It continues to amaze me that such a rigidly formalized rite as the quasi-judicial Enbridge environmental review hearings can pack such an emotional punch, and jab with such dignified persistence at the towering realms of power represented by three human beings sitting so nondescriptly at a small table on uncomfortable chairs in the anonymity of a community gymnasium.
But that is how it was when the Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel returned to Haida Gwaii twice in the past few weeks to hear oral testimony from Islanders. Sheila Leggett, Hans Matthews, Kenneth Bateman and their support team were back in Old Massett June 1 and 2 and returned to Skidegate June 13 and 14.
To give the panel credit, after several months on the road, travelling often a long way from family and friends, taking food and lodging as it comes, panel members and the team that travels with them remain polite, attentive, helpful and friendly. They have a tough job and a big responsibility, working within a lot constraints, in a format that requires managing a mountain of detail with as much precision as can be mastered in difficult circumstances, and likely to receive very little thanks either at the beginning, the middle, or the end of their mandate.
Sometimes, the panel seems more than a little sharp-ish on the rules and regulations, I think, but they have come all this way to hold the hearings on-Island and, and they appear happy to do so.
My issues can be attributed more to the form of the process and its requirements than to the particularities of the people who are involved. I still believe these are good people doing a tough job, in a time and in a political climate that does not serve them well either.
I don’t believe these people are out of time or place, although I am certain they are often pushed well out of their personal comfort zones (!!), but the process and its rules often appear creaking, stodgy, culturally out of touch and unadapted to modes of communication anywhere past the 19th century.
I still don’t really understand what quasi-judicial means. Does the word quasi mean… sort of, somewhat, maybe, partly, kind-da ? Is this where the jabberwocky begins?
And then there are a lot of rules. Obviously there are formal requirements for presentation of “evidence,” but I am not sure where the rules specific to the detail of this particular process originate. And judging by the errors and numbers of corrections that appear in the transcripts, strict rules of “evidence” without doubt would have a hard time holding fast here…you would think.
And then there is the matter of proper decorum. Clapping and applauding are not allowed. Hooting and hollering are definitely not allowed. (“This is not a rally.”)
Any mention of “civil disobedience” is apparently perceived as a “threat” and not allowed. You have to wonder what the panel response would have been to the intentions, purposes, and leadership of Mohatmas Gandhi?
Posters and placards are not allowed.
The singing of songs is sometimes not allowed; even, in one instance in Smithers when the national anthem O Canada was in question. The words were said, but not allowed to be sung.
In Skidegate, the children’s dance group requested to make a cultural presentation in song and dance. The request became a motion and was denied by the panel. The children and their teacher, Jenny Cross, were of course disappointed. The panel chair suggested the group might submit a video as late oral evidence.
A young, enthusiastic school teacher brought shore crabs in a large jar so that the panel members might have the experience of the beach that a child has when holding a small creature that tickles as it scurries across your hand. The panel denied the presence of the crabs (free of their jar, rocks and seaweed) during the oral testimony. But Joel Legasse took the denial in such good grace, and during the break everyone did have the opportunity to see and touch these omnipresent beach attractions, including, I believe, the panel members and their staff.
And, nonetheless, all that having been said: the panel sits and the people speak.
So who speaks and what do they speak about?
In Old Massett, there were 61 presenters over two days of testimony and in Skidegate there were 68 people who spoke in the 10 minute slots allocated to each speaker.
When combined with the longer presentations of those who signed up to the Joint Review Panel process as intervenors and were heard on-Island in late February and mid-March, 200 people have spoken and given evidence. Each and every one of them has said NO! to the pipeline and tanker proposal. In all, the oral evidence alone from these four sessions on Haida Gwaii, fills almost 1,000 pages of testimony. And this does not include the stacks of written submissions which are in addition and can be found on the on the JRP website here.
Thousands and thousands of words flow across these pages of testimony. Millions of words, and thoughts, knowledge, life, lore, passion, hope, fear, dread, and most of all, love and responsibility. It’s not just about NO! It is so much more about why no pipeline should cross the rivers and mountains of the mainland, and why no tankers and no oil should travel through these waters.
Testimony from Haida Gwaii is about the relationship of human beings to these remote islands upon which we live together. The concerns of people here, and the experience and knowledge they have committed to testimony and transcript, tell about a depth of connection to the natural world that transcends the leagues of economy or politics, or even the boundaries of one culture or another.
People here fear that the nature of our undertaking, and our responsibility as human beings in a natural world, has been forgotten; that nature is usurped by greed; that willing ignorance of consequences will be catastrophic.
In the testimony I have heard, and in the transcripts I have read, I hear a collective voice of people who live here—apart from the mainstream, out on the edges—and deeply engaged in learning. The people of Haida Gwaii live the lessons that are offered in a landscape where it is still possible to be a human being in touch every moment of every day in the natural world, its teeming plenty, its beauty, its wonder and its inexorable power.
If you likened the tones of the hearings to music, you would hear not so much of shrill harangue, or ponderous wisdom, or thunderous pontificating, although we all have those moments too. The mood tones are more quiet – expressions of deep joy, reverence, respect, and beseeching pleas to the members of the panel to carry a message from here to wherever it is they deliver their decisions.
As I listened to people speaking, the range of perspectives, and the intimate detail of experiences of land, forest and sea, stretched my mind out way beyond what I know, or had even dreamed of. And I have lived here for a long time.
And who spoke? There were people who kayak, tour operators in Gwaii Hanaas, fish counters on the rivers; volunteers to the Laskeek Bay program who count ancient murrelet chicks in the dark of night as they emerge from their burrows on remote Limestone Island; fisher people who have seen the disappearance of the abalone and the decimation of the herring; boat builders, ranchers whose cattle graze the salt meadows of the river estuary; kids who love the beaches; seaweed gatherers; many teachers from our schools where kids hatch and raise salmon in their classes to return to the creeks and rivers in which they originated; a nurse who has seen the joy on the face of an aged patient in hospital who has been brought food fresh from the sea – k’aaw especially; grandmothers, mothers, grandfathers, hereditary leaders, matriarchs. There were many, many teens who are very clear about the meaning of life on Haida Gwaii and the threat to their future that the presence of tankers and pipelines would impose.
Like most, I suppose, I often take the scope and substance of my community for granted, and–I’ll admit it– sometimes I whine too. In the way of small towns, we think we know everything about everybody…and sometimes that’s true. But in listening to people talk, one after the other, about what matters most to them, often to the point of tears, I’ve discovered there is also a lot we don’t know about our neighbours too. In listening, I am reminded anew how deeply textured and interconnected the brilliant facets of our island life actually are, and they all relate respect, love and passionate responsibility for the lands and sea of Haida Gwaii.
Of the community oral presentations, the ones that I appreciated the most, were from those brave souls who fear public speaking more than I fear spiders. There were a number of people I know who broke into an ice-cold sweat, cried tears of fear, trembled, squeaked and shook, but got up there and said their piece anyway, and it was read into the record.
It’s going to be a long engagement, this Enbridge-Northern Gateway proposition. And we have been through so many long and difficult engagements already here on Haida Gwaii. Vigilance is required; also persistence and endurance.
There is something so ultimately reassuring to just sit for hours listening to people who are your friends and neighbours talk about what really matters deeply to them, in their own thoughtful considerations and their own words. It’s a deep and quiet flow of words and experience that are a fine antidote to the nightmare of fear and dread that has sailed onto our horizon with the Enbridge pipeline and tanker proposals.