KITAMAAT VILLAGE, B.C. • An expected confrontation between environmentalists and the oil community over Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline did not spill over into historic public hearings that started here Tuesday.

But federal regulators charged with deciding whether the project is in the national interest were faced with a different clash that will prove tough to reconcile: a clash of values between First Nations and those favouring development in the rest of the country. Both claim to be acting in their national interest.

Hearings by a joint review panel of the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency got under way peacefully in the packed recreation centre of this reserve facing Douglas Channel on the province’s isolated North Coast.

Panel chair Sheila Leggett, and members Kenneth Bateman and Hans Matthews, were greeted by the matriarchal tribe with a ceremony in full regalia, drum beats and a chant in honour of women.

The hearings’ first witnesses were seven elders and chiefs of the Haisla nation.

As a five-member delegation from Enbridge looked on, they sent a unanimous message about the pipeline to the panel: don’t allow it.

The Haisla are hosts of the high-profile first days. They are also the aboriginal group most affected by the $5.5-billion project, which would bring huge benefits to Canada’s economy, but also threaten its lands and ways of life developed over 2,000 years.

“All my area where I trap, I own it now,” said hereditary chief Samuel Robinson.

“There is an abundance of fish there, halibut and all kinds of seafood. This is what I am concerned about. My people, my family, survive [on] all these animals. Help us continue to be the way we are. We are who we are.”

Rod Bolton, another chief, was cheered when he said he doesn’t mind oil, as long as it’s oil from the hooligan, an oily fish the Haisla claim has been wiped out in the area by industrial development.

“We are standing together behind a double-barreled shot gun,” he said. “The impact of any spill would be a disaster.”

Clifford Smith, a Haisla member and commercial fisherman, said everything he enjoys would be wiped out if there is a spill, whether from the pipeline or from tankers that would load its oil to serve energy consumers across the Pacific.

“I have been traveling our waters for six-and-a-half decades,” he said. “It’s a scary thought if that pipeline is to be built. All that I and my people enjoy would be gone. We have to stand together and say no to Enbridge.”

A tearful Marilynn Furlan, another Haisla elder, said she’s worried about the potential for a spill.

“I don’t want to accept such a risk to our territory, to our lands and to our resources,” she said.

About 300 people turned up for the hearings. Many more were listening on a webcast. Members of the community were joined by other aboriginal nations, representatives of industry, governments and the environmental movement.

Janet Holder, the Enbridge executive overseeing the project, said she was there to listen, but wouldn’t comment on what Enbridge can do to alleviate concerns.

“We are interested in hearing what they have to say,” Ms. Holder, Executive Vice-President, Western Access, said outside the hearings. “This is what this process is all about.”

Among the observers was Tim Markle, public affairs officer for the Alberta government’s department of energy.

“People need to look at the big picture, what is to the best benefit to everyone,” he said. “Certainly there are environmental concerns with any type of construction, and I am sure that Enbridge and the companies involved in the oil sands do everything in their power to mitigate all the problems they can.”

But Terry Brown, a retired professional engineer and a member of the Douglas Channel Watch, an environmental organization based in the nearby town of Kitimat, said a spill is inevitable, whether because of equipment failure or human error.

There were no protests by project opponents, including the large number of green organizations that are opposing the development as a way to choke oil sands growth.

Outside the hearing, chief Robinson said his community discouraged demonstrators because it wanted the hearings to unfold peacefully.

Ms. Leggett, the NEB’s vice-chair, thanked the community for participating in the process.

“It’s a great help to us and we appreciate that you have chosen to be here today,” she said.

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