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Calvin Helin, President and Chairman of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings Ltd., poses for a photograph in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 1, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Several Indigenous groups across Western Canada are backing a First Nations-led pipeline proposal that has received the endorsement of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and which they say would serve as an alternative to the imperilled Trans Mountain expansion.

However, a federal law making its way through the Senate would legislate a ban on oil-tanker traffic off of British Columbia’s North Coast and would quash their hopes for future development. Such a law, they argue, would be a violation of their Indigenous rights.

The clashing interests of First Nations looking at pipelines as an economic lifeline while other Indigenous groups oppose tanker traffic on environmental grounds will leave Prime Minister Justin Trudeau facing a dilemma before next year’s federal election. The proposed tanker ban has already raised the ire of political leaders in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

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Calvin Helin is the president of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings. His company is eyeing an energy corridor across British Columbia’s north where he says he has secured 100-per-cent backing from local chiefs. Mr. Helin’s proposal turns the usual pipeline process on its head: First he designed the pipeline project over three years of talks with 35 local chiefs, and only after obtaining their consent has he started looking for the money to make the dream a reality. He wouldn’t disclose whether he had secured any funding arrangements.

“You can’t build a project like this without the First Nations on side, even our so-called reconciliation Prime Minister is learning that with Trans Mountain,” Mr. Helin told The Globe and Mail. The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C., is stalled after a court ruling said, among other things, that consultation with First Nations communities was insufficient.

The route for the $12-billion Eagle Spirit pipeline would link Fort McMurray, Alta., with a new export terminal about 30 kilometres north of Prince Rupert, B.C. Built near Mr. Helin’s home of the Lax Kw’alaams band, the terminal would be only a few kilometres from the Alaska border. It faces many hurdles, including the challenge of selling the idea in Alberta’s oil patch, a lack of financing and the likely opposition of other Indigenous bands that resolutely opposed Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project which would have had its terminus 260 kilometres further south.

But the tanker ban, also known as Bill C-48, would make the project impossible.

Ms. Notley has called on the federal government to cancel the tanker ban and amend another piece of legislation, Bill C-69, which overhauls the regulatory process behind pipeline approvals. She has cited the Eagle Spirit pipeline as an example of the projects that would be killed by the legislation.

“The federal government is telling First Nations to park their plans and park their economic ambitions. Really, is that the message we want to send?” she said in late November in Ottawa.

The Premier has stepped up her opposition to the tanker ban in recent weeks as Alberta has faced an economic crisis due to the widening gap between the price of Canadian oil and benchmark international oil prices.

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Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom from the Woodland Cree First Nation said the tanker ban would kill his community’s economic ambitions. He said his people feel that as a sovereign nation, they should be allowed to proceed responsibly with the few opportunities they are presented with.

“There hasn’t been real consultation. You have opposition from First Nations, industry and politicians, basically across-the-board. How did it get this far? There is something flawed with this. There’s some form of prejudice here or a premeditated agenda that isn’t being acknowledged,” he said.

“I want to see our environmental standards improved, even from what they are today. But to improve environmental standards doesn’t mean we need to kill all our economic opportunities. We just need to be more innovative.”

According to Mr. Helin and Chief Laboucan-Avirom, a number of First Nations will file complaints under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples if the tanker ban becomes law.

Supported by Mr. Trudeau, the UN document says national governments should not curtail the development of First Nations. Chief Laboucan-Avirom plans to travel to Ottawa next week with a dozen more chiefs to present their concerns to the federal government.

A spokeswoman for federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who tabled the tanker ban, said he has met with a number of hereditary chiefs of First Nations, as well as political leaders, who have expressed support for the ban.

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“No relationship is more important to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples and that is why the Government of Canada consulted extensively with Indigenous groups, communities and stakeholders to gather input on the proposed legislation for the tanker moratorium,” Mr. Garneau’s office said in a statement.

Eagle Spirit has earned the support of some First Nations that had opposed Northern Gateway, according to Mr. Helin. He says the proposed pipeline would adhere to strict environmental standards and would use only partly upgraded bitumen that would float in the case of a spill.

Martin King, analyst at GMP FirstEnergy, said an Indigenous-driven project makes sense, given the regulatory and legal hurdles that pipeline developers face. Indeed, there are recent innovative models for participation and financing, including the acquisition of a Fort McMurray-area oil storage facility, which included a $545-million bond issue led by the Fort McKay and the Mikisew Cree First Nations.

“So maybe that will carry some weight in the First Nations community, and maybe ultimately will carry enough weight to get a project to the finish line,” Mr. King said. However, starting any project from scratch now would mean that any benefits to the industry would still be many years off, he said.

With a report from Jeffrey Jones

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