Greg Rickford will need to call on all his experience working with First Nations to resolve some of the toughest roadblocks in the Conservative government’s plan for energy and mining development.
The 46-year-old MP from Kenora, Ont., was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday to replace Joe Oliver as Natural Resources Minister. Awaiting him are brewing resource battles in British Columbia and Ontario that are both economically important and fraught with political risks for the government heading into the next election.
In both cases, the government’s relationship with aboriginal communities and its willingness to help finance their development are key.
Mr. Rickford came into politics promising to try to improve the economy and infrastructure of First Nations. Early in his career, he worked as a nurse and a lawyer in remote communities in northwestern Ontario. Running for election in 2008, one of his central campaign promises was about the need to improve conditions for aboriginal Canadians.
Among the top files he will have to grapple with: Stick-handling the government’s consultations with B.C. First Nations over the proposed and controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, and working with Ontario to make progress on the Ring of Fire mineral development, which is also mired in tough aboriginal discussions.
“One of the fundamental challenges with energy and resources, broadly speaking, is territorial issues. A lot of them, not all of them, but a lot of them today are associated with First Nations and aboriginal peoples,” said Joseph Doucet, the dean of the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta.
“And to the extent that [Mr. Rickford] has experienced sensitivity and an understanding of the issues – I think that could be really, really valuable.”
The new resources minister has served as parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, and since last summer, as minister of state for science and technology and the junior minister responsible for Northern Ontario, including the Ring of Fire.
Industry officials say he appears well-qualified for the job.
Mr. Rickford’s diverse education and experience provides a strong base for leadership on responsible development of Canada’s natural resources, said David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
But he added that the new minister will face a steep learning curve at a critical time as the embattled oil and gas sector looks to expand access to markets in Asia, the U.S. Gulf Coast and Eastern Canada and the Atlantic basin.
Pipeline opponents may be receptive to Mr. Rickford’s appointment. Former natural resources minister Mr. Oliver was seen as a divisive figure by aboriginal opponents of Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia owing to his insistence that such projects are in Canada’s national interest.
Mr. Rickford is unlikely to take a differing view, although he could bring a better grasp of aboriginal concerns to the discussions.
Ottawa is now engaged in multidepartmental meetings with individual aboriginal communities that are led by senior bureaucrats to address issues around Enbridge Inc.’s proposed pipeline. After a National Energy Board review panel recommended approval last December, the federal government has until summer to make a final decision.
“The whole way the government has addressed this, there has been nothing to suggest it is not all window dressing,” said Vancouver lawyer Robert Janes, who represents the coastal Gitxaala Nation.
In Ontario, the provincial Liberal government has been urging the federal government to play a more substantial role in paving the way for development in the Ring of Fire, a massive chromite development near James Bay.
In November, Premier Kathleen Wynne sent a letter to Mr. Harper, urging Ottawa to match provincial funding for infrastructure development. His response could be fodder for both the looming provincial election and the federal vote expected in 2015.
“I think this [appointment] is a really good opportunity for the province to continue to make a case that the federal government needs to come to the table and needs to be a full partner in this,” Ontario Minister of Northern Development Michael Gravelle said in an interview.
With a file from reporter Carrie Tait in Calgary.