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In Vancouver, a hundred percent opposed to Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline at JRP hearings

It may not have been perfect. Pete McMartin certainly didn't like it. The impact of the hundreds of statement’s from mostly ordinary Canadians possibly unknown in the final decision. And it may not have been a public gong show, loved by TV cameras and headline writers, where passion and theatrics often upstage reason.

But, the Joint Review Panel (JRP) hearings in semi-private worked well on a certain level. I have attended meetings and hearings like this all over Canada. (Newfoundland public hearings are the best.)

For those who walked, biked and public transited to the fourth floor of Vancouver’s Sheraton Wall Centre, who spent time preparing, writing and even practicing to speak to a national organization for 10 minutes on a topic close to their soul; that 600 seconds of “my-time with the JRP panel” meant something. Some might define it as cathartic. One presenter emailed me afterward and said, “It was empowering to be a part of this hearing.” Those who identified themselves as environmentalists or professionals often came well prepared and appeared comfortable speaking to the panel. For many, however, this was a first time attending anything like this in their lives. They were not affiliated with environmental groups. They just knew in their heart’s that they had to do something, and if speaking for 10 minutes to the National Energy Board (NEB) about EnGate (an ideal moniker suggested by one presenter), then they came.

Often they brought family members or friends who sat in with them and videotaped their presentation. A number brought their children to witness their mother or father speaking passionately about their love of BC and its environment; senior citizens, students, mothers and fathers; your neighbour. Would a crowded room, prone to outbursts, cheers and applause have wrung the same emotion from those who I witnessed having their say in what they see to be a fight to protect their “super-natural” home? I personally don’t think so. In fact, in most public hearings, the outbursts and theatrics are usually a significantly small part of the overall hearing. (Coincidentally, the lone theatrics at last week’s hearing occurred during the only time television news cameras were present. I wonder how that happened.)

The hearings were also unifying in that everyone, and I mean 100 per cent of the people I listened to addressing the panel, were opposed to this project. On my first day as I entered the elevator I was asked by a young, eager couple whether I was a presenter. I looked down and mumbled into my shoes that I was only a reporter. This couple, like most presenters at the hearing, came with a passion and a desire to have their voice heard; using their words, not theatrics to express their opposition to EnGate. These were not the "environmental and other radical groups" so labelled by Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver one year ago. From my perspective, they were ordinary Canadians speaking up for something they believe in.

Sitting across from the presenters were the three NEB panelists. They did not check their watches, their Blackberry’s and emails or stifle yawns during the hours and hours of presentations, many of which were comparable to the previous presentation or to the presentations in the day and weeks before. From what I witnessed, the panelists were attentive and alert. They thanked each presenter and accepted any criticism of the hearing process stoically. Few presenters overstayed their 10 minute allotment, and those that did were politely reminded "to wrap it up in one sentence".

Holding an open-hearing, available to everyone to come and go at will would have been better; a hearing where everyone, not just one friend or family member could “bear witness” to an actual presentation. But this long process of hearings was still democratic. And the vast majority of those who made the trek to downtown Vancouver did not complain. Once outside the hearing room, the three presenters who sat together and had listened to each other often hugged; strangers united by the circumstance of timing and a common goal.

Where were the voices in support of this project? Were they afraid to appear at the hearing amid a sea of opposition? If so, then that is a shame. The process was long but it was reasonable and democratic. The grandmother’s, students and other ordinary and ‘friendly’ Canadians would have kept their peace and allowed project supporters the same 10 minutes of time with the panel as they had received. This is what the hearing process, despite its flaws, allowed. Not perfect, but in my opinion, certainly not “an egregious case of amateur hour”.

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