VICTORIA - Uniformed police officers stood guard over two Victoria area hotels Friday to ensure orderly public hearings on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project, but protesters called the sequestered hearing process undemocratic and alienating.
Almost 250 people have officially registered to present oral evidence at the Victoria hearings of the federal joint review panel, which is examining the environmental viability of the proposed $6 billion twin pipeline project.
Hearings have been underway in British Columbia and Alberta for the past year on the proposed Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB) plan to pipe Alberta oilsands bitumen to northwest B.C. for shipping on tankers to Asia.
But recently elected federal New Democrat MP Murray Rankin was shut out of the hearings.
Rankin, who won the Victoria riding in November's federal byelection, was told he did not officially register in time to present to the review panel.
Rankin, an environmental law expert, helped build the B.C. NDP's legal plans to oppose the proposed Northern Gateway project.
Victoria resident Heather Tufts said watching the oral presentations from a hotel conference room located about three kilometres away from the official hearing site felt undemocratic, but she endured because she wanted to hear what people have to say about the project.
"It feels really remote from the process," she said. "So much of our democracy is being eroded, but at least with these processes we thought there would be public input and community essence to it, and I think they've really lost that."
Tufts said she will continue to attend the hearings at the separate site, "but I don't like it."
Ken Roueche of Victoria said he would have been at the official Victoria hearing site at the Delta Ocean Pointe Hotel to hear evidence but was relegated to the conference room at the Ramada Inn.
"I'm concerned about this project," he said. "These kinds of projects are probably as important as building the Canadian Pacific Railway to Canada. It's going to have a huge impact on the Canadian economy. We've got to do it right."
Roueche was one of seven people who were in the separate hearing room at the Ramada. There were 90 seats in the room.
"It seems a little undemocratic," said Roueche who described the separate hearing site as a "dark and dreary room."
Sheila Leggett, chairwoman of the federal joint review panel conducting an environmental assessment of the proposed project, said she wanted an orderly and respectful hearing process.
So far, the Victoria hearings, which conclude Jan. 11, and Vancouver hearings, which are set to run Jan. 14 to 18 and Jan. 30 to Feb. 1., are the only locations with separate hearing sites for presenters and observers.
Last April, the three-person panel cancelled a scheduled hearing day in Bella Bella on B.C.'s central coast after being met with a large community turnout at the local airport.
The panel spent the cancelled day reviewing security arrangements even though local RCMP said there were no official reported incidents.
The Bella Bella hearings resumed after a one-day delay.
Victoria-area resident Bill Eisenhauer told the review panel Friday he rejects the Enbridge plan, saying the Alberta-based pipeline company has a poor environmental record.
He said one oil spill will create a black eye for B.C.'s tourism industry.
"Let me paint a picture: Who's going to want to go sport fishing when you have a bigger chance of hooking a dead, oil-soaked seal than catching a sockeye (salmon)?" said Eisenhauer.
About 150 protesters gathered near the official hearing site at the Delta Ocean Pointe vowing to keep up vigils throughout the Victoria hearings.