at any point Thursday.
"Our officers demonstrated incredible professionalism as they worked to resolve the situation under tremendously difficult and dangerous circumstances," he said.
"I will wear my heart on my sleeve for a second. I am so thankful that nothing happened yesterday because we could be having a totally different press conference today. We are so fortunate that this unfolded like it did."
He said he did not know how the weapons ended up at the encampment at the protest site.
"That is quite a large area and we did not have full control over that area," he said.
He said of the 40 arrested for firearms offences, threats, intimidation, mischief and violating the injunction, 31 have been released on a promise to appear in court at a later date.
The protesters, some of whom were members of the Elsipogtog First Nation, were demonstrating for weeks against the development of a shale gas sector in the province.
Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock, who was among those arrested and released, met with Premier David Alward late Friday in a downtown hotel for more than three hours where they said they would meet again to discuss ways of preventing what happened in Rexton.
Sock said his community wants a 30-day period to reflect on what happened and "cool off."
"What happened yesterday is basically a black mark on the RCMP, the province and the First Nation community of Elsipogtog as well," he said. "There's nothing good that came out of it and that's unfortunate but it happened."
Alward said his officials will work next week to set up a framework on how his government and Elsipogtog can move on.
"It's been a long 24 hours for everybody," he said. "But I believe what everybody realizes is we don't want to see what took place yesterday happen again."
He said the possibility of a moratorium on shale gas development was not being considered at this point.
Earlier in Halifax, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay called for an end to any further confrontations and the resumption of talks to resolve the dispute over shale gas exploration.
"There's obviously a need to respect the law and to avoid violence and return to discussions," he said at a roundtable discussion on justice issues.
"That is what we're all encouraging and hoping for, but when violence erupts you can expect the police are there to keep the peace and to protect citizens."
The RCMP blocked Route 134 on Sept. 29 after a protest there began spilling onto the road. Protesters subsequently cut down trees that were placed across another part of the road, blocking the entrance to the compound.
The protesters want SWN Resources to stop seismic testing and leave the province.
SWN Resources issued a statement Friday saying it is in the early stages of exploration in New Brunswick.
"Our employees are dedicated to the safety of people and the environment, as well as ensuring we are in full compliance with all regulations," it said.
Demonstrations were also held in other parts of the country Friday to support the protesters in Rexton.