The Examiner

RCMP violently remove and arrest citizen at public meeting about gold mine

Joan Baxter

May 27, 2019
SHERBROOKE, NS - If yesterday’s information session was meant to convince the people of Sherbrooke — or for that matter any other Nova Scotians — that Atlantic Gold has their best interests at heart, it failed — spectacularly.

And I mean spectacularly.

Not only were most of the people who spoke up strongly opposed to Atlantic Gold’s proposed mine in Cochrane Hill on the banks of the St. Mary’s River in Guysborough County, and very vocal about their fears of what the proposed open pit gold mine would do to the river and their community, the event also resulted in the brutal arrest of an innocent citizen.

It had been billed as an “informal information session” on “Tailings dams and tailings management: the Atlantic Gold approach,” with three experts who were being brought in to answer “questions from the community related to best practices for the design, construction and operations of tailings management facilities” that Atlantic Gold is “committed to using” for its proposed Cochrane Hill Gold Mine

In the announcement, Atlantic Gold said refreshments were going to be on offer and it extended the invitation to the public, saying: “Please join us in attending this informational session.”

It was possibly meant to be something of a public relations effort to try to appease concerned citizens about the potential impact of such a mine and its toxic tailings in advance of the big acquisition announced last week, that the Australian gold producer, St. Barbara Limited, was purchasing Vancouver-based Atlantic Gold for $722 million.

But it was definitely promoted as a public meeting.

Originally, the event was planned for Thursday between 3:00 and 4:30pm at the Sherbrooke firehall, with a capacity of 70 people. But citizens from the area were worried that many would not be able to get to the meeting during working hours, and after they made several phone calls to Atlantic Gold, the company added a second session from 5 to 6:30pm.

It all began quietly enough. In the jam-packed room, Atlantic Gold communications director Dustin O’Leary welcomed people to the session, asking that any “civil action” be taken outside, and reminding the audience that the experts were there to talk only about mine tailings management.

He also said that the sessions were being videotaped and that they would make them available on Atlantic Gold’s website.

I dearly hope they do, but given what happened, I rather doubt they will (at least not without some huge edits).

The first presenter, Peter Lighthall, “an independent geotechnical consultant with 48 years of experience,” offered basic information about the various kinds of tailings facilities that mines use for their waste. He also ran through a few of the more horrific mine tailings disasters in recent years — Mt. Polley in BC in 2014, and then a couple of catastrophic, deadly ones in Brazil.

Referring to the Mt. Polley disaster, which has left the people of BC with a $40 million clean-up bill and lasting pollution in Quesnel Lake, part of the Fraser River system, Lighthall said, “In a way it was a good thing. It was a wake-up call for industry.”

He had made it only about halfway through his PowerPoint presentation when the questions began. The audience was well-informed, asking for specifics of the proposed mine at Cochrane Hill, how much water it would use, what effect the tailings might have on the river, what chemicals would be in tailings effluent, and how long the company would be hanging around to monitor the tailings after the mine closed, and who would pay if something happened to the tailings facility after they were long gone.

Others expressed concerns about the mercury- and arsenic-laced historic mine tailings that would have to be unearthed should Atlantic Gold put in the open pit gold mines that it has proposed for Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill, in addition to the one it already operates in Moose River.

They also challenged members of the panel, introduced as “independent” experts, about the extent of their independence given that they were being paid by Atlantic Gold to do the presentation, and are also on the payroll as the members of the “independent tailings review board” that the company has retained for the Cochrane Hill mine.

Several times the experts had to defer to James Millard, Atlantic Gold’s head of environment and permitting, for answers, admitting that they didn’t have any detailed information for some of the specific questions about Cochrane Hill and the design of a tailings facility that would work best there.

Towards the end, Atlantic Gold’s COO, Maryse Belanger appeared near the back of the room, and interrupted, admonishing the audience for asking questions relating to the “business” side of things and not sticking only to tailings questions. She did not look happy.

Then the first session was over. Refreshments were indeed served, and several participants decided to stick around for the second session, hoping there would be fewer people in attendance and they might have a chance to ask a few more questions.

Some who spoke to me said they wanted to ask about the mercury in historic tailings from gold mining in the 1800s and 1900s at the mine location, and what would happen to the mercury when Atlantic Gold “reprocessed” those tailings, something Millard said they might do.

John Perkins, a member of the citizens’ group Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia (SuNNS), told me he wanted to ask the panellists whether they intended to adhere to recommendations made by a review panel after the Mt. Polley disaster, that no tailings facilities should be constructed upstream from communities or environmentally sensitive areas.

