I started as a summer student at WCEL in the beginning of May, and quickly found out how fast things move here. Within days of starting, I was working on a project related to the controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline and much criticized National Energy Board hearings. The work was perfect for me. Not only would I be using what I’d learned in my first year of law school, but I would also be pulling from the knowledge I’d gained during my MSc at the University of Toronto. I, along with other law student volunteers, was going to create a website that would host summaries of evidence submitted by intervenors in the NEB hearings. It was going to help to open up the NEB process by letting the public easily find and read the evidence, and give people a factual basis to help them make up their minds on the proposal. It would be more user friendly than the existing NEB website. And it was going to look snazzy.
Just a few months later, we’ve done it. Intervenors can submit evidence directly to us to host on the website. We’ve had thousands of visitors from all across the world. And it all stemmed from frustration with the NEB website’s usability.
May 27, 2015 was the deadline for intervenors to submit evidence in the hearings. Hundreds of intervenors did so, submitting thousands of pieces of evidence. The intervenors who elected to file evidence represented a diverse group; they included concerned citizens, indigenous groups, NGOs, oil companies, and governments. These groups had spent huge amounts of time and money gathering this evidence. Unfortunately, left to just the NEB website, most of this evidence was likely to go unnoticed by Canadians, not only because people were unaware that this evidence existed, but also because of how difficult the evidence is to find.
Everything submitted to the NEB during the course of the hearing is available on the NEB website, resulting in a website that hosts tens of thousands of documents. Because of this, it resembles a cross between a filing cabinet and a Russian nesting doll: a series of folders housing other folders, which eventually lead to rulings, submissions, and evidence. If you know what you’re looking for and about where it should be, it’s easy to find, but searching through the site for specific items can be an arduous task.
Before starting law school, I was working on my MSc at the University of Toronto. While I loved my time in academia, I was constantly frustrated by the disconnect between the fantastic research being conducted by my colleagues and the fact that so little of this research ended up reaching the public. The experience left me with a strong belief in democratizing information; I feel (as I think most do) that knowledge is more useful the further it spreads. When I started spending time on the NEB website in early May, I realized that my earlier experiences in academia would be mirrored in the evidence that would be filed by the intervenors; the evidence, gathered at great expense and concerning things that Canadians care deeply about (like salmon, the economy, employment, and climate change), wasn’t going to be seen by many people outside of the NEB process. Clearly, something needed to be done.
In response, another law student volunteer, Erin Gray (who is now articling with UVic ELC) and I created accesskmxinfo.com, a website to let the public easily access and learn about the evidence filed by intervenors. With the help of a number of other volunteers, we created summaries of a number of pieces of evidence, grouped them into six main categories, and “#tagged” them with relevant keywords to let people easily find evidence that aligns with their interests (like whales, Vancouver, or tankers). For each summary, we provide links to the full piece of evidence on the NEB website, so people can read entire submissions. Our goal was, and still is, to let people make up their own minds on whether they want the pipeline expansion to be approved or not. As well, we hoped that increasing people’s access to this information would engage them further in the process and cause them to be more active in this, and similar environmental issues, in the future.
In the process of making the website, we went through a huge amount of the submitted evidence. Some of my favorite submissions came from individual intervenors, two of which stand out to me. One was from a landowner who invited a biologist onto his property to document a breeding population of northern red-legged frogs on his land, a species listed nationally as “Special Concern”. Another was submitted by an ocean scientist who raised concerns about the model Kinder Morgan used to show how spilled oil could move in Boundary Pass and Haro Strait.
Other pieces of evidence were compelling because the intervenors took a holistic approach, uniting many separate topics in single pieces of evidence. For example, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation incorporated their traditional knowledge, teachings and truths with scientific and expert evidence to voice their opposition to the proposed expansion, and presented it in a gorgeous document.
I was surprised by how inspired I felt after going through the evidence. The process of taking part in the NEB hearings and submitting evidence isn’t easy, and hundreds of groups that submitted applications were denied the opportunity to participate completely. That people did take the time, money, and energy to voice their concerns, hopes, and wishes to the Board was heartening.
The entire experience, from planning the website, launching it, to currently maintaining it, has been fantastic. We’ve received a tremendous amount of positive feedback. Several intervenors have also submitted their own summaries of their evidence to the website for us to host. It’s left me energized and upbeat about public participation in environmental issues moving forward. And, importantly for me, I helped create a resource helped the public to access information that otherwise would have been difficult to find. This, in turn, will hopefully cause them to engage more in the issue and get more involved when the next opportunity presents itself.
By Adam Cembrowski
Summer law student volunteer