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Run-down of 1st day of Prince Rupert hearings on Enbridge pipeline

The first day of National Energy Board hearings on the Enbridge pipeline in Prince Rupert.

This morning was the first day of the Joint Review Panel hearings in Prince Rupert on the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project

Right off the bat, conflicts over what counted as oral evidence and accusations of disrespect began almost immediately. Skeena-Bulkey Valley MP Nathan Cullen began his testimony with criticisms of how Enbridge has been dealing with communities since the project was first proposed years ago. The energy company's lawyer objected saying that the rules say that presenters can only talk about their own experiences and opinions on how the project might affect the environment. Cullen argued with the panel for close to half an hour saying that it was impossible to separate the impact on the land from the impact on First Nations who he says are the land stewards.

The gallery in the convention centre was packed with many people wearing blue scarves as a sign of solidarity against the project, and they did not stay silent. As Cullen argued his position, people cheered points they agreed with, booed the Enbridge council's objections and some shouted, "let him speak!". The panel chair had to call again and again for order.

One of the dancers from Metlakatla who performed at the beginning of the ceremony, in full regalia was asked to leave. The panel told Cullen to either limit his testimony or step down and wait until the proper time for arguments. After a short break Cullen came back and talked about his personal experiences from moving to northern British Columbia and as its MP, all selected to highlight his position that a whole way of life is at stake, not just the environment.

The next speaker was the chief of Metlakatla, Harold Leighton, who bristled at the fact that a Metlakatla dancer had been asked to leave, saying this was very disrespectful. Leighton talked about the culture, history and political structure of the Coast Tsimshian. DNA evidence, he said, showed that modern members of the group can trace their ancestry in the area back 5000 years, and the diet had not changed much in that time. But says now ancient culture is at risk.

"It would take one accident to destroy our whole way of life," Leighton told the panel.

Hereditary Chief of Metlakatla, Clarence Nelson, described for the panel the history and practices of how his people collect their food. Metlakatala has survived off what it can collect form the sea and it still does. Nelson says food security is the most important part of their traditional culture.

The next presenter for Metlakatla was Robert Nelson who works as a fisherman and lives in the village. He went into at great length describing what how fishermen go and harvest their traditional foods and how that has been impacted by development on the North Coast in recent years. Fish stocks are depleting all around them which nelson credits not just to fisher mismanagement but to overzealous recreational fishing, boat accidents and the pollution that already exists in the Hecate Strait, which no one bothers to try to clean up.

Fanny Nelson described for the panel the cultural importance of teaching their younger generations the how to catch, clean, store and eat their traditional foods. Fanny says that even something as seemingly significant as learning how their family strings up fish in a smokehouse (every family has a different way of doing it) connects them to their culture, and the sharing of the day's catch, preparing for winter or feasting together is an important part of the fabric of their communities. All of which would be lost if there was ever a tanker spill

“If we lose our traditional foods, then we have nothing,” says Fanny Nelson.

David Leask works for Metlaktla's treaty office and talked to the panel about the impact the tankers could have on his nation's future developments. Leask says that Metlakatla knows that the North Coast has a lot of economic pressure bearing down on it and says that their treaty office is “not anti-industry or anti-development,” but it will fight for the First Nation's priorities and goals for their territory, and the pipeline puts too much at risk for it to fit in with them. The Enbridge pipeline isn't alone though, Leask says they worry about the cumulative affects on the environment of all the development that has been going on already. With this in mind, he says, Metlakatla has been lobbying with some success for more things like conservation boundaries to protect certain areas of their territory.

To conclude Metlakatla's presentation, Harold Leighton reiterated his community's opposition to the pipeline, characterizing negotiations with the company as “trying to buy off First Nations.” Metlakatla, he said, will never be bought off. He also took aim at the federal government.

“They call us radicals. If trying to protect our traditional resources and the environment is radical, then we are radicals,” concluded Leighton.

Next person to give evidence was local MLA Gary Coons. Unlike Cullen who was told repeatedly to stick to his own experiences, Coons did just that, but perhaps a little too much. The North Coast MLA started out with an account of him moving to BC, how he taught a hockey coaching seminar, and even a story about how he chased off a bear from his yard with a weed-whacker. Enbridge's lawyer after listening for 40 minutes asked how anything he was saying was relevant, Coons was asked to get to the point four times by the energy board chair. He finally did, but only during the last 15 minutes of an hour long speech.