01/10/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 03/10/2012 05:12 EST

Northern Gateway Pipeline: Hearings Begin With Anger At Oliver's 'Radical Groups' Quip

KITAMAAT VILLAGE, B.C. - Aboriginal chiefs say the Northern Gateway project puts their people in the crosshairs of possible disaster and they must put threats to their homes and their children's future ahead of job prospects that might come from the pipeline.

"The Haisla are facing a double-barrelled shotgun by the bringing of that oil by pipeline and shipping it by sea," Hereditary Chief Ken Hall told the opening day of environmental hearings into the project.

"The pipeline threatens our grandchildren," he said Tuesday. "It's going to be terrifying if everything disappears in our community."

Added Haisla Nation Chief Ellis Ross: "Please don't consider the Haisla as collateral damage to get this (oil) product to Asia."

The chiefs were among several First Nations leaders speaking in the village of Kitamaat at the start of federal hearings on the Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB) project, which would deliver Alberta oil to a port in the nearby municipality of Kitimat for export to Asia.

Like Hall, the other aboriginal speakers voiced concerns that the project presents a double danger to their community, with the threat of a pipeline break and an oil-tanker spill.

Ross's mother was among the community members who lined up to hug her son after he told the panel decades of environmental degradation have already depleted his people's fish and seafood resources.

"Apply (your decision) like it was happening to you and your own family," Ross said during an emotional 72-minute statement to the National Energy Board panel members.

"Apply it like it was your own heritage because, quite frankly, it is," he told the auditorium packed with hundreds.

Ross received a standing ovation, followed by a long line of well-wishers.

Coincidentally, Enbridge reported Tuesday it was investigating reports of a small natural gas leak in the Gulf of Mexico, about 105 kilometres off the coast of Louisiana.

Enbridge said its Stingray pipeline was continuing to operate under normal parameters and the company had contacted regulatory authorities and dispatched a dive boat so an investigation could begin as soon as weather conditions permitted.

Officials with Greenpeace Canada said it was unfortunate but not surprising that a spill would happen on the first day of the hearings into Northern Gateway.

"This does not generate much confidence," said spokesman Mike Hudema.

"It seems like an ominous sign of things to come and is a sober reminder of the toxic effects that pipelines and super-tankers pose to the environment and human health."

The hearings continue Wednesday in Kitamaat Village, with the first speaker on the schedule, Peter King, reportedly speaking in favour of the project.

The public relations battle surrounding the Enbridge project has been at a rolling boil for months.

Days before the hearings began, environmentalists issued polls suggesting Canadians are opposed to tanker traffic along B.C. coastlines while an open letter from the federal natural resources minister referred to some of them as "radicals" backed by big U.S. money and naive celebrities.

But the strong words from both sides were a stark contrast from the gentle opening speech delivered by hereditary Chief Sammy Robinson after Haisla dancers and drummers paraded into the meeting hall.

"Walk softly on our road," he said. "We are very happy to have you in our territory. Good luck."

The long, fjord-like channel that leads into the municipality of Kitimat is the proposed site for the oil tanker port because of its deep, protected waters. Kitamaat Village, the aboriginal community where the hearings were held Tuesday, is about 11 kilometres to the south.

Enbridge plans to bring oil super tankers the size of the Empire State building into the town where they will be loaded with Alberta oil and shipped overseas.

The environmental hearings into the proposal, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper has characterized as imperative to the Canadian economy, are expected to last for 18 months.

Enbridge officials are attending the hearings, but won't make any presentations until much later in the process.

Critics have focused on what they say is the environmental damage wrought by the oilsands and by increased carbon consumption in general. They've also noted the potential disaster of an oil spill in the pristine waters off B.C.'s coast.

But the issue is much more personal to the aboriginal people in the area. Their presentations Tuesday did not focus on the pros and cons of oilsands development, but on the risks to their way of life.

Hereditary Chief Sammy Robinson told the hearings he's been running a fishing charter business out of Douglas Channel for 45 years.

"I know every inch of our territory because I'm out there every day of the summer running my business."

"I am worried," he said, adding he has visions of traditional cultural sites in the channel "covered up with oil."

Art Sterritt, the executive director of Coastal First Nations, which represents 10 aboriginal groups opposed to the project, said it's the First Nations who must live with the threat of an oil spill if the project goes ahead.

He slammed the federal government for trying to colour the hearings.

"We've got an Alberta prime minister trying to bully British Columbians," he said.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver issued an open letter Monday, saying there are "environmental and other radical groups" that are trying to block the pipeline and squelch Canadian resource prosperity and job growth.

"They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interest," he said.

Federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae equated Oliver's comments to messing with the legal system.

"I think it is as inappropriate for a minister or a prime minister to interfere and intervene and, frankly, intimidate an environmental process as it would be to interfere or intervene in a court case. It is entirely inappropriate," Rae said in Ottawa on Tuesday.

"Once the environmental process happens the prime minister should keep quiet, Mr. Oliver should keep quiet and should respect the process. This is part and parcel of how this government operates."

Outside the meeting hall, a lone man stood in support of the Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Matthew Mask, a local plumber dressed in a Super Mario costume, said plumbers need oil jobs.

He mocked the pipeline protesters, saying that while he was prepared to stand outside the hall in the cold early-morning hours, protesters were sleeping in their warm beds.

"Me and my brother, if we don't have a pipeline, how the heck are we supposed to get work around here? It's not fair."