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First-nations drummers take part in a rally outside an Edmonton hotel where a hearing is being held into the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Television trucks, placards and cameras – Derwayne Buffalo isn't used to this sort of thing.

He's no environmental activist or lifelong protester. Instead, Mr. Buffalo is a Cree who hunts and a father of eight from central Alberta.

It was out of concern for his land and traditions that he came to speak Tuesday as hearings for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline picked up in Edmonton.

"This is the first time I've ever spoken to one of these. All my life, all I ever did was work. Work and hunt," said Mr. Buffalo, 46, his two long braids coming out from under a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. The proposed pipeline would interrupt animal migration and put the environment at risk, he told the panel. "I'm glad that they've let us speak on our beliefs," he added.

The hearings will take months and visit several communities, but Edmonton is the closest major city to the oil sands. The hearings here, as such, are something of a lightning rod as environmentalists target the carbon-heavy resource. Greenpeace members staged a protest in the parking lot Tuesday, while conservative columnist Ezra Levant was on hand to argue with them.

Inside the hearings at a first nations-owned hotel, however, a calmer scene emerged – but some fear it won't make a difference.

Members of the nearby Samson and Enoch Cree addressed the three-member National Energy Board panel during "oral testimony" about Enbridge Inc.'s proposed 1,172-kilometre Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry Alberta oil to a shipping terminal on the British Columbia coast.

They worry construction – and any oil spill – will scare off animals and harm the traditional territories for berry picking and herb gathering, activities the panel heard about in exhaustive detail.

"I've always been concerned about industrial development in Alberta. But this [in]particular added heaviness in my heart," said Victor Bruno, 66. "It is a fact that a little bit of disturbance on the land will have a negative impact on the environment, not only on us but on the animals."

The joint-review panel will hear thousands of people speak, including many who don't actually live near the route or even in Canada. As such, many of the Cree communities nearby fear their testimony may be lumped in and disregarded. "At this point, I'd have to say it's limited. It's a limited voice [we have]" Samson Cree member Norine Saddleback said.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford has repeatedly questioned the reviews. "I am not sure this hearing process is a productive approach, but I think we have to continue to pursue all avenues," she said last week.

With support staff and police on hand, the review is an expensive process. Meanwhile, the panel's terms of reference don't clearly state how they're to balance the questions of both national economic interest and environmental risk, said University of Alberta business professor and energy researcher Andrew Leach. It raises questions of how carefully testimony from people such as Mr. Buffalo will be considered.

"If giving the oral statement doesn't actually give any weight to the process," Prof. Leach said, "it is just lengthening the process and not really adding anything to it."