Ottawa should allow interested First Nations communities along the route of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to have a seat at the table in all decisions related to the construction of the multibillion-dollar project, some First Nations leaders told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a closed-door meeting.
Mr. Trudeau met with members of the Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee near Chilliwack on Tuesday during a brief visit to British Columbia – his first since his government announced plans to buy the existing pipeline and finance its expansion.
The committee called for giving First Nations oversight on the project. Ernie Crey, chair of the committee, said in an interview that ownership stakes could be part of that arrangement down the road. “We’re interested in exploring that, but it’s early,” he said. “We need more information.”
On allowing First Nations to “co-manage” the pipeline, which Mr. Crey described as having oversight, “[Mr. Trudeau] said he is willing to engage with us on discussion on that approach.”
“It wasn’t a No.”
Mr. Crey, elected chief of the Cheam First Nation, said there was no time to discuss and reach a conclusion on the idea during Tuesday’s meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes.
“The pipeline goes through our territories. Our job is to look after our territories and make sure things of value in those territories are taken care of. To do that, we need to be more than advisers.”
Mr. Crey refers to the committee as a “post approval” collective of native leaders, who have accepted the reality of the pipeline even though some among the 11 members gathered on Tuesday oppose the project.
“It wasn’t a meeting to talk about the merits of the pipeline. There is a time and place for that,” said Mr. Crey, whose band has looked at buying a stake in the pipeline.
Last week, the Trudeau government said it would spend $4.5-billion to buy the existing pipeline from project proponent Kinder Morgan to ensure it proceedss and also take on plans, priced by the company at $7.4-billion, to nearly triple the capacity of the 65-year-old pipeline that ships Alberta oil to the B.C. coast.
Kinder Morgan has signed mutual-benefit agreements with 43 Indigenous groups along the pipeline route, including 33 in British Columbia.
Mr. Trudeau was not available to the media in B.C. on Tuesday, but in remarks ahead of the meeting, acknowledged disagreement among First Nations on the project, but said he hoped it could proceed in a spirit that enables reconciliation with First Nations.
“I know there are folks around this table and certainly across this country that go from strongly opposed to somewhat opposed to kind of neutral to somewhat supportive to strongly supportive,” Mr. Trudeau said.
“I think that’s really important that we continue to talk and listen and dig into the concerns and issues that underlie some of those positions, but I think we can all agree that as this project moves forward, it’s important that it be done right, that it be done in a way that minimizes concerns and negative impacts and maximizes benefits and partnerships.”
Some B.C. critics of the project were appalled by the exercise, suggesting it was odd that the Prime Minister would fly to B.C. to meet in private with some First Nations leaders, but not take time to meet others with serious concerns.
Chief Judy Wilson, an executive member of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said Mr. Trudeau was engaging in a “divisive” approach. “It’s pitting First Nations against each other.”
Asked about the issue, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said the meeting was “positive.”
“We look forward to continuing to work with the committee as we move forward with this project,” Matt Pascuzzo said.
Asked about the Prime Minister’s visit, a spokesperson for B.C. Premier John Horgan said he remains opposed to the project and would urge the federal government to protect the coast.