I am eyeing the 11 avid paddlers in the 11-metre long canoe. They lean in into their paddles in harmony through the mirror-like waters of Whale Channel when it happens. Beyond them stretches the seemingly endless rugged coastline of what's known as the mighty Great Bear Rainforest. Perched on the bow of the support boat with the rest of my team, we are resting after our two-hour-long session at the paddle and I am thinking about how there are few places in the world which feel like true, remote wilderness and this is definitely one of them.
Suddenly my reverie is broken by a cry and I notice the crew has paused and all are pointing ahead of the canoe. From my vantage point on the bow of the boat, I can see nothing at first, but then in a heartbeat, I spot it — the rise of the distinct tall, black fin, the flash of white on the face and I immediately register it is a killer whale (Orcinus orca). A female and two calves travel past us up the coast surfacing less than ten metres away from the canoe as they travel.
The essence of our calling is surmised in this one moment in time — a wild encounter on a wild coastline — which is battered not only by winds and storms, but is now placed at the forefront of a battle between encroaching development and the coastal people standing in its way.
When Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. filed a project application with the National Energy Board for the Northern Gateway Project in May 2010 — a proposed 1,172 km-long oil pipeline that would transport approximately 525,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Alberta tar sands project to Kitimat, B.C., where it would be picked up by oil tankers and exported to the U.S. and China — it set into motion a lengthy regulatory review being conducted by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
It also set into motion a powerful environmental debate, which has stirred up a flurry of activity on both mainstream media and social media the world over.
Since the joint review panel hearings were launched in January this year, more than 4,000 people have signed up to speak and leaders of the Gitga'at, Saik'uz, Haisla and other First Nations have spoken out strongly against the project.
According to Enbridge, this $4-billion megaproject will create 4,000 construction jobs as it crosses the traditional lands of 40 different First Nations. As for the oil tankers (dubbed super tankers) the company promises double-hulled vessels, radar monitoring stations, pilot super tugs and high-tech shipping protocols to prevent spills.
But people on the coast and across the country are not feeling reassured by these promises.