Public hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway project will take on a different flavour this week.
To date most of the questions have been around the technical case Northern Gateway is making for its project to connect Alberta's oilsands with Kitimat, but when the hearings resume this afternoon in Prince Rupert the topic shifts to how the company has consulted with Aboriginal groups and the public.
Enbridge vice-president for western access Janet Holder expects the questioning to focus on the social side of the application rather than the science.
"Everyone in the north has had an opportunity to participate in some sort of dialogue to get a better understanding of what the project is about and get a better understanding of who Gateway is," said Holder, who will be one of eight witnesses who will answer an estimated 42 hours worth of questions. "We did not take it lightly, we understand we're a new type of business in town and people had every right to understand what that really means."
There are about 8,000 pages of written evidence, which detail discussions the company has had with a variety of groups along the proposed right-of-way but Carrier Sekani Tribal Council chief Terry Teegee said his group stopped talking to the company seven years ago after filing an Aboriginal interest and use study.
"After they essentially rejected our findings, we basically broke off any relationship with them," Teegee said, noting his group has decided to boycott the ongoing National Energy Board Joint Review Panel.
Carrier Sekani compiled and provided their report in 2004 and 2005. Teegee said it was that process that led to the conclusion they would oppose the project.
"During that time we didn't know anything about pipelines per se, when we started talking about pipelines, in particular oil pipelines, we starting finding more and more information and we made an informed decision," he said.
It's expected that 10 different First Nations interveners will ask questions of the Northern Gateway at the hearings over the next couple of weeks, with the Gitxaala Nation alone booking 12 hours of cross-examination time.
"I think a lot of frustrated First Nations will probably be going there, talking to them about their consultation," Teegee said.
Three other non First Nations groups have also signed up to ask questions, including the Fort St. James Sustainability Group.
Holder, who will be the lead witness, said the company has been "very open and transparent" about its discussions with all groups. She said the record shows how the company spent a lot of time talking to people and addressing their concerns.
Sonja Ostertag, a spokeswoman for Sea to Sands Conservation Alliance, said her group hasn't had direct talks with Enbridge and hasn't been impressed by the consultation process. She said the company has spent more time trying to connect to people through advertising than talking to people in person.
"In the past there have been efforts made by different people in northern B.C. to have forums where Enbridge would be given a chance to answer questions and present their project along with other people, other experts on the project and concerned citizens," Ostertag said. "Enbridge hasn't been forthcoming in attending these forums, so they've been canceled in the past."
Skeena-Bulkley Valley NDP MP Nathan Cullen has asked questions of past witness panels, but won't be questioning the next group. He said he's had talks with other pipeline companies who have learned from Northern Gateway's example and won't be following their lead for future projects.
"Unfortunately they're writing the book on how not to win over a community and how to unify pretty disparate groups in opposition," he said. "Folks that didn't have much to agree on are agreeing the way the company has acted and the way the project is being presented is absolutely contrary to our values and hopes for the future."
Holder pointed to the Community Advisory Boards the company has set up in communities along the route, including Prince George, as one way the company is engaging supporters and opponents alike. Although the boards are organized by Northern Gateway, Holder said the agendas are decided upon by the members and some guest speakers have been opposed to the project.
She said the goal of the company's engagement efforts have been to inform people of the details of the plan.
"What's important to us is that people just understand the project and then make their decision whether they support or oppose based on that knowledge," she said.
The consultation plan was originally set up as a wrap-up panel, according to Holder, but that was changed as some of the panels swapped spots. There is still one more Northern Gateway panel to come on shipping and navigation then the company will question up to 14 witness panels made up of interveners. Four federal government panels will conclude the cross-examination phase, likely in late April or early May.