Heiltsuk Hereditary Chiefs

Last week I was in Bella Bella to witness the Joint Panel Review (JRP) hearings for the Enbridge Gateway Pipeline.

The Heiltsuk First Nation is one of the many communities that would be impacted by this project. As such the community intervened in the JPR to speak directly to the members of the Panel. The Panel had planned to be in Bella Bella from Monday, April 2nd to Thursday, April 5th to hear oral testimony from the various representatives of the Nation ranging from hereditary Chiefs, fisherman, council members and young people that participated in a 2 Day Hunger Strike to protest the pipeline and tanker project.

The concern with this mega tar sands pipeline project is that it would go through the Great Bear Rainforest, crossing over 700 streams, and 3 major Salmon bearing rivers.  Once it reaches Kitimat, the heavy crude would be loaded into Supertankers the size of the Empire State Building where it would be shipped to Asia or California.

We have never seen tankers this big cross the water of the beautiful north west coast. These tankers would carry 8 times more oil than was spilled during the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska – where effects which are still being felt over 20 years later where fishing in the area has been shut down indefinitely.  Another alarming point about this plan is that the waters where over 225 super tankers would pass through each year are rated the 4th most dangerous waters in the world.

So on Sunday, April 1st the community planned a peaceful rally in Bella Bella to welcome their oldest and most revered hereditary Chief to the community as well as the Joint Panel Review. The day started with the school children heading to the school to walk together to the small airport just outside of town. They carried signs saying “Our Homelands – Our Choice” to  “No to Enbridge” that they had worked on the week earlier.

Traditional singers and drummers played as the Chief was welcomed and the JRP headed to their pick up van. The school children and community members lined the road holding signs displaying their opposition to the Enbridge project, chanting in unison – “No Tankers, No Pipeline, No Problem”.

Once the van left the area, the children and community members began to walk or drive back to town with many people laughing and smiling along the way. By the time we reached the town, it was announced that the invitation to a community feast the Heiltsuk Leadership extended to the JRP was refused. Instead the JRP members were whisked away across the water to a neighbouring non-Native community where they spent the rest of their evening at a local pub.

At the end of the community feast which was filled with drumming, signing, dancing and delicious coastal food – it was then announced that the JRP was cancelling the hearing the following day as they had felt “threatened” by the community rally.

It surprised everyone at the feast that this was the case because of what a peaceful rally it had been. The JRP went so far as to say that there were “security concerns”, however, when the statement of the RCMP was released stating that there were no issues with no concerns with the day, the JRP quickly retracted its statement saying in the media the hearing was delayed due to “logistical issues.”

The irony was that the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella was fully prepared to receive the JRP and had made every preparation in advance of the hearing. The morning the hearings were to begin people still came to the school gym to see if there was a change of heart by the JRP. I was one of those people and when I peered inside to the empty gym I saw rows of chair lined up, with the tables and microphones for the panelist and intervenors all set to go. It was not clear what “logistical issues” could have been standing in the way for the JRP hearings to begin.

It began to be speculated in the community that maybe this was the beginning of the end of the JRP Hearings, as the fast-tracking of projects announced in last week’s budget are also supposed to be applied to the Enbridge Gateway pipeline review process and could require them to be completed by this May. The community began to feel silenced in its ability to express itself even though the JRP was in the community itself and were supposedly there to hear its concerns.

I think this concern is shared by many Canadians across BC and Alberta. We fear that the project will continue, as per the Harper government’s wishes, despite the massive opposition this pipeline and its associated super tankers. Many people know that this project would directly threaten the fishing and eco-tourism industry, which brings over $1 Billion dollars to West Coast annually.

In the end due to the JRP delaying the hearing in the community for 1.5 days – there were SIX speakers that lost their opportunity to express their concerns with the project. I think it is a sad state of affairs in this country when a community which will be directly impacted by this project not have the opportunity to express its concerns in a government process that was supposed to be set up to hear it concerns. People are questioning whether this Panel can deliver a just decision despite outside political pressure and how the Harper government’s budget will be manifested with this project in the coming months.