04/03/2013 05:37 EDT | Updated 06/03/2013 05:12 EDT

It's About the People, Not the Pipeline

This Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012 photo shows the Douglas Channel, the proposed shipping route for oil tanker ships in the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, just south of Kitamaat, British Columbia, Canada. Thwarted in his hopes of getting a new pipeline to carry oil into the U.S., Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is backing an alternative option: Asia. But in pushing for a pipeline to carry oil from Alberta to the Pacific, he'll face the same environmental objections that blocked the U.S. option. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck)

Any casual observer of the debate that has swirled around Enbridge Northern Gateway's proposal to run a diluted bitumen pipeline 1,100 km from Alberta to B.C.'s north coast might see this as a debate between competing interests: on one side, First Nations and wild-eyed environmentalists pitted against bottom-line oil industrialists on the other.

This simple telling of the tale misses the real story and the great lessons for all who might have interests in oil, energy, the land and Canada's future. Namely: everyone.

This is a story of contrasts.

In February, I attended hearings in Prince Rupert that were investigating the proposed pipeline, and Northern Gateway's ability to respond to an oil spill near Kitimat or in the open water area. By coincidence, the same week and again not long after, I was also hosting a series of sessions around my riding which explored the topic of social license in resource development. A bad pipeline is like a bad work of art -- you know it when you see it, and it's easy to say no. In our sessions, we asked a different but essential question: How do we get to yes? What conditions -- whether related to the environment, jobs, or overall legacy -- would a company have to meet in order to get the green light?

Meanwhile, at the Northern Gateway hearings, a retired teacher cross-examined Enbridge while the company's lawyers looked on, ready to interrupt and interfere whenever the questions got too uncomfortable. I myself was stonewalled during my cross-examination when I asked why Northern Gateway's oil-spill risk assessment uses a definition of a large oil spill that is six times larger than the internationally recognized industry standard -- other than to blur the numbers and downplay the likelihood, on paper, of a significant spill. Rows of experts on the company payroll faced questioners, answering so carefully and with such clinical and technical language as to discourage even the most determined observer.

At our forum, called Renewal Northwest, we talked about the concept of social license -- the gauge of whether a company has earned the trust and approval of the affected communities. How does a company (or even a government) gain or lose the trust of the broader public? Do they concern themselves with the environment, respect First Nations rights, engage the public and actually act upon what they hear? And lastly, do they tell the truth? More and more, resource companies are realizing that acquiring social license isn't optional, and it's not always an easy box to tick; but it is, nonetheless, an essential step toward earning legitimacy in the public eye.

I would argue that the so-called greatest friends of the oil and gas industry -- the Harper government -- have been no friends at all. In attempting to bully and intimidate the opponents of the Northern Gateway pipeline, calling us enemies of the state, accusing us of being "foreign funded radicals," and gutting our environmental protections, they have poisoned the well of public opinion. With friends like the Harper government, Enbridge doesn't need enemies.

But really this isn't about a pipeline or the pipe dreams of a Prime Minister. This is about the people and the lands they live on.

In December 2012, as a result of years of tireless efforts by First Nations and community members across British Columbia and around Canada, the moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the Sacred Headwaters of northern B.C. was made permanent. This profound and timely decision shelved Shell Canada's plans to drill in the Sacred Headwaters region for coal bed methane, which would have rendered this pristine and revered expanse -- known as the Serengeti of the North -- a toxic wasteland, and sent pollutants downstream for decades.

The project had no consent from First Nations, Northwesterners, and the people of British Columbia at large -- Shell knew it, and so did the B.C. government. The project was doomed from the outset.

In having to come together to defend our land and rivers, we united like never before, and we've shown governments and industry juggernauts that the will of the community must be respected.

I only wish the Harper government would drop the greenwashing and propaganda campaigns, and take the time to hold a few more meetings like the ones we have recently. The people of my home region in northwestern British Columbia are hardworking and community-minded by nature and inclination. The attacks from the Harper government, and the threats posed by Enbridge's pipeline and the supertankers they bring, have only brought us closer together, strengthening our determination to protect the values and natural wonders that we hold most dear. And that is a beautiful thing to behold.

Overheard: Northern Gateway Pipeline Hearings