VICTORIA - Thousands of protesters who packed the front lawn of the British Columbia legislature Monday yelled a thunderous "Yes" when asked if they were willing to lay down in front of pipeline bulldozers if the Northern Gateway project is approved.
But despite the crowd's verbal willingness to risk arrest or injury to stop the pipeline, Victoria Police proclaimed the protest peaceful and arrest free.
Const. Mike Russell said there were no arrests and he estimated the crowd at 3,500 people, the largest protest at the B.C. legislature since last March when 5,000 people turned up on the front lawn to support striking teachers.
"There's been no incidents at all today," he said. "It's been a very peaceful protest. We're hoping it stays that way."
Traffic at some streets near the legislature was snarled when protesters surrounded the building with a huge black banner meant to symbolize the size _ about 235 metres _ of one of the supertankers that would be transporting pipeline oil along the B.C. coast to Asia.
Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, drew cheers from the crowd when he said his members have been fighting against the proposed pipeline for seven years and have been gaining support from First Nations, environmental groups and mainstream political organizations like the Union of B.C. Muncipalities.
Sterritt said British Columbians are opposed to the pipeline proposal, but federal and provincial politicians have yet to fully hear their unified voice.
"Let's send a message to them that we have to make a difference," he yelled.
Sterritt warned that the federal Conservatives stand to lose their 26 seats in B.C. if the pipeline proceeds.
"They also think in Ottawa they can jam this thing over the backs of British Columbians. What are you willing to do to stop them? Are you willing to lay down in front of the bulldozers?" said Sterritt as the crowd yelled, "yes."
Chief Ruben George, grandson of well-known aboriginal leader and actor Chief Dan George, said his coastal First Nation, the Tsleil-waututh of North Vancouver, has respected and lived on the water for thousands of years and is not prepared to support oil tankers
"Our government is not standing behind the people who are here saying, 'No more,'" he said.
The demonstration was aimed at sending a message to provincial and federal governments about the plan to pipe crude from the Alberta oil sands to a tanker port in Kitimat.
Molly Vanpoelgeest travelled from nearby Saltspring Island to participate in the protest.
She said she wants to show the federal and provincial governments that the majority of British Columbians and Canadians are opposed to a pipeline project that threatens the West Coast environment.
"Despite the fact that (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper would give away the coastline for nothing and (Premier Christy) Clark would give it away for the right price, I'm not willing to give it away," Vanpoelgeest said. "I'd like it secure for my grandchildren."
Many protesters carried placards telling Harper and Clark the B.C. coast is not for sale. One sign read, "Tanker Free B.C. For Me."
Student Ben Gawletz said he is against the pipeline because it poses a huge environmental threat to B.C.
"Everyone is here today for the right reasons," said the Cranbrook, B.C., resident who is in Victoria studying photography. "If something does go wrong, who pays for it? We do."
The Northern Gateway issue is a tipping point for the public, and people from all walks of life are mobilizing against it, said Nikki Skuce of the environmental group ForestEthics.
"People have thought about the Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan pipelines as a real key issue, whether it's to do with climate change, Harper bullying, cutting environmental legislation, First Nations rights and title, shipping raw resources and the jobs that go with it overseas," Skuce said.
"This is the first, the culmination, of building on what people have said when they said they'll do whatever it takes to try to stop these projects."
The threat of protests and civil disobedience harkens back to the War in the Woods era of B.C. in the 1980s, when confrontations between environmentalists and forestry workers were commonplace as the two sides battled over the province's old-growth forests.
The Northern Gateway protests have been endorsed by various unions including the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, the Canadian Auto Workers, the B.C. Teachers Federation, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union.
Celebrities such as actor Ellen Page, singer Dan Mangan and filmmaker Michael Moore are also backing the cause, as are activists including David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis.
The B.C. legislature is currently not in session, but protesters say the government will get the message.
About 4,500 people signed an online pledge promising support for the protest in Victoria and another provincewide protest planned for Wednesday at MLA offices in 55 communities.
The Northern Gateway pipeline would carry diluted bitumen from the Alberta oilsands through northern B.C. to a tanker port in Kitimat in one pipe, and condensate from Kitimat east to Alberta in another pipe.
Enbridge (TSX:ENB) has estimated that opening up Asian markets to Canadian oil would boost Canada's GDP by $270 billion over 30 years and generate $81 billion in direct and indirect revenues to the federal and provincial governments. Of that, B.C. would receive about $6 billion, while Ottawa would get about $36 billion and Alberta $32 billion.
Environmental review hearings for the project have been adjourned for one week in Prince George, B.C., and will resume Oct. 29.
The three-member review panel has until the end of next year to complete its report.