Jack Knox: Pipeline foes step outside 253-person hearing loop

Emma Gilchrist can be excused for feeling like an extra in Groundhog Day.

For eight days, she sat through the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings in Victoria, heard 253 oral presentations made to the panel reviewing the proposal.

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For eight days, the Dogwood Initiative’s communications director heard speakers tell the same story: Enbridge’s plan to pipe Alberta oil to Kitimat and load it onto tankers is way too risky.

It was like being stuck in a loop. Different voices — a naval officer, a bank economist, a former U.S. Marine who shed tears — but the same basic message over and over.

“People have a deep connection to this coast,” Gilchrist said. “It’s not something they want to risk.”

Her final scorecard: 253-0. Looks like the opponents won by a nose.

Except they haven’t won anything yet, of course. This was just one skirmish in a long political battle, one that won’t ultimately be decided by the joint review panel, whose members must have been getting punchy by the end of the Victoria stop on a tour that began in September and will continue through May.

The panel, a creation of the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, is mandated to make a science-based recommendation on Enbridge’s proposal by the end of the year, but that recommendation won’t be binding on federal politicians, who have given every indication that they think the plan is a swell idea.

“It’s a political decision, whether we like it or not,” Gilchrist said.

The Dogwood Initiative has been one of the leading opponents to the tanker plans, but its approach differs from that of other activist groups.

The organization largely eschews the politics of protest. It stayed out of the big Defend Our Coast rally that drew thousands to the legislature in October. It stayed out of the demonstrations outside the Delta Ocean Pointe, where the hearings were held. Dogwood doesn’t see much value in gathering with like-minded people in a single spot and telling each other that you’re right.

Instead, the group reaches out and tries to win converts to the cause, gathering political strength. An online campaign has gained 150,000 names.

Late Friday afternoon, Dogwood launched an exercise called Knock the Vote, canvassing two Greater Victoria provincial ridings with a military precision that would have made Rommel weak in the lederhosen.

Eighty supporters split into a dozen teams, then boarded buses that fanned out in a door-to-door canvass of Oak Bay-Gordon Head, held by Liberal Ida Chong, and Victoria-Swan Lake, held by New Democrat Rob Fleming.

“We are targeting specific polling divisions with specific voting patterns,” Gilchrist said. Talking to people one-on-one is more effective than yelling through a bullhorn, the reasoning goes.

The canvassers spread a very specific message: No oil tankers plying the tricky waters of the B.C. coast. Other groups can fret about pipelines, global warming and the environmental cost of extracting bitumen from the Alberta oilsands if they like, but Dogwood is staying focussed on the tankers.

The idea is to gain the broadest base of support by keying in on the issue that resonates the loudest, and to do it before the provincial election in May.

As it is, many people feel they haven’t had a chance to be heard. Some thought they would get the opportunity when the panel rolled into town, but the Victoria stop was never designed to be a public hearing at which Enbridge representatives or federal authorities exchanged questions and answers from the floor. Rather, it was a one-way conversation, panelists listening to those 253 pre-registered speakers, each of whom had been waiting since at least October 2011 to be heard. Other members of the public couldn’t even make a silent statement with their presence; they had to watch online or on a big screen at the Ramada three kilometres away.

As well, many of the 253 spoke to issues beyond the scope of what was supposed to be a technical review of Enbridge’s proposal. “For some people, it was a proxy battle for the larger debate around national energy strategy,” Gilchrist said. They were probably trying to convince the wrong people, anyway.

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