Coastal First Nations have been forced to withdraw their participation from the federal review process for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, due to a lack of funding and what they call the distressing nature of the proceedings.
“The average citizen can’t afford to be here and certainly the Coastal First Nations can’t afford it,” said Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt at a hearing in Prince Rupert, B.C. on Feb. 4.
“There is clearly an access to justice barrier in this case. It is the elephant in the room and I am here today to inform you, as panelists, that this is depriving you, as honourable members, of the ability to arrive at an informed decision.”
The Coastal First Nations is an alliance of First Nations on B.C.’s North and Central Coast, and Haida Gwaii.
According to hearing documents, the Coastal First Nations received a total funding of about $261,000 to participate in the environmental assessment process.
Out of this funding total, they were limited to spending $25,000 for legal advice.
However, Enbridge is spending about $250 million for its legal team to participate in the environmental review process.
“These hearings are suffering from a funding disparity. There is no equal playing field here today nor has there been since this proceeding began,” said Sheritt.
“The evidence is not being tested and will not as it should be and it seems that the only party that can afford this long and extended hearing process is Enbridge itself and perhaps the Crown.”
Sheritt said the Coastal First Nations have spent about $750,000 of their own money to participate in the environmental assessment process.
In addition, the CEAA rejected a new application for more funding in January.
For this reason, Sheritt claims the Coastal First Nations have not been provided with the funding necessary to engage in the process in a meaningful or effective way.
By withdrawing from the process on Feb. 4, they were unable to cross-examine the Northern Gateway Emergency Preparedness and Response Panel.
According to Sheritt, the Coastal First Nations are also frustrated with the nature of the process itself.
“We are dismayed with the nature of the hearing process itself. Enbridge witnesses are not answering questions or their answers are self-serving and non-responsive,” he said.
“We see cross-examination answers by Enbridge witnesses which are crafted with, or provided by, other persons sitting behind these witnesses who cannot be cross-examined. This does not seem fair to us at all.”
Finally, Sheritt is upset about the passing of the federal government’s omnibus budget bill, which has removed the decision-making power of the Joint Review Panel.
He said the Coastal First Nations agreed to participate in this process on the basis that the Joint Review Panel was going to be a decision-maker on whether or not the project would go ahead.
“We are profoundly disappointed with the nature of this process,” he said.
“Taken together, these problems undermine the legitimacy and authenticity of the hearing process, our pursuit of the true facts and, ultimately, a just result.”
Coastal First Nations will continue to monitor the proceedings and will do what they can to participate with their own resources.
The Coastal First Nations include Wuikinuxv Nation, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xaixais, Nuxalk Nation, Gitga’at, Metlakatla, Old Massett, Skidegate, and Council of the Haida Nation.
Northern Gateway Pipelines Inc. applied to the National Energy Board on May 27, 2010 for authorization to construct two 1,170 kilometre long pipelines running from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, BC and the construction and operation of the Kitimat Marine Terminal.
First Nations representatives, fishermen and environmental groups have expressed their concerns about the risks of oil spills.
The pipeline would bring 225 supertankers to B.C.‘s north coast annually.
In addition, much of the pipeline route crosses through unceded First Nations territories and would impinge on their inherent Aboriginal rights and title.
Enbridge has argued that the project is in the public interest and the environmental review has been impartial and rigorous.
The company said the project will bring significant and lasting benefits to the economies and the people of northern B.C. in an environmentally safe and sustainable way.
Construction will take three years and create more than 4,000 construction jobs. The estimated cost in 2005 was about $5 billion.