Not far from the dark waters that could one day carry supertankers of oil-sands crude to the Pacific Ocean, the pitched battle over the Northern Gateway pipeline took a very public stage as opponents called on God and salmon to fight a project they see as dangerous.
Over the next two years, the federal review panel assessing the $6.6-billion proposed Enbridge Inc. pipeline will travel to dozens of communities, on the route and off it, and hear from the thousands who have asked to speak.
On Tuesday, the first day of public hearings, the three-person panel arrived in Kitamaat Village, a Haisla community on the shores of Douglas Channel. Although Ottawa has invoked the spectre of foreign-funded radicals plotting to derail the project, the real fight was here, in coastal communities where the Exxon Valdez spill still resonates and many first nations communities fear the consequences of a pipeline on their traditional territory and local waters.
Kitamaat Village's spectacular waterfront could one day look out on the end of the Gateway pipeline and the ships that would carry crude to new customers in Asia and California, delivering untold extra riches to Canada's energy sector and governments. That is, if the panel gives its blessing to a project that, while Enbridge has pledged to build it to the most modern safety standards, has stirred immense concern about what oil could do to the bounty of seafood and recreation in this part of northern British Columbia.
Before the panel could speak, it faced a community calling on a higher power to defeat the project. In the highly charged atmosphere that has surrounded the Northern Gateway, even an opening invocation was a battle cry.
"We ask you to protect our traditional territory and its treasures," Verlie Nelson, the daughter of a Haisla clan matriarch, said in a prayer before the panel.
First, Ms. Nelson said, those natural resources were injured by local industrialization. "And now, father, there is a new threat," she prayed. "God, please help."
Haisla hereditary chief Sam Robinson indicated in his testimony that his people are preparing to fight for a right to say no.
"We want to have a voice, and we're going to have a voice."
The bitter opposition to Northern Gateway raised fears that the hearings would turn sour. At Kitamaat Village, RCMP brought in outside members to bolster its presence, while local youth helped search bags, and the panel begged for courtesy.
Fears were stoked, in part, by allegations from Canada's government that foreign money and foreign interest groups could subvert the hearings.
On Tuesday, those concerns seemed ill-founded. The roughly 500 seats in the recreation centre where hearing was held were filled primarily with first nations faces. The non-natives, most of whom opposed the project, came primarily from the area. A retired pulp mill worker from Kitimat. A community organizer from Smithers. A concerned fishing-lodge cook from Terrace. A power engineer who works at Kitimat's Rio Tinto Alcan smelter, and his wife, a stay-at-home mother.
The only indication of a foreign presence was a man outside the hearing in a red-and-black hat marked with an "M." The man, a former Kitimat mayoral candidate who opposes Northern Gateway, was dressed as Mario, the video-game plumber. He waved a neon green sign that said: "I Heart Pipes."
"Me and my brother love pipes," he said. "We are Italian."
Then, as someone pointed a video camera at him, he broke character:
"If this goes on YouTube, it goes viral. You understand."
For the most part, however, the pageantry and colourful protest that often attend such events was absent. There was an opening ceremonial dance. There were no busloads of activists. Those gathered listened intently, breaking into applause a few times. For many on the B.C. coast, this is not a game. It's an urgent struggle.
The hearing also drew first nations people from nearby communities – Klemtu, Hartley Bay, Bella Bella – accessible only by boat or airplane. The joint review panel plans to visit each of them, but the opening day was significant for those eager to prove that opposition sweeps across the waters those coastal communities share.
"This is our one and only chance to get our concern across to the panel, to make sure they understand us and where we're coming from – that this ocean is our bread and butter," said Ray Green, a Haisla. He and others referred to the long traditions of living from a store of salmon, halibut, clams, cockles and mussels so rich that, historically, hunger was virtually unknown.
Mary Nyce, who owns the Seamasters restaurant in Kitamaat Village, added: "If it's pushed through, it would be the end of our history."
Enbridge has pledged to go beyond legal requirements to ensure safety of the pipe and tankers. Pipelines are the safest way to move crude – and along much of the Northern Gateway route, first nations have shown support. Nearly two dozen have signed up to take an ownership stake.