This week Enbridge held another series of meetings in northern British Columbia to dialogue with communities about its proposed pipeline project from the tar sands, but the biggest question remained unanswered. Holding daytime community advisory board and evening community technical meetings in Terrace, Kitimat, and Burns Lake, the company sought to provide a moderated forum for community discussion about their proposal. But in the debate over details Enbridge never addressed the elephant in the room, why should communities be forced to have a form of development that they do not want.

The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline entails the construction of two new pipelines and a marine terminal in Kitimat to send tar sands oil to export. The 1,170 kilometers of pipeline will carry an average of 525,000 barrels of oil per day west from Alberta, and 193,000 barrels per day of condensate east to thin oil for pipeline transport.

Enbridge stated that the meetings are part of its strategy to “reach out to communities in order to provide relevant and up to date information about the Project.” They suggest the community technical meetings would, “provide an update on key areas of interest such as Pipeline Safety and Integrity, and Local Opportunity. The public will be able to listen to a panel of speakers, meet in person with project representatives, and engage in a moderated question and answer period.”

The Burns Lake meeting began with a series of presentations from Enbridge officials. Michele Perret, Senior Manager, Municipal Relations, began by reassuring the crowd that the company had been doing its utmost to address the Kalamazoo spill in Michigan, before announcing the progress of their application to build a pipeline across northern British Columbia. Jody Whitney, Manager, Aboriginal Consultation and Regulatory Compliance, touted the company’s commitment to address First Nations environmental concerns, and lauded the potential development opportunities for communities choosing to invest with the company. Lori Campbell, Manager, Community Skills and Employment Initiatives, highlighted the potential contribution the project offered communities in terms of jobs and training opportunities.

A series of technical presentations detailed the engineering of the pipeline and marine terminal. Ray Doering, Manager, Engineering, explained the steps the company planned to take to avoid damaging sensitive streams in pipeline construction, and how tug boats directing ships would mitigate the risk of a shipping accident. Mike McManus described how Enbridge would monitor pipe integrity and manage the risk of a potential spill.

But while the corporate presentations sought to reassure the public, the mood in the room remained hostile to the projects. The first questioner from the floor, Jeff Brown, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Madeek, clearly expressed, “I have come here tonight to explain to the public the volatility of the fluids that are going through that pipeline. They are highly toxic, highly flammable, and very dangerous to the economy and to the ecology of our territories. As a Wet’suwet’en chief, I have come here to tell you that we will not endorse this program.” To audience applause he concluded, “We oppose the progress of Enbridge.”

The Enbridge representatives did not respond to Madeek’s declaration, and simply continued with the session. Their response to Madeek would prove emblematic of their broader approach. They never directly addressed the palpable community resistance, choosing instead to redirect questions and discussions into technical matters.

With regard to safety and engineering concerns, the panelists ably discussed the nuances of pipeline design, construction, and maintenance. But while they possessed detailed project knowledge, there was little ability on the panel to address basic questions about what caused a million gallons to spill from their pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Despite vague promises to learn from the incident, they could not describe what they learned from that incident at this point, nor how that would be applied to the Northern Gateway Project.

Technical questions about community investment and training opportunities similarly found vague replies. While Enbridge has carefully articulated their engineering plans, they could only loosely sketch their promised benefits to communities. The Manager of Community Skills and Employment Initiatives had little handle on the actual job numbers, repeatedly misquoting figures. Similarly community training and First Nations investment opportunities represented a proclaimed commitment, but one without specifics. When asked about the concern that First Nations lacked the capital to invest, the Aboriginal Consultation Manager suggested that Enbridge could help with financing but was unable to provide any details regarding the support that would be offered.

Most fundamentally the company routed around questions of public resistance. When asked to move beyond platitudes to environmental protection and offers of economic development to address concerns about self-determination, particularly with regard to First Nations, the panel simply failed to substantively address the issue. The Aboriginal Consultation manager acknowledged they had increasingly encountered resistance, but simply translated into a communications failing, something to be addressed by continuing to “talk about the project.”

She described Enbridge as “subject to a highly scrutinized process” by the federal Joint Review Panel, suggesting this would address and account for all the public concerns. Enbridge did not acknowledge the critiques and fundamental rejection of this process by many First Nations groups, who suggest it fails to respect the depth of First Nations underlying claims to title to their lands. This disconnect was perhaps indicative of deeper if unacknowledged tensions.

While the company sought to reduce community concerns to technical matters, community members’ comments regularly edged towards topics beyond the breadth of a technical discussion. Thus, the most resounding message of the Enbridge attempt to facilitate dialogue was the echoing distance between a discussion about the minutia of corporate design and the fundamental question of communities’ rights to determine a sustainable future in their region.

Tyler Shandro during a June 25 news briefing. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Tyler McCreary

Tyler McCreary is an Indigenous solidarity activist based in northern British Columbia. He is also currently working towards his PhD in geography at York University.