Pipeline public hearings are the largest show of environmental concern in Canadian history

“I’m okay with oil… oolichan oil, I mean”
Spontaneous cheers through the room.  The comment comes from Rod Bolton, hereditary Chief of the Haisla First Nation. It’s on his traditional territory that a proposed pipeline would deliver 525,000 barrels a day of Alberta crude oil to supertankers for transport to Asian markets. If Enbridge gets its gateway, that is.
It’s day one of the Joint Review Panel public hearings for the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project. The three-member panel is beginning to hear testimony.  Upwards of 4,200 individuals and groups have signed up to have their voices heard – the largest show of concern in Canadian history about the environmental impacts of an industrial project.
Chief Bolton’s testimony was one of just seven presentations given yesterday in the community rec center of the Haisla community of Kitamaat. The community is located 15 km from the town of Kitimat and across Douglas Harbour channel from where a marine terminal would be constructed for the oil tankers… again, if Enbridge gets its gateway.

Haisla Singers at opening ceremonies of public hearings on the proposed Enbridge pipeline project. c. Mike Ambach / WWF-Canada
Not just Chief Bolton had something to say about oolichan oil. Every speaker after him talked about their concern for the little oil-rich fish – oolichan (or eulachon) – that lives in the sea and returns to spawn in the rivers of the BC coast. This is a significant fish for the Haisla because its numbers have drastically declined, to the point of virtual disappearance in the Kitimat river system.  While eulachon returns remain strong in other systems, the outlook is uncertain in much of its historic range.
For the Haisla, the loss of the eulachon is a blow to culture and identity itself.  But there are many more species woven into the well-being of the Haisla: salmon, halibut, crab, rock cod, seals, urchins, sea cucumbers, seaweeds, bears, berries, the list goes on. All continue to be harvested, shared with family and friends, and traded.  Education for younger generations is a huge part of this. Both as a means of passing on knowledge and skills, and as a way to instruct them in a relationship with the natural world based on respect for limits and sound stewardship.

Public hearings open at the Kitimaat Community Centre on Tuesday. c. Mike Ambash /WWF-Canada
Throughout the day, the message comes clearer to me. This relationship – fundamental to the identity of the Haisla – is what’s at risk if a major oil spill or pipeline rupture occurs.  At the same time, the Haisla are open to development and are actively seeking to improve employment prospects through other avenues.  But they are daring to demand a future where prosperity and safeguarding cultural well-being are one and the same.
In this roomful of Haisla and non-Haisla of all ages, the point is hammered home  to the panel members: the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project poses an unacceptable risk to the region. A region that WWF has awarded with our Gift to the Earth.
I was moved by the closing words of elected council Chief Ellis Ross. He urged panel members to listen with their hearts to what they were hearing from the Hereditary leaders. “Take their pain and their emotions and apply that to your positions. Apply it like it’s your own heritage because, quite frankly, it is”.
Haisla traditional territory comprises a part of the Great Bear region: an expanse of coastal rainforest and sea unlike any other on earth. This region is a biodiversity treasure for the whole world. And this is our opportunity as Canadians to rise up and demand that it be protected.