TORONTO - Scores of West Coast First Nations and supporters ended a colourful and noisy protest against a proposed Enbridge oil pipeline Wednesday with a declaration of war from one of their chiefs.
The Yinka-Dene Alliance argues the Northern Gateway project poses a threat to aboriginals' way of life by threatening waterways and ecosystems but Enbridge insists the project will proceed.
"The war is on," said Nadleh Whut'en Chief Martin Louie after the shareholder meeting.
"Enbridge and the government are going to go on fighting us. How far are they willing to go to kill off the human beings of this country?"
Project opponents had travelled from the West Coast aboard a "Freedom Train" to the country's financial heartland to make their point to Enbridge's shareholders.
After a "mingling of the waters" ceremony and speeches, protesters marched several blocks east to the downtown hotel where the shareholders were meeting.
Demonstrators braved rain to drum, sing and chant under the watchful eye of security and police officers. They carried signs that read "No pipelines on our lands" and chanted "We can't drink oil."
"It's a ticking time bomb," said Terry Teegee, vice tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council.
"This company has a lot of breaks in their pipelines; it's not a matter of if, it's just a matter of when."
The $5.5-billion project would see crude from Alberta's oilsands moved through a twin pipeline more than 1,100 kilometres to the B.C. coast. From there, supertankers would ship the crude to Asia.
Calgary-based Enbridge (TSX:ENB) maintains the project would create jobs, stimulate economic development and be safe.
"We wouldn't be proposing this project if we didn't have utmost confidence that we could both construct and operate the project with utmost safety and environmental protection," spokesman Todd Nogier said from Calgary.
Protesters also denounced Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government for proposed legislative changes they say would weaken environmental protections.
Among the changes would be limits on the ability of environmental groups to intervene in project-assessment hearings.
"The Harper government is doing everything in its power to get this project approved, including changing laws and changing policies," Teegee said.
"This project is not only a threat to our lands, but it is a threat to the democratic system of Canada."
Enbridge filed its application for Northern Gateway, which would run from Bruderheim, Alta., to Kitimat, B.C., almost two years ago. Environmental hearings began in January of this year, and a decision is not expected until late next year.
Critics argue the pipeline would endanger the habitats of the hundreds of rivers and streams it must cross, and would have a drastic impact on First Nations communities if a spill occurred.
There are also concerns about a dramatic increase in supertanker traffic along the pristine coastline in waterways that can be treacherous.
Mutual fund company NEI Investments and two co-filers called on Enbridge to report within a year about the risks posed by the opposition to Northern Gateway, and how it intends to mitigate them.
"The opposition appears to be significant, widespread and hardening daily," Jamie Bonham of NEI, which owns 148,000 Enbridge shares in its ethical funds portfolio, told the shareholder meeting.
"It seems likely that this will result in extended litigation."
At the urging of Enbridge management, investors voted the motion down.
CEO Pat Daniel said the company was committed to finding common ground with First Nations opponents but insisted the project should go ahead.
"That very train that got you here, it was an infrastructure project that was strongly opposed by a lot of people — strongly opposed — that enabled society and Canada," Daniel said.
"Can I stand here and say that if we have one person opposed that we will not proceed? I can't, because that's not the way a democracy works."
The company said the protests suggest a higher level of opposition than is actually the case.
More than 20 of 50 communities affected by the proposed pipeline have signed on to a 10 per cent equity stake in the project, but the Yinka-Dene have refused to even discuss the idea, Nogier said.
Earlier Wednesday, Enbridge reported a 14 per cent rise in first-quarter adjusted earnings to $376 million.