A public hearing for the Northern Gateway Project has been unexpectedly cancelled after panel members were met by protesters at the Bella Bella airport in B.C. on Sunday afternoon.
The review panel was scheduled to hold four days of hearings in the remote community to gather local concerns about the controversial proposal to build a crude oil pipeline from Alberta to the West Coast.
A large crowd greeted the panel members when they arrived in Bella Bella, but later on Sunday afternoon, Monday's hearing was cancelled. Some high school students in the community reportedly began a 48-hour hunger strike after the panel arrived.
Heiltsuk First Nation Chief Marilynn Slett told a community meeting that the review panel had sent a notice that it would not be proceeding with the sessions because of security concerns.
"It was their perception that it wasn't a very secure or safe environment," Slett told CBC News on Monday morning.
But Slett said the protest and the community are peaceful.
"Heiltsuk is known up and down the coast as being a really friendly community, one of the friendliest communities you can come accross, so we were quite offended by that."
Bella Bella, B.C.
Documentary filmmaker and environmental activist Damien Gillis said the protesters were not threatening anyone.
"The RCMP was in attendance, I've spoken to the detachment commander. They are baffled at this reaction. They didn't observe anything unlawful or remotely threatening."
North Coast NDP MLA Gary Coons arrived on the plane with the panel members and said all he witnessed was a peaceful gathering.
"It is insulting to the Heiltsuk community and those that were there that they would feel that way. The members of the joint review panel have been welcomed in respectful ways to every First Nations community that they have gone to and this would be no different." said Coons.
Both Coons and Slett are hopeful a meeting with panel members on Monday morning will help resolve panel's concerns and get the public hearings back on track.
Logistical issues cited by panel
A spokesperson for the National Energy Board, which is conducting the hearings, confirmed the panel would not be holding the public hearing scheduled for Monday.
"There are logistical issues that panel staff are currently working with the community leadership to determine the best way for the panel to receive oral traditional knowledge of the Heiltsuk Nation. The panel will announce further steps shortly," said a statement released by Kristen Higgens.
Paul Stanway of Enbridge said the company is not involved and suggestions in some media reports that Enbridge asked the National Energy Board to withdraw or cancel hearings in Bella Bella are not true.
Hearings for the pipeline project have drawn protests in many B.C. communities, which are concerned about the risk the pipeline and the associated oil tanker traffic will bring.
On Friday, many B.C. First Nations reacted with anger to the federal government's decision to retroactively shorten the regulatory review for the pipeline project.