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A giant piece of pipeline is placed in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver, Tuesday, August 31, 2010. The pipeline was brought there by opponents of the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Massive protests and court challenges based on native rights are likely after a National Energy Board decision that gave conditional approval to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, say First Nations, environmental groups and others opposed to the project.

"If this project is approved by Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper or his successor, I plan to join the blockade with my family at the Alberta border," Victoria City Councillor Ben Isitt said on Thursday, shortly after a joint review panel (JRP) released its report. "Tens of thousands of citizens, I expect, would put their bodies on the line."

Mr. Isitt, who studies the history of social movements, said he thinks a blockade of the proposed route of the pipeline that would bring Alberta crude to Kitimat for shipping would be bigger than anything Canada has ever seen.

"I think the protest at Clayoquot Sound [in which 12,000 people rallied to stop logging] will look like a cake-walk compared to what awaits Northern Gateway," he said. "There's an extremely strong feeling here in British Columbia that this project just can't proceed."

Chris Genovali, executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said the federal government should prepare for "potentially the biggest environmental battle we've ever seen."

Mr. Genovali said conservation groups, First Nations and other stakeholders will soon be planning how to stop the project, through the courts or protest.

"This ruling may be an affirmative one, but in no way is this issue over," he said. "For Northern Gateway, the battle is just beginning."

Gwen Barlee, policy director of the Wilderness Committee, predicted a unified front.

"We'll continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with First Nations," she said.

"The JRP's recommendation is by no means the final say on this project," said Arnold Clifton, chief councillor and hereditary chief of the Gitga'at First Nation. "All tankers en route to Kitimat must pass through our territory, and we will continue to protect our resources and culture from the severe damage this project would cause. All options are on the table."

First Nations leaders have long said they would look at legal challenges if the project was approved over the opposition of aboriginal communities on the route.

"The JRP recommendations have made it clear to us that we are being forced to go to the courts to protect our aboriginal rights," Lake Babine Nation Chief Wilf Adam said.

Nikki Skuce, senior energy campaigner for ForestEthics Advocacy, said Ottawa is out of touch with British Columbians.

"Enbridge hasn't gained social licence and they won't be able to," she said. "They have passed over a small hurdle today, but there's a lot more to come. … I definitely think there's going to be a big protest before cabinet makes a final decision on this project."

Caitlyn Vernon, campaigns director for Sierra Club BC, said British Columbians have been against Northern Gateway since it was proposed, and are not likely to soften their views.

"As far as what's next, I think people across British Columbia will want to have their voices heard on this, and they will find ways to do that," she said.

Ms. Vernon said it is inconceivable to her that the project could ever get final approval, because there is no way to contain oil spills on the West Coast.

"People across the province of all political stripes are ready to do whatever it takes to keep more crude oil tankers out of our waters. No JRP decision will change that," said Will Horter, executive director of Dogwood Initiative.

Adrian Dix, leader of the NDP, said British Columbians are clearly against the project, and he urged the provincial government to take a hard stand against it.

"The B.C. NDP will spare no effort in supporting that fight," he pledged.

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