Like most people, Elsie Tiljoe says she gets nervous speaking to a crowd.
Her husband Russell is the one people ask to speak at weddings, often without warning him first.
But when she decided to speak to a federal review panel against Enbridge’s $5.5-billion pipeline proposal, Elsie knew she would have a photo of Grandma Holland beside her.
“That’s who we came from, and she was our leader,” Elsie said, sitting at home in Houston a few days before the Jan. 16 hearing in Smithers.
In her day, Elsie explained, Grandma Holland held another name—Chief Nedabees. The name is thousands of years old, and it is carried by the woman or man responsible for the Uni’stoten house territory of the Wet’suwet’en.
“Our number-one law is ‘Look after the territory,’” said Russell Tiljoe. “Nobody speaks for your territory unless the chief is there, or the chief and the family on that territory. That’s been our law, and it’s still the same today.”
If it goes ahead, one Northern Gateway pipeline will cross Elsie’s house territory as it carries Alberta crude west from the oil sands to a tanker port at Kitimat. Beside it, a twin pipeline will send a toxic thinning agent back east to the oil sands, where it will be used to dilute heavy oils for transport.
“We’re quite worried because of all the devastation we’ve seen when pipelines break in other parts of the country,” said Russell, who decided to join Elsie and 18 other Wet’suwet’en speakers on Monday in opposing the Northern Gateway project.
Although the Office of the Wet’suwet’en has come out strongly against the pipelines, Russell said he knows quite a few Wet’suwet’en who support it, too.
Many hope to benefit directly from Northern Gateway, he said, which is expected to add $270 billion to Canada’s economy over its 30-year life span.
“To us, it’s a short-time gain,” said Russell.
Much has changed, he said, since Elsie’s parents and grandparents grew up in a homestead near Nadina mountain, the men poling a dugout canoe some 60 km up the Morice River to work a family trapline.
Equity Mine came and went from his clan’s territory, Russell said, bringing fewer local jobs than promised and making a “mud puddle” of the once trout-rich Goosely Lake.
“They’ve taken a lot out of it without leaving anything behind,” he said.
Still, Russell said B.C. is relatively unspoiled next to Alberta.
So many pipelines cross Alberta’s oil patch already that Russell said he can understand why several First Nations there signed equity deals with Enbridge.
But one Enbridge supporter Russell said he can’t understand is Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“What’s the use of having all these hearings when our prime minister said he wants that pipeline to go through?” he asked.
Russell said he was also surprised by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who recently warned that Northern Gateway was being opposed by environmental and other “radical” groups.
“We’re about as radical as what you see right now,” said Russell, laughing.
Even if the Northern Gateway project wins approval, Russell said he expects lawyers working for the Wet’suwet’en will tie it up for years in the courts.
“They tried that with the Delgamuukw,” he said, referring to the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that upheld the principle of aboriginal title and validated the kind of oral evidence he and Elsie prepared for the Enbridge review panel.
Delgamuukw was a breakthrough, Russell said, but it only went halfway. A dissenting judge meant the ruling did not decide directly on the 58,000 square kilometres of traditional territory claimed by the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan peoples, he said. With a clearer ruling on the issue, the Northern Gateway pipeline might be stopped.
“Are they going to go over the whole thing again and still end up losing? I don’t know,” he said.
Before any of those legal battles might start, the federal panel reviewing the Enbridge pipeline proposal will hold oral hearings until the end of March.
A report from the three-member panel is not due until the end of 2013. If the panel decides that the Northern Gateway project can go ahead, Enbridge has said it expects the pipelines to start working some time in 2017.
Looking ahead, Russell said he and Elsie hope their four-year-old grandson—who they took berry picking for the first time last summer—will enjoy their traditional lands unspoiled.
“We hope that he will experience the same things that we have—pristine wilderness, beautiful country, and the beautiful river.”