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Joint Review Panel hearings in Vancouver: keeping the public out of the hearing room may be illegal, lawyer says

Size of the city, protests, not enough to constitute “real and substantial risk”

Victory Square crowd
Pipelines leak
Hundreds of people gathered at Victory Square last night to protest the Enbridge Joint Review Panel hearings and to support Idle No More. Photo by Erin Flegg

The latest round of Joint Review Panel hearings on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, begun last night at the Sheraton Hotel downtown, are potentially unlawful, said environmental and human rights lawyer Josh Paterson, who until recently was a member of an advisory group on the National Energy Board's policies and processes.

Now the executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), Paterson said the Joint Review Panel is obligated to follow the open court principle that states any legal proceeding must be open to the public unless there is a “real and substantial risk” involved. He said a viewing room and transcript of the hearings don’t cut it.

“It doesn’t just mean the public has to know what went down. They actually have to be there in the room,” he said. “The Supreme Court of Canada has been very clear in several decisions.”

So far, Victoria and Vancouver are the only two cities in which the public has been barred from the hearing room, a decision Paterson said is unfounded.

“It’s clear there’s no justification for it. They just said, well, there are a lot of people, there might be a protest. You have to have evidence to show there’s going to be some kind of problem.” Paterson mentioned the incident in Belle Bella when protesters met the panel members at the airport, prompting the members to immediately get on a plane and leave again.

“Even the RCMP officers in the region said it had been peaceful and there had been no incidents.” The next round of hearings in Kelowna is set to be open to the public.

The BCCLA submitted a letter to the panel first thing yesterday morning outlining in detail their concerns and the legal issues behind them, asking them to reconsider.

The theme of the night was climate change, and speaker after speaker expressed disgust that the panel doesn’t intend to take carbon emissions into account in its decision.

A large crowd of protesters could be heard drumming and chanting outside throughout most of the evening’s proceedings.

Speaker Eric Doherty commented on noise.

“It’s rather pleasant background, I think.”

Doherty, a marine engineer turned environmental consultant, told the panel a story about the impact climate change has already had on him personally. In 1997, he visited South America and met a group of women living and working there.

“I took pictures and came back from my holiday and showed people that’s I’d done more than just go to Spanish school and sit on the beach,” he said, beginning to choke up.

“Then a few months later I discovered that Hurricane Mitch had devastated the whole region. Some of those women lost their whole families. Their grandparents, their children, their parents, aunts, uncles. It would be like a First Nations village here that had been there for centuries and centuries, and maybe thousands of ears, being wiped off the map.”

Hurricane Mitch, Doherty said, was the first mega-storm attributed to global warming, a controversial position at the time.

“It’s no longer controversial that global warming is killing people today. It’s no longer controversial that global warming is the threat to our society.”

Michael Sather, MLA for Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadow, said he’s primarily concerned about the government’s blasé attitude toward global warming.

“Nowhere is this lack of concern in action more than in the continued rapid burning of crude oil, bitumen, coal and natural gas.”

The critic for fisheries and the deputy critic for the environment, Sather said talk of mitigation doesn’t address the underlying problems, and society is going to have to make real sacrifices.

“Just imagine how much difference we could make if we let go of the idea that we can have our cake and eat it too.”

The evening began several hours before the hearing with noise demonstrations, speakers and songs in Victory Square on the other side of downtown. Hundreds of people braved the snow to bang pots and pans and sing, accompanied by Commercial Drive’s Carnival Band.

Members from First Nations as far away as Ontario led prayers before a responsive crowd. Laura Holland, member of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation told the crowd,

“I’m here for my family, I’m here for myself, and I’m here for you too.”

There was a strong police presence keeping watch on the protesters at Victory Square and along the march to the Sheraton, but officers said the crowd respected police lines and there were no incidents.

Brian McKinlay attended the rally with his wife Louise and teenage daughter Morgan. He said it’s important for them to participate as a family.

“This is what we do,” he said. “It’s important for kids to see this is important, not to fear something that isn’t talked about in school.” He said he wants her to see first hand who and what these demonstrations are about.

“The label of being a protester carries a negative stigma in mainstream society. We want to introduce to her here that it’s not, that it’s actually quite healthy and normal.”

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