Federal Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford has failed to soften First Nation opposition to Enbridge Inc.'s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline despite a flurry of recent visits to British Columbia – and the strained relationship is now threatening to undermine talks about LNG development.
That became apparent Monday when three top native leaders blasted Ottawa for a lack of meaningful dialogue over resource issues and warned that if the government approves the oil pipeline – as it is expected to do shortly – it could turn First Nations against proposed LNG projects.
"In the event that the Harper government tries to ram [Northern Gateway] through with a decision supporting it at the cabinet level … the fallout from that will serve to poison the well with respect to the LNG efforts," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
"It's going to completely undermine and damage what's left of the relationship between First Nations and both provincial and federal governments."
The native leaders described relations with Ottawa as "challenged" at best and said bands across the province are opposed to the Northern Gateway project, which is awaiting a cabinet decision within nine days, after winning conditional approval earlier from the National Energy Board.
"There is very, very little support for the oil pipelines in British Columbia," Grand Chief Phillip said in a news conference Monday shortly after Mr. Rickford addressed a First Nations energy conference on the Musqueam reserve. "First Nations have said no, and in the event that the government of Canada continues to attempt to ram this forward, we'll move into the courtrooms. There will be several protracted lawsuits … [and] I can absolutely foresee people moving on to the land in the event that the oil companies attempt to do preparatory work in terms of site preparation."
Asked whether he meant protesters would block bulldozers, he replied: "Absolutely. There is no question about that."
While Northern Gateway has run into stiff opposition from First Nations, the 14 LNG projects now proposed in B.C. have generally received a much more positive reception, with some bands, such as the Nisga'a and Haisla, expressing strong support for LNG pipelines and plants.
Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations agreed Ottawa's decision on Northern Gateway could harm discussions over LNG.
"I think a favourable decision by cabinet around Enbridge will have a significant impact on the relationship that First Nations have been seeking to develop with this government and with the provincial government," she said.
Grand Chief Edward John, an executive member of the First Nations Summit, said: "On Enbridge it's pretty clear in the northern communities there's no support for it." He said the cumulative impact of all energy projects needs to be discussed.
During a brief speech to an energy summit hosted by the Musqueam First Nation, Mr. Rickford suggested the government and First Nations are having meaningful talks over energy issues.
He said in an attempt to be more responsive to First Nations concerns, Ottawa will open a major projects office on the West Coast, and is proposing to set up a tripartite forum so federal, provincial and First Nations governments can meet to discuss and decide issues.
Mr. Rickford said he's made several visits to B.C. recently and clearly felt upbeat about the headway his government is making with First Nations.
"I'm confident that we've laid the foundation if you will for an effective dialogue moving forward," he said at a news conference.
But moments after he left the room, native leaders told a different story.
"It's very difficult to sit there and listen to Minister Rickford talk about building partnerships and collaboration, when everything they've done has been unilateral without any discussions. He stands up there and maintains there's this strong engagement, this robust engagement with First Nations, and that's just absolutely not true," said Grand Chief Phillip.