The public relations battle surrounding the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline kicked up once again Tuesday, but the people on centre stage at the start of environmental hearings delivered a more quiet plea and warning.
"I know all the history, laws, ins and outs of the native culture," said Rod Bolton, a hereditary Haisla chief who spoke at the opening of the hearings in Kitimat, B.C.
"Please, hear me. We will not be walked over again like was done in the reserve system. We want to have a voice."
Days before the hearings began, environmentalists issued polls suggesting Canadians are opposed to tanker traffic along B.C. coastlines while an open letter from the federal natural resources minister referred to some of them as "radicals" backed by big U.S. money and naive celebrities.
But the strong words from both sides were a stark contrast from the gentle opening delivered by hereditary Chief Sammy Robinson after Haisla dancers and drummers paraded into the Aboriginal community's meeting hall.
"Walk softly on our road," he said. "We are very happy to have you in our territory. Good luck."
The long, fjord-like channel that leads into Kitimat is the proposed site for the oil tanker port because of its deep, protected waters.
Enbridge Inc. plans to bring oil super tankers the size of the Empire State building into the town where they will be loaded with Alberta oil and shipped to Asia.
Environmental hearings into the proposal, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper has characterized as imperative to the Canadian economy, are expected to last for 18 months.
Enbridge officials are attending the hearings, but won't make any presentations until much later in the process.
'It just terrifies me': Chief Hall
Chief Ken Hall said the pipeline project points a double-barrelled shotgun at the Haisla people, with the threat of a pipeline break and oil tanker spill.
"The Haisla were taught to preserve and conserve everything we get," he said. "It just terrifies me to know that we are facing more destruction."
Robinson said he's been running a fishing charter business out of Douglas Channel for 45 years.
"I know every inch of our territory because I'm out there every day of the summer running my business."
"I am worried," he said, adding he has visions of traditional cultural sites in the channel "covered up with oil."
Art Sterritt, the executive director of Coastal First Nations, which represents 10 aboriginal groups opposed to the project, said it's the First Nations who must live with the threat of an oil spill if the project goes ahead.
He slammed the federal government for trying to colour the hearings.
"We've got an Alberta prime minister trying to bully British Columbians," he said.
'Respect the process': Rae
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver issued an open letter Monday, saying there are "environmental and other radical groups" that are trying to block the pipeline and squelch Canadian resource prosperity and job growth.
"They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interest," he said.
Federal Liberal leader Bob Rae equated Oliver's comments to messing with the legal system.
"I think it is as inappropriate for a minister or a prime minister to interfere and intervene and, frankly, intimidate an environmental process as it would be to interfere or intervene in a court case. It is entirely inappropriate," Rae said in Ottawa on Tuesday.
"Once the environmental process happens the prime minister should keep quiet, Mr. Oliver should keep quiet and should respect the process. This is part and parcel of how this government operates."
Outside of the meeting hall, a lone man stood in support of the Northern Gateway pipeline project.
Matthew Mask, a local plumber dressed in a Super Mario costume, said plumbers need oil jobs.
He mocked the pipeline protesters, saying that while he was prepared to stand outside the hall in the cold early-morning hours, protesters were sleeping in their warm beds.
"Me and my brother, if we don't have a pipeline, how the heck are we supposed to get work around here? It's not fair."