The federal review of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is set to resume Tuesday after the hearings were abruptly cancelled on the heels of a protest organized by the community school.
Panel members arrived in the remote coastal community on Sunday to find the main street lined with protesters. That evening, officials sent notice to community leaders that the hearings, which were set to run for four days in Bella Bella, would not take place.
An official with the panel blamed "logistical problems" related to how the panel will hear oral traditional knowledge of the Heiltsuk Nation.
But community leaders say the panel was spooked by a peaceful protest featuring schoolchildren, and they are angry that the community hearings have now been trimmed down to just 2 1/2 days.
"The reason we were provided last night, they felt due to the rally that it was not a safe or secure environment," said the Heiltsuk's chief councillor, Marilyn Slett.
"We have major concerns about this pipeline project, not having that time is a black mark on them. The children of the Bella Bella have taken an incredible stand, reaching out to the population at large to show their concerns about the supertankers that could be going through our territory."
The Bella Bella Community School, operated by the Heiltsuk First Nation, organized the rally, opening the school doors on Sunday to help elementary students take part in the demonstration.
Teachers also encouraged students to take part in a 48-hour hunger strike to oppose the Enbridge project.
"It's a big personal choice, this is my territory," said Jasmine White, 17, a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation who is taking part in the hunger strike.
"I wanted to know how it would feel to go hungry, because that is what would happen here if there was an oil spill."
The school is a federally funded, independent school run by the first nation, and despite limited resources it has a lower dropout rate than the provincial average, and better provincial test scores. Ms. White will be part of the graduating class of 2012.
She says it is the teachers who make this school a success, and when her science teacher proposed the hunger strike, which started Sunday, she was keen to sign up. "The teachers here are a huge support system," Ms. White said.
School principal Fred Schaub said it was only natural that the school would be immersed in the debate about the proposed Enbridge pipeline.
"We are a community school in a remote community and this issue is huge. People literally live off the water here. The students wanted to get involved; as staff we felt this was a perfect teachable moment," he said.
Grade 12 English students used study time to prepare essays on the pipeline and some of the students hoped to read their papers at the hearing.
Mr. Schaub said he was shocked that the panel would cancel the hearings based on Sunday's demonstration.
"It would be devastating for a first nations student to have their right to speak taken away," he said. "We hope that Canada stands up for its reputation as a democratic country. We want the students to learn to use their voices in a respectful way."
Although most of the student population is first nations, a handful of non-native students attend. Desmond Roessingh, 14, moved to the community from Victoria five years ago. He's also taking part in the hunger strike. "When I heard about the plan to put pipelines and tankers through the Great Bear Rainforest, I figured I should do what I could to stop it."
He added: "I don't feel very hungry, I'm surprised."
First nations have been among the leading opponents of Enbridge Inc.'s plan to build a crude oil pipeline across their land to transport oil-sands bitumen to the B.C. coast for export to Asia.
The hearings will test the ability of first nations to block a project that the federal government has pushed aggressively as a matter of national interest.
The joint panel of the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is expected to wrap up hearings in the spring of 2013, but that timeline is now in doubt after Ottawa promised to streamline the major project review process. It will be retroactive but it is not yet clear how it will be applied to these hearings.