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Northern Gateway hearings in Vancouver greeted by thousands of protesters

VANCOUVER - The nationwide Idle No More movement merged with ongoing protests against oil pipeline projects proposed for British Columbia, to bring more than a thousand protesters out to greet the federal review panel conducting hearings in Vancouver.

The community hearings by the federal panel on the Northern Gateway project are scheduled to resume this morning, after a noisy start on Monday night.

First Nations from as far as the Haisla Nation on the North Coast, near the would-be tanker port of Kitimat, B.C., and from the Interior took part in a march to the downtown hotel where the hearings are being held.

"The Harper government has one of the most aggressive, high-carbon strategies in the world," Eddie Gardner, of the Sto:lo Nation, told the crowd as they mobilized ahead of the march.

He blasted the federal Conservatives for changes they've made to environmental laws that will affect oversight of the Northern Gateway proposed by Enbridge and other projects.

"He implemented that legislation, it has become law, and he did it with crass and ruthless disregard for the environment," Gardner told the protesters.

"Stephen Harper is hell bent to expand the tar sands.

"Canada is coming alive to Harper's real agenda ... he is one of the biggest enemies of the environment."

Protesters were met by Vancouver police, who kept them from entering the building. They remained outside the Sheraton Wall Centre for a short time, drumming and chanting "No Pipelines" before moving on.

Kiera Corrigan, 25, said she is originally from Bella Coola, a small community on the central coast.

"I think it's really important that we don't put in this pipeline. My home town is right south of Kitimat, so it hits really close to home if we ever have an oil spill, which there will be," she said.

Protesters also took aim at a proposed expansion of the existing TransMountain pipeline operated by Kinder Morgan.

The pipeline moves oil from the oil sands to port in Vancouver, and a proposed $4.3-billion expansion would more than double the capacity of the 1,100-kilometre line.

The joint review panel, which is weighing the Northern Gateway, has scheduled eight days of hearings in Vancouver.

They're hearing public comment on the controversial plan to deliver oil from the Alberta oil sands to a tanker port on the North Coast of B.C.

Community hearings were held previously in Victoria, and a one-day hearing is scheduled in Kelowna later this month.

The panel limited access to the hearings room to participants.

"Given the large urban nature of Victoria and Vancouver and previous protests held in both locations regarding the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project (the project), the panel has decided that it will limit access to the hearing room," stated the directive.

Members of the public are able to listen to submissions in another location. The hearings are also being streamed live on the panel website.

Access to the hearings remained closed off after the protesters dispersed.

Inside, the three-person panel heard from a range of interested members of the public, from First Nations and environmentalists, to a scientist who lamented telling her children and grandchildren about what she did about climate change.

"What will you tell your grandchildren?" the woman asked the panel.

Eric Doherty, a former Canadian Coast Guard marine engineer turned environmental planner, chided the panel for failing to consider emissions from the Alberta oil sands in its assessment.

"It's no longer controversial that global warming is killing people," he said. "It's no longer controversial that global warming is THE threat to our society."

The pipeline project has been incredibly divisive in British Columbia and as the end of the long regulatory process nears, both sides are trying their utmost to rally support.

The United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters decided to weigh in Monday, with a statement from Canadian director John Telford stating that the project "will provide jobs to members in Eastern Canada as well as the West."

"The regulation of the oil and gas industry as a whole ensures that the impact to the environment and native peoples will be minimal and the benefits should far exceed any possible drawbacks," the union said in the statement.

And Enbridge has been on a charm offensive in the province for months, with full-page newspaper ads and radio ads extolling the benefits of the project and assuring B.C. residents they will employ world-leading safety measures.

The panel held final hearings earlier in Edmonton, Prince George and Prince Rupert, where company experts and interveners answered questions under oath.

Those hearings will resume in Prince Rupert next month, and the panel must submit its recommendations to the Environment Minister by the end of this year.

Dene Moore reports for the Canadian Press.

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