Joe Oliver is standing by the foreign “radicals” barbs that incited anger among many Canadian environmentalists and others opposed to some resource development.
But the federal Natural Resources Minister is nonetheless promising a kinder, gentler approach to selling pipelines, making personal visits to first nations leaders and pledging to take public feelings into account.
It is a hint of a change in course for the federal government, which has spent years strongly promoting projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline – and deriding critics – at a time of increasing public opposition to such projects.
“Facts and information [are] crucial. But it’s not enough,” Mr. Oliver said in Calgary Friday at an energy summit organized by the Economic Club of Canada.
The public, he said, has to be convinced that government is working “to protect Canadians and to protect the environment, and that we care about these issues – and we’re with them when they express their love for the natural beauty of this fantastic country.”
The stakes, he said, are high, and mused that it’s possible Gateway will receive regulatory approval from the National Energy but then face a wall of public opposition.
“If the population is not on side, there’s a big problem we may be confronted [with],” he said.
To win people over, Mr. Oliver has himself embarked on a charm offensive with some of the groups most deeply opposed to new resource projects, in particular Gateway, the $6-billion Enbridge Inc. project to carry Alberta oil to the West Coast for export.
Gateway’s plans call for the pipeline to end near Kitimat, B.C., where oil would be transferred to supertankers on land that is part of the traditional territory of the Haisla First Nation.
On Thursday, Mr. Oliver met with Ellis Ross, the chief councillor of the Haisla. Earlier in the week, he met with Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada.
He was asked by reporters why he struck a conciliatory note, calling first nations “partners” in the development of resource projects that cross their territory.
“We want them to derive benefit. We want them to be part of the process – and that’s what the communication is about,” he said.
As far as convincing the broader Canadian public, he hinted that Ottawa is preparing a new offensive to appeal not just to minds, but to heartstrings – in part through an appeal to Canada’s roots.
“There’s a history in this country of resource development being part of the lives of Canadians and the prosperity of Canadians. And I think if we can make people understand how resources are so integral to Canadian history – that’s something I think that a lot of people in this country feel proud about,” he said.
The change in tone is a dramatic one for Mr. Oliver, who in recent years has made some of the federal government’s most strident remarks opposing environmental critics, some of whom he famously labelled foreign “radicals.”
Those remarks have subsequently been criticized by industry, including pipeline executives, as being unhelpful. But, asked whether he regrets them, Mr. Oliver said no.
“The only thing I regret is that the remarks were mischaracterized,” he said. “I was talking about some groups. I wasn’t talking about all groups.”