By Julie Gordon
Oct 17 (Reuters) - Police in the eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick arrested about 40 people on Thursday after efforts to dismantle a highway barricade turned violent and protesters against shale gas exploration set several police vehicles on fire.
The incident came in response to a weeks-long protest by activists and local aboriginals, who blocked a road near the town of Rexton to try to slow work by SWN Resources Canada, a subsidiary of Southwestern Energy Co, which is exploring shale gas properties in the area.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) moved in early on Thursday to break up the blockade. They said officers were attacked with Molotov cocktails and at least one shot was fired, but not by them.
Susan Levi-Peters, the former chief of the nearby Elsipogtog aboriginal reserve, said the police had moved in aggressively on unarmed protesters.
"The RCMP is coming in here with their tear gas - they even had dogs on us," she said. "They were acting like we're standing there with weapons, while we are standing there, as women, with drums and eagle feathers. This is crazy. This is not Canada."
Levi-Peters said six police vehicles were burning in the street and the Elsipogtog chief and some of the reserve's council members had been arrested.
A police spokeswoman was not immediately available to confirm the arrests, but pictures of Elsipogtog chief Aaron Sock and two others being escorted away by police were posted on Twitter.
The RCMP said dozens of people were arrested on various charges, including weapons offences, mischief and refusing to abide by the court injunction.
"The RCMP has worked diligently with all parties involved in hopes for a peaceful resolution," said Constable Jullie Rogers-Marsh. "Those efforts have not been successful. Tensions were rising and serious criminal acts are being committed."
Members of the Elsipogtog reserve have long opposed SWN's efforts to explore for gas in the region. They want a moratorium on shale gas exploration and say the company did not consult them before starting work.
Their efforts have been buoyed by the "Idle no More" movement, a grassroots effort to bring more attention to the poor living conditions on native reserves and to help aboriginal communities gain more control over natural resource projects.