Analysis: Ottawa courts local anger with pipeline jibes

Thu Jan 12, 2012 2:05pm EST
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By Jeffrey Jones

KITAMAAT VILLAGE, British Columbia (Reuters) -

Until Enbridge Inc proposed its Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline that would terminate near this picturesque coastal aboriginal community, the top topic of conversation was always basketball.

Teams compete against other native nations in the region and success on the court is a source of pride for the Haisla people in Kitamaat Village. In the community hall where hearings into the C$5.5 billion ($5.4 billion) project are taking place, trophies and banners trumpet numerous championship wins, most recently for the women's squad in 2011.

But that has changed with the pipeline and comments over the past week by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his senior ministers blasting some opponents as foreign-funded radicals. It's become as emotional a subject in the community of 1,500 as hoops, said Leah Robinson, 34-year-old granddaughter of a hereditary chief and master carver.

"Basketball is, and always will be, just as important to our community as this whole Enbridge situation," Robinson said during a break in the proceedings.

"Everybody eats it, breathes it, sleeps it. We've grown up with it ... so when this (pipeline proposal) popped up, that's how important it has become to our community because of our environment and what we live off of."

The first two days of hearings on the pipeline heard testimony from Haisla elders, Metis and non-natives who live nearby. Most believe the project presents too many risks to traditional life, or fret that oil spills could damage wildlife and lands in the mountainous coastal area.

Several witnesses, recalling the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, said they don't want more than 200 oil tankers a year passing through the Douglas Channel to an export facility that would be built at Kitimat, about 150 miles south of the southern tip of Alaska.   Continued...