Hundreds of people attended the opening day of public hearings that may determine the fate of a controversial plan to build the Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast from Alberta's oilsands in the First Nations community of Kitamaat Village, B.C.

Tension dominated Tuesday morning's ceremony launching the hearings into Enbridge's plan to pipe oil from the Edmonton area to the port in Kitimat, B.C., where it would be loaded on tankers and shipped to markets in the U.S. and Asia.

Haisla Hereditary Chief Ken Hall said the project puts his people in the crosshairs of possible disaster and they must put threats to their homes and their children's future ahead of job prospects that might come from the pipeline.

"The Haisla are facing a double-barrelled shotgun by the bringing of that oil by pipeline and shipping it by sea," Hall told the opening day of environmental hearings into the project.

"The pipeline threatens our grandchildren.… It's going to be terrifying if everything disappears in our community."

Oil spill fears

Hall was among several First Nations leaders who spoke Tuesday. Like Hall, the other aboriginal speakers voiced concerns that the project presents a double danger to their community, with the threat of a pipeline break or an oil-tanker spill.

P.O.V.

Should the pipeline go ahead? Take our suvey.

Samuel Robinson, a hereditary chief and fisherman from Kitamaat Village, also voiced his opposition to the project.

"I know every inch of our territory. The area's rich with seafood, halibut, cod, fur-bearing animals," he said. "It worries me that all this will be lost or destroyed when there is a spill. Mark my words: when there is a spill. Experience knows it will happen."

But outside the meeting hall, Matthew Mask, a local plumber dressed in a Super Mario costume, said plumbers need oil jobs.

"Me and my brother, if we don't have a pipeline, how are we supposed to get work around here? It's not fair."

'Walk softly on our road'

More than 4,300 individuals and groups have signed up to speak at the hearings, which are being conducted by a federal review panel and are expected to last until 2013.

The strong words from both sides were a stark contrast with the gentle opening delivered by Robinson earlier in the day.

"Walk softly on our road," he said. "We are very happy to have you in our territory. Good luck."

Enbridge officials are attending the hearings, but won't make any presentations until much later in the process.

The project has long been a source of controversy, with opponents arguing an oil spill is inevitable and supporters touting the pipeline's promises of boosting Canada's gross domestic product by as much as $270 billion.

Controversial Gitxsan deal

The public relations battle surrounding the Enbridge project has been going on for months.

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The Northern Gateway pipeline would carry oil to tankers for export to the U.S. and Asia. (Enbridge)

Days before the hearing began, environmentalists issued polls suggesting Canadians are opposed to tanker traffic along the B.C. coastline, while an open letter from the federal natural resources minister referred to some of the opponents as "radicals" backed by big U.S. money and naive celebrities.

Aboriginals across British Columbia have vowed to fight the proposal, saying the pipeline infringes on their traditional territories and the threat of an oil spill on land or along the coast threatens their lifestyle.

Late last year, when Elmer Derrick, a hereditary chief of the Gitxsan First Nation announced he had signed a deal with Enbridge on behalf of his people, a backlash from within his community erupted.

Protests continue outside of Derrick's Gitxsan treaty office in Hazelton, B.C.

With files from The Canadian Press