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Disrespecting democracy: Hazelton community hearing on Enbridge pipeline moved to avoid protests

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There have been protests accompanying community hearings of the Joint Review Panel on the Enbridge Northern Gateway project—most recently in Prince George on Monday, July 9th, 300 people gathered in opposition outside the panel hearings. However, there are increasing signs that the panel is trying to avoid exposure to these public demonstrations.

On July 6, 2012, the panel posted a letter on its website announcing its decision to relocate the Hazelton, BC community hearing scheduled for the end of the month to Smithers, BC. The hearing was moved to Smithers “to ensure a safe and secure community hearing venue.”

This marks the second time the Panel has shuffled the scheduling of hearings. In April, the panel unexpectedly cancelled a hearing in the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella after panel members were met by protesters at the airport. In a letter to the Heilsuk, the Panel indicated it could not hold hearings “in a situation where it is unsure that the crowd will be peaceful.”

The Bella Bella decision was criticized as a drastic overreaction. Community members intended to voice their non-violent opposition to the project, both before the panel and in the streets. This is their democratic right. Following negotiations, the panel recognized this and reinitiated hearings in Bella Bella.

Avoiding Hazelton, the panel appears to be again evading dissent to the pipeline outside its hearing chambers. In Hazelton, on the traditional territories of the Gitxsan people, the Enbridge proposal has been particularly contentious, sparking protests.

On December 2nd, 2011, Enbridge announced the Gitxsan Treaty Office had signed onto the Northern Gateway project. It was the first public announcement of a First Nation supporting the pipeline.

The deal was a surprise. There had not been public discussions about the Enbridge pipeline in the Gitxsan communities. Following the announcement, opposition to the deal began to quickly consolidate in the community, leading to the emergence of the Gitxsan Unity Movement.

Protesters in the community boarded up the Gitxsan Treaty Office in Hazelton and set up an encampment outside the office. They remained there through the northern winter until June. However, these protests were never violent. Organizers of the Gitxsan Unity Movement have been explicit in their commitment to non-violence.

Nevertheless, concerns about these protests led the panel to move the hearings. Local MLA Doug Donaldson reported that representatives of the panel indicated the move was a response to "documented conflict in the community," including the Gitxsan protest camp.

This is a significant disrespect to the Gtixsan people and the people of the Hazeltons more generally. The panel had decided to hold community hearings to provide interested and potentially impacted communities the opportunity to make statements regarding their concerns regarding the pipeline proposal.

Further, the community hearings are a vital opportunity for people to witness the arguments for and against the pipeline. This is particularly important among the Gitxsan, whose traditional form of feast governance centres on the importance of witnessing. An oral culture, the Gitxsan rely on the transmission of information through public presentations where the people warrant the authority of testimony through the process of listening to it.

The decision to move the hearing outside Gitxsan territory insinuates that it is unsafe to allow people to hear open community discussions in Hazelton. Moving the meeting down the highway limits the access to the review process of Hazelton community members, particularly those living on the margins who may not have access to transportation. This is a serious disrespect to the democratic rights of the people of Hazelton. For democracy to be meaningful, access to public processes needs to be protected.

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