05/29/2012 01:36 EDT | Updated 07/29/2012 05:12 EDT

What is so "Public" About the Enbridge Hearings?!

Public hearings are rarely closed to the public. But that's exactly what happened at the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings in London, Ontario to review Enbridge's Line 9 proposal -- the first part of Enbridge's plan to build a route to move tar sands oil through Ontario and Quebec. In short, they kicked us out.

Public hearings are rarely closed to the public.

But that's exactly what happened on Wednesday at the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings in London, Ontario to review Enbridge's Line 9 proposal -- the first part of Enbridge's plan to construct a route to transport tar sands oil through Ontario and Quebec. Some First Nations from the Six Nations community found the public hearings to be so inaccessible that they had to force their way to the front of the room in order to be heard. Other concerned members of the public were forced onto the lawn across the street from the building in order to hold their own impromptu hearings after having been denied access.

One of the many concerns being raised at the NEB hearings was that the oil from the tar sands is more corrosive than conventional oil, making the likelihood of a spill from the 35-year-old pipeline far greater. And Enbridge doesn't exactly have a great track record when it comes to keeping the oil inside their pipelines, managing 804 spills or ruptures between 1999 and 2010. The most notable of these was in the summer of 2010 when Enbridge failed to protect the health of Michigan residents after over 800,000 gallons spilt from an Enbridge pipeline into the Kalamazoo River. Many nearby residents were forced to evacuate their homes, and the impact of this spill is still being felt today, and will be felt for some time to come.

It's easy to see why there is so much apprehension and community resistance in Ontario in regards to the proposal for Line 9.

Immediately after the announcement of the registered participants in the NEB hearings, the room was loudly but politely introduced to a group of unscheduled presenters from the Six Nations community in Ontario. Despite being an affected community with treaty rights, representatives of the Six Nations were unable to obtain intervener status in the proceedings. Regardless of being denied a chance to make a scheduled presentation, Six Nations members, led by First Nations activist Ruby Montour, walked to the front of the room and insisted on being heard anyway.

"We are not only fighting for our rights, but for yours too. They need to be fair for our people, for you, for your ancestors and for your children. The environment is going to pay big time if these pipelines rupture, and they need to listen to our concerns. They need to speak to us, the real people who need to be spoken to, whose treaties have been broken. They forced us to go to school, they forced us to learn, and we learned, so now we know when they are lying or cheating. Well, they can't anymore. They can't force things on our lands."

Ruby gave a powerful speech that unfortunately members of the NEB and Enbridge chose not to listen to, having quickly exited without so much as glancing at members of the Six Nations community on their way out.

The NEB closed the doors to the public, later only allowing in members of the public that could somehow be vouched for by registered interveners. In the case of these hearings, the definition of "public" quickly changed from "everyone" to only those given an invitation.

The "public" hearings might have appeared to be over, but actually they just changed locations. Having been denied entrance to the hearings, a gathering of concerned citizens congregated on the lawn across the street from where the NEB hearings were being held. They called it a "people's hearing." As a representative of Environmental Defence, I was permitted to attend the NEB hearings as a registered intervener, but since I had planned to participate in a public hearing on the project that day, and the hearing on the lawn was the only truly public one, I decided to attend the people's hearing instead. I was inspired by the words and actions of those who attended and spoke. People came from areas that would be directly affected like Sarnia and London, but there were also many folks who traveled from Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and even Montreal. The University Student Network of Stop the Tar Sands groups also came from York University, University of Waterloo, Ryerson and OCAD.

Speakers at these hearings expressed concern that we should be investing in building the infrastructure needed to allow fossil fuel alternatives to flourish instead of investing in ways to make oil production and extraction more cost effective. They spoke of respecting First Nation treaty rights across Canada, protecting communities from the impact of oil spills and preventing what happened in Michigan from happening to others. When the people's hearing concluded, the decision was a unanimous rejection of Enbridge's proposal. So unanimous in fact that I don't believe an actual vote was ever held; one wasn't necessary.

When I returned to the National Energy Board's "public" hearing, I discovered that despite the delay in the proceedings that morning, the NEB decided to end the day 20 minutes early. It is unfortunate that Enbridge and the NEB did not take those 20 minutes to listen to members of the Six Nations community or the speakers on the lawn that day, and hear the concerns that were raised at the true public hearings.