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Northern Gateway plebiscite will determine ‘what the people of Kitimat want’

The poling station in Kitimat on April 9, 2014, the last day of advance voting for the plebiscite to gauge community support for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Residents of Kitimat will cast votes in a local plebiscite Saturday for or against the multi-billion-dollar Northern Gateway pipeline.

The District of Kitimat has remained neutral on the $6-billion project, but the vote will decide council's position.

"We'll see what the people of Kitimat want," said Mayor Joanne Monaghan.

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The city on the North Coast would be the end of the pipeline and home of the marine terminal for loading oil onto tankers. Kitimat council's neutral stance went so far as to keep the city from participating in a federal review panel on the project.

That panel recommended in December that the pipeline be approved, subject to 209 conditions.

Kitimat residents are being asked: Do you support the final report recommendations of the Joint Review Panel (JRP) of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and National Energy Board, that the Enbridge Northern Gateway project be approved, subject to 209 conditions set out in Volume 2 of the JRP's final report?

It's a question about "as hard to nail to the wall as a bit of Jell-O," said Murray Minchin, a volunteer with the grassroots Douglas Channel Watch.

He describes a campaign that has been outspent, outmanned and outmanoeuvred from the outset. Enbridge's campaign started months – if not years – ago, Minchin said.

They faced no spending limits, as provincial election laws didn't apply to the municipal vote. Northern Gateway had paid canvassers, full-page ads, glossy brochures, a new website and billboards, Minchin said. They ran an annual campaign for youth that saw 50 iPads distributed to essay contest winners, he added.

And yet, Minchin is hopeful the vote will go his way.

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"Four weeks ago we had $200 in the bank. Then we started making lawn signs and started putting those around town and people started coming up to us in the street and handing us money," he said.

"Somebody even anonymously dropped off a $2,000 money order into one of our mailboxes. Then we got a website that had a donate button."

More than $14,000 and 2,000 doorsteps later, Douglas Channel Watch members believe opponents of the pipeline outnumber supporters 3:1.

"Our goal will be to try to get all of those people who said they were going to vote No to actually get out and vote Saturday," Minchin said.

Ballots will be counted this weekend and Kitimat council is scheduled to meet Monday night to discuss the results.

Ivan Giesbrecht, spokesman for Enbridge, said the vote has been an opportunity to talk to residents.

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He declined to say how much the company has spent on the campaign but said there was a temporary website, newspaper and radio ads, and door-to-door canvassers.

The pipeline is worth $5-million in property taxes and 180 jobs for Kitimat, he said.

"It's a significant proposal for Kitimat, so it's important that we provide the information that people need to make informed decisions," Giesbrecht said.

"Regardless of the outcome, our commitment to Kitimat remains unchanged."

Northern Gateway has been a divisive issue across the province and the imbalance in spending power has its critics.

During a provincial election or initiative vote, provincial law limits third-party advertising spending to $3,000 in a single electoral district, and $150,000 overall.

Dermot Travis, of Integrity BC, said those rules don't apply here but they should.

"It's really turned into a free-for-all in terms of having any type of democratic order to the vote," said Travis, whose group was funded by a private businessman to push for democratic reform.

"Having that type of an exercise in a democracy is healthy but it's not healthy when the scale is so heavily tipped in one direction."

But Monaghan said both sides have been out knocking on doors and she expects a true read of what Kitimat residents want.

"Neither of them have gone over that line," she said of the campaigning.

The federal government is expected to announce a final decision on the pipeline in June.

Northern Gateway pipeline route

The following map shows the route of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, stretching from north of Edmonton, Alta., to the coastal city of Kitimat, B.C., which is blocked from the open ocean by many islands.

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