Perkins wasn’t given a chance to ask that question.

The second session had just begun when a few people who were preparing to take their seats at the back of the room were approached by a tall, burly fellow who said they had attended the first session and now had to leave.

He pointed to four individuals: Scott Beaver, head of the St. Mary’s River Association who leads the No Open Pit Excavation (NOPE) campaign; Madeline Conacher and John Perkins of SuNNS; and myself, there to cover the event for the Halifax Examiner. (There were others in the audience who had also attended the first session who were not being asked to leave.)

We countered that Atlantic Gold’s communications director said it was fine for anyone to attend the second session, as long as there was enough room for those who hadn’t been able to make the first session. Since about half the seats were empty, we pointed out that there was no reason for us to leave.

The security agent, wearing no uniform or identification, refused to tell us who he was, and said he would call the police if we didn’t leave.

A few minutes later, he was back with an RCMP officer in tow. The RCMP officer went immediately after John Perkins, who recalls that he was told to accompany the officer outside. When Perkins asked why, and refused to go, backing away, the officer accused him of resisting arrest, forced him out the door and brutally wrestled him to the ground, under the watchful eye of the security guard.

Neither the RCMP officer nor the security guard seemed concerned when I told them that Perkins had a heart condition. The RCMP officer roughly handcuffed him, despite Perkins’ repeated cries that the cuffs were too tight. He then put him in the RCMP vehicle and took him to the Sherbrooke police station.

There was stunned silence in the hall.

Full disclosure: John Perkins is my neighbour and also a family friend.

I asked Atlantic Gold’s communications director Dustin O’Leary why Perkins had been arrested and why four people (including me) had been told to leave. This is when I learned that the public meeting to which Atlantic Gold had invited people was actually, according to O’Leary, not public at all, but a “private” meeting.

After that, the communications director clammed up and refused to answer my questions about who the security guard was working for and on whose orders he had been acting.

I then addressed the same questions to Belanger, who had taken a place at the head table with the panellists. She admitted that the security person worked for Atlantic Gold, but refused to say who had given the orders for our eviction or to call the police.

“Shockingly brutal”
To describe yesterday’s information session as a PR disaster hardly does the fiasco justice.

Several people walked out of the session. Others took to social media to make their views known.

Ray Plourde, Wilderness Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, tweeted, “I cannot believe the shocking scene I just witnessed” and described the event as “shockingly brutal.”

On her Facebook page, Élise Franceline Jordan-Rochichaud of Sherbrooke, wrote:

Tonight, my mother and I went to a meeting hosted by Atlantic Gold about their tailings system — how it works, etc. I oppose the gold mine that will be set up in Cochrane Hill but I went with an open mind. About ten minutes into the presentation an RCMP officer shows up to arrest one of the attendees. This man was in a public meeting, in a public place, who was not disturbing the peace (I didn’t realize he was even there at first.) He was not told why they were arresting him. The police officer threw him on the ground, cuffed him and dragged him away.

We were at this point very upset and confused and wanted to know what was going on. When asked who authorized the security guard to call the police, no one fessed up. Maryse Belanger, the COO of the company claimed that it was a private meeting (it wasn’t. I didn’t get an invite. No one did). She said she wanted everyone to stay and ask questions. One woman brought up [that] if this was the case, why were four of them at the previous meeting asked to leave? They did not have an answer. Mom said to just be honest, tell us who called the cops, and we could move on. No one would take responsibility. So most of us walked out. This entire event has been recorded and will hopefully reach the media soon.

But tell me again how this mine is supposed to be good for our community when they treat us like this?

… I don’t have an open mind on this topic anymore. I am disgusted and appalled at Atlantic Gold’s attitude, but sadly, not surprised.

John Perkins was released after two hours in custody, with no charges laid. Because of numbness in his wrist, he went to the hospital in Sherbrooke and was told by the doctor that he had nerve damage from the handcuffs, and that his wrist is sprained.

Perkins told the Halifax Examiner that he was sitting quietly at the meeting and that he had done absolutely nothing to warrant either being evicted or arrested.

He added:

I’m glad this was in Nova Scotia, where all that happened is that I was slightly roughed up. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a citizen concerned about Canadian mining in some other parts of the world, where they might end up dead for defending water against a gold mine.

Perkins hasn’t yet decided what he will do, but he says he will be seeking legal advice.

NOTE: Link below has video of the meeting.

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