Spectators will not be allowed to attend Victoria hearings into the Enbridge Northern Gateway project in January, to avoid the risk of demonstrations.
Instead, people interested in watching the proceedings will be sent about three kilometres away to the Ramada Hotel on Gorge Road, where they can watch a live video feed. The hearings are being held at the Delta Ocean Pointe.
Annie Roy, spokeswoman for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, said federal Joint Review Panel members decided to take the step to ensure they could hear speakers in a respectful atmosphere.
“There is a history of protests around the project in Victoria and Vancouver,” she said. “They were of the view that two rooms would minimize the potential for disruption.”
An online posting from the panel says access to the hearing room in Victoria and Vancouver will be limited to registered oral statement presenters, one guest each and media, given the “large urban nature” of the communities and previous protests held in both locations over the proposed project.
The decision has surprised environmental groups, who say there were never plans to disrupt the hearings, which will be held in Victoria Jan. 4 and 5 and Jan. 7 to 11.
“Up until now, the public hearings have been public. I’m not sure what prompted this,” said Emma Gilchrist, spokeswoman for the Dogwood Initiative, an environmental group that opposes the project.
“To my knowledge, there has been no history of major, disrespectful disruptions at the hearings.”
The panel temporarily shut down hearings in Bella Bella in April, citing security concerns, after members were met at the airport by about 200 singing and drumming protesters in what members of the Heiltsuk First Nation called a respectful demonstration.
Watching a video at a different hotel will not make people feel they are part of the process, Gilchrist said. “I think people have the right to go to public hearings in person.”
The only event planned by Dogwood is a gathering outside the Delta Ocean Pointe after the hearings end Jan. 11, Gilchrist said.
Nikki Skuce, spokeswoman for Forest Ethics Advocacy, said people in Victoria and Vancouver will miss the emotion of the hearings.
“The community hearings held across the proposed pipeline route were so powerful. They instilled a sense of community by allowing residents to listen to each other’s stories around sense of place and commitment to our watersheds,” she said.
The Victoria hearings were originally scheduled for Jan. 7-11 and Feb. 19-22. The February hearings were cancelled and more days added in January because the panel needed more time in Prince Rupert.
Although organizers said new time slots would be found for everyone scheduled to speak, some people say they can’t make the new dates.
Susan Paynter of Saltspring Island started the process of getting on the presenters list about 18 months ago and was told a week ago that she had been rescheduled from February to Jan. 11, when she will be unable to attend.
Paynter, a boater, was hoping to talk about the wild nature of northern B.C. waters.
“If you haven’t been there, you don’t get it and 90 per cent of Canadians haven’t been there,” she said.