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Northern Gateway hearings were a path to self-discovery for many of its opponents

The transformation of Murray Minchin from shy recluse to vocal advocate started one day when he found an oil-soaked log on a beach near Kitimat. Minchin and others found an unexpected strength in themselves while fighting Enbridge's controversial oil pipeline proposal.

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What drew Shannon to that event in Moricetown in the first place was the federal government’s changes to the Navigable Waters Act and erosion of environmental legislation to facilitate the approval of pipeline projects. So he started studying Northern Gateway and went to the hearings as an intervenor, on his own behalf and for the group Douglas Channel Watch.

Dave Shannon with Cheryl Brown from Douglas Channel Watch

Shannon said all this was new, and that he had never done anything remotely activist before.

“This took three years out of my life," he said. I worked a 40-hour week for three years on this for no pay, and I put a lot of money into it. A thousand hours of research. I learned a lot."

 “I learned that industry rules. Big oil will do anything to get their project approved. I saw a lot of concealment of truth by a lot of the experts from Enbridge. It made me steam, I was pretty mad.”

He said it was an eye-opener how limited the scope of the hearings was—that interveners were not allowed to talk about the tar sands, cumulative effects, LNG, greenhouse gases or global warming.

“I was somewhat naïve in thinking we had a chance," he said. "I know now that we did not...but a person has to speak up,” said Shannon. 

Curiosity hardened into opposition

Minchin, Thomas, and Shannon are all modest people. They don’t seem intent on putting themselves forward. They would rather talk about the pipeline or about their communities than about themselves. And they are quick to mention about how community groups from across the north, strangers before Northern Gateway, came to know and support each other. 

The activism on the coast reverberated through BC to Fort St. James, a northern community around a seven hour drive from Kitimat. 

Brenda Gouglas of the Fort St. James Sustainability Group said her work was inspired by Douglas Channel Watch, and in particular by Murray Minchin. 

 “That group was the same as our group—people from a little town.  We felt their strength, to go forward and not be afraid and ask our questions,” she said.

Brenda Gouglas, in red jacket. 

Gouglas spoke about her findings in and around Fort St. James, where she was a municipal councillor for two terms until 2011. She also asked sharp questions about Canadian jobs and First Nations' benefits to Enbridge president John Carruthers and Enbridge gas president Janet Holder at the Northern Gateway panel.

As a researcher, she said she was struck by the sheer volume of information available. 

“It is astounding, and the regular person does not have time for it. I retired from the Ministry of Forests in 2011, so that gave me the time.”

As for marching in the streets, that came easy for Gouglas, even though she had never done anything like it before. 

“I made the banner in that photograph,” she said. “It was very empowering to put the words on a piece of fabric and walk about town. You would not believe the honks and waves and cheers we got as we walked through the community—a really good feeling.

“It seems that the ones who are afraid to go out in public like that are the ones that are in favour of the pipeline. There are some and we can have chats in the aisle at the grocery store, and people will question why I'm against it and we can talk, but there is not enough of that kind of conversation going on. I’m not sure why people don’t talk to each other like that more often,” she said. 

She said being involved in the hearings was an eye-opener, “not just about Enbridge but the industry itself, seeing how they operate. They are all the same in the way they do business, in the way they present themselves to the public, the language they use. 

“Last night I went to Spectra Energy open house proposing LNG, and their language and their slides and their presentation seemed word for word the same as what Enbridge was presenting. Buzzwords. You cannot get away from the word ‘mitigation’ no matter which way you turn. ‘World class’ is another.”

Gouglas said she found the federal government's approval in a press release last month "cowardly" and that she won’t stop researching and speaking out abut the project any time soon.

“This is not over. Whether or not it is approved we have to start looking at what will happen on the land. I have learned so much about what the industry behaves like during construction. There is so much that we need to keep our finger on.”

“There’s a sense of ‘we are all in this together.’ It’s an incredible feeling.”

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Athabasca tar sands, photographed by Andrew S. Wright

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