Feds Court First Nations on Resource Development

Stewart Phillip | BCBusiness
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs

The federal government wants a deeper relationship with First Nations in natural resource development, but native leaders say that hinges on the government’s decision on Northern Gateway

Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford offered no hints Monday on when the federal government will release its decision on the Northern Gateway Project, but he assured First Nations leaders that he wants to build deeper collaboration and trust.

Speaking at a First Nations Safety and Tanker Summit held at the Musqueam Cultural Centre in Vancouver, Rickford said the government must ensure First Nations are partners in the extraction and transport of natural resources to international markets. The two-day conference brings government departments and agencies, such as the Canadian Coast Guard, together with representatives from the Chinese government, First Nations groups, spill experts, pipeline manufacturers and port operators to discuss the environmental risks and economic gains of pipeline expansions.

Rickford said the Conservative government wants to enhance marine and pipeline safety to get First Nations support to share in the benefits of $180 billion of investments in the natural resource sector and the 54,000 jobs that come with expansion. “One of the most important reasons that I’ve been out here so persistently over the last month or so is to establish relationships with the provincial government and First Nations about our common interests and alignment when it comes to economic opportunity,” Rickford said.

First Nations leaders said Rickford privately gave no indication of how or when the government will release its decision on the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline, expected this month. A joint review panel of the Ministry of the Environment and the National Energy Board recommended in December that the federal government approve the $7-billion project, subject to 209 required conditions. But First Nations groups and environmentalists, along with several northern communities, remain vehemently opposed.

“It’s pretty clear that in the northern communities, there’s no support for it, especially among the aboriginal communities along the route,” said Grand Chief Edward John with the Assembly of First Nations.

Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould said the decision on Northern Gateway will impact future talks. “A favourable decision around Enbridge will have a significant impact on the relationship that First Nations have been seeking to develop,” she said. “We’ve been wanting to sit down at the table and have discussions of the impact on major developments on territories.”

Chief Ellis Ross with the Haisla First Nation, which has territories in and around Kitimat, the hub of proposed LNG projects, said his members have no interest in being decision-makers but want to reap the economic benefits of increased tanker and transport traffic.

“I don’t want to be at the decision-making table. I can’t keep a gas station open in my community. I can’t keep the Internet going. Why would I want to be a decision-maker on a multibillion-dollar project that proposes tanker traffic that I have no clue about?”

Ross said making decisions increases responsibilities for First Nations and that increased responsibility would lead to liability issues. “And we don’t want to be the ones affecting decisions that could cause an accident, not when you’re talking about something like this,” he said. “We think Transport Canada is doing a good job on the Douglas Channel.”

Other First Nation leaders were less conciliatory. The government’s anticipated approval of Enbridge will draw immediate legal action and then protests, according to Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “Several protracted lawsuits will be launched and in the event we move beyond the courtroom or concurrent to that, I can absolutely see people moving on to the land,” said Phillip.

Bulldozers will be blocked if oil companies attempt to do preparatory site preparation work, he said.