British Columbians are drawing a line in the sand

By Leslie Campbell, May 2012

If citizens’ voices count, Enbridge’s pipeline will not be built.

Comox, March 31. Outside it’s chilly, but a boisterous crowd keeps warm with speeches and songs and cheers of “no tankers.” Some are wearing costumes, and most sport at least a blue scarf or hat to symbolize the ocean they see as endangered by oil tankers plying BC’s rugged coast.

Inside the nearby community centre, the hearings of the Joint Review Panel for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project are being conducted with utmost decorum. Any sign of boisterousness—even a smattering of applause—is politely but firmly quashed by Chairperson Sheila Leggett.

This is likely the only Vancouver Island hearing into the massive project that would see 525,000 barrels a day of oilsands-derived liquified bitumen moved 1200 kilometres to Kitimat. There it will be loaded onto supertankers—hundreds of them each year.

At first it’s the cold that entices me inside, but gradually I find myself totally entranced by the presentations. In the 10 minutes allowed each speaker (who had to officially register months ago), they discuss the problems with the pipeline and tankers in forceful, passionate, fact-filled, unique ways. 

I am moved and impressed. Here are ordinary Canadians (“radicals” and “extremists” according to Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources), in some cases evidently nervous, in all cases not professional speakers, doing a polished, professional job that at the same time is personal and heartfelt. They include church leaders, wilderness guides, an 11-year-old boy, a retired school administrator, a marketing professional, mariners, an aquaculturist, a former treaty negotiator, and a heavy industry chemist.

They so clearly love this place and fear for its safety. They so graciously yet righteously urge the panel to take their responsibility seriously, insisting this exercise be a meaningful one. They admit to some cynicism on this score, having heard that federal Conservatives are keen to limit environmental assessments, and that Prime Minister Harper has already decided the pipeline is in the national interest. Premier Christy Clark too seems to be counting on the pipeline (hopefully not influenced by Enbridge’s $32,000 donation in 2011). Scepticism about the process is plentiful—but these people are still willing to engage, to not give up without a fight. They are determined to protect their home.

Some speakers concentrate on how we need to use our resources more wisely and develop renewable sources of energy. They point to the lack of a national energy plan and the liquidation of precious resources. Others, like Jack Rosen of the Sea Kayakers Alliance of BC, zero in on the technicalities of manoeuvring a ship in certain parts of Hecate Strait that make an oil spill almost inevitable. Pointing to Wright Sound on a map, Rosen explains how the winds descend on it from six nearby channels, often resulting in gales of 45 knots with 25-foot seas (or worse). Yet this is where massive tankers must negotiate tricky turns—twice: “The tankers are…going to take a 110-degree turn at Wright passage, make another 110-degree turn going up into Douglas Channel. The risks in this area are huge.” 

All presenters speak of the devastation—of communities, livelihoods, ecosystems and a myriad of species—that would result from an oil spill. Hundred of miles of coastline could be affected, including the deep fjords and salmon-bearing streams of the Great Bear Rain Forest.

One presenter points out that an oil spill will put 45,000 existing jobs at risk for an estimated 560 pipeline jobs (Enbridge claims there’ll be 1150 long-term jobs). Many question the “flawed economic paradigm” that is destroying all that we truly need: healthy soil, water and air.

As almost everyone notes, Enbridge might say every precaution will be taken, but the corporation cannot guarantee that no spill will occur. Their pipelines are regularly in the news springing leaks. And we’ve seen how human error and tankers make for a dangerous—and costly—combination.


The chorus of condemnation of Enbridge’s plan is growing, from union leaders and tourist operators to the councils of communities like Smithers, Prince Rupert, and Terrace. On Good Friday, Anglican bishops issued a statement expressing concern that the panel resist political pressure and remain fair and open. Most recently, economist Robyn Allan, the former president of ICBC, stated that the plan compromises BC’s sovereignty.

But no one has spoken more eloquently and forcefully than First Nations people. 

I listened to the webcast of the Bella Bella hearings, which followed those in Comox, and then read, with increasing emotion, transcripts of hearings at Haida Gwaii and Kitkatla where First Nations elders and chiefs patiently told panelists about their culture, traditional laws, way of life, spirituality, and their obligations to future generations—and how an oil spill would ruin it all.

April Churchill, elected vice-president of the Haida Nation, explained “A core Haida principle is that the living generation holds the land, waters and life forces in trust for the benefit of future generations. We may not infringe on their rights. Consequently, we speak against any risk of poisoning, degradation or destruction to any part of our waters, lands, people and Haida Gwaii life forces through supertanker oil spills and bilges that bring introduced species…We cannot put our precious homeland at risk.” 

Chiefs stressed their jurisdiction, their right to be meaningfully consulted. Elmer Moody, elected chief for Kitkatla Band, had strong words for Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel who came to the community a couple of years ago promising to not proceed with the project if there was opposition from Gitxaala: “[I]t’s disingenuous for the CEO of a multinational company to come in to a community to say, ‘If there is opposition, we won’t move forward.’ There was opposition.” 

The people of this place—especially the first people—have spoken clearly: They do not want the pipeline and tankers. They have very reasonable concerns about the risks it poses to land and sea, and the communities and animals who depend on them.


The Northern Gateway Project Joint Review Panel is charged with providing both an environmental assessment and a decision, under the National Energy Act, as to whether Enbridge’s pipeline is in the “public interest.” Given all they’ve heard, I can’t imagine in my wildest dreams how the three panelists, obviously intelligent people, could recommend the pipeline go ahead. 

But then I recall that Transport Canada just endorsed the tanker plan as safe (to be precise, it stated that it had “no regulatory concerns”). More and more it seems our institutions cannot be trusted to exercise common sense. Too often what seems to matter most is if some large industry player can make money. 

Benefits of the pipeline project do, in fact, seem to flow primarily to the corporations, and geographically to Alberta and China. The latter will get the lion’s share of jobs as it will be refining the bitumen and using the oil to fuel its economy. 

The frenzied rush to extract this finite, non-renewable resource and ship it out of our country—which still imports half the oil it uses—seems antiquated and short-sighted. Yet for this, BC is being asked to risk devastating its coast and its ecosystems for years to come. 

If this Joint Review Panel approves the pipeline, or if the government OKs it regardless, I predict massive civil disobedience, with protests reminiscent of (but larger than) the Clayoquot era, as well as multiple court cases instigated by First Nations whose aboriginal title to the land is being ignored. The Gitxaala have already launched one challenging Transport Canada’s tanker review. 

For Victorians, the Northern Gateway Project is just a warm-up act for an even more direct threat: Kinder Morgan is planning on almost tripling the capacity of its Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver so it can ship oil to Asia and the US. Hundreds more supertankers will head out of Burnaby’s Westridge Terminal, hugging the south end of Vancouver Island before heading out to sea. These tankers can carry four times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez. Mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby have recently opposed the plan, and Victoria’s Mayor Fortin told the Globe & Mail “The risk may be low, but a single event could be catastrophic.”

As 21-year-old Kirsty Graham said at the Comox hearings: “Through all the times that we have silently watched corporate interests take over the landscape, let it be known that this once we stood up and were heard.”

Leslie Campbell is Focus’ editor. Transcripts for the Northern Gateway hearings are at Comments can be sent to the Joint Panel Review until August 31, 2012.