Ottawa's effort to recalibrate its relationship with First Nations in British Columbia on energy issues has reached a crucial stage with the completion of a fact-finding report.
Doug Eyford, a Vancouver lawyer and treaty negotiator appointed by the Prime Minister, is to release the details of his findings Thursday.
Some of the native leaders who met with Mr. Eyford during his nine-month fact-finding assignment say the report could lead to dramatic changes – and perhaps set the stage for groundbreaking talks between First Nations and government over several multibillion-dollar energy developments that have been proposed in B.C.
"The first thing I'd say is that they chose a person I think has the skill set to do the job," said Dave Porter, a member of the executive council of the First Nations Summit.
"I've been impressed with [Mr.] Eyford's ability to listen. … He's done a tremendous job of being open and ready to engage with whomever wanted to talk with him about this issue."
Mr. Porter said Mr. Eyford, who, together with Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, was scheduled to meet with key aboriginal leaders over dinner Wednesday night, has heard a strong message that the aboriginal community wants to be involved in energy development, but not under the old rules.
"If he's listened, what he will say [to the Prime Minister] is there needs to be full engagement of the aboriginal leadership of British Columbia in a process that involves joint planning, joint decision making about energy maters in B.C., be it policy, legislation or projects," said Mr. Porter. "I mean we are talking beyond consultation [which] has evolved to a process where governments decide to do something and then tell us about it. What needs to be done is people have to start to talk together … and building relationships."
Mr. Porter said he's confidant Mr. Eyford's report will lay the groundwork for change – and he hopes the Prime Minister uses the opportunity to "reset the relationship" with First Nations in B.C.
"Hopefully the Eyford report will be a catalyst for a complete rethink on the part of public government," said Mr. Porter, who called for a summit to discuss how to bring about change.
"It's only going to work if we have the Prime Minister, the Premier of British Columbia and the leadership of British Columbia's aboriginal community sitting together, making some fundamental decisions and commitments to each other," he said.
Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, said he expects Mr. Eyford has told Mr. Harper the government has to do far more than just consult with First Nations.
"I think he's strong on First Nations engagement and I think he's going to enlighten the feds about what that looks like and we've never been able to [do that]" said Mr. Sterritt, whose group has led opposition to the proposed $5-billion Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. "When we say it, they don't listen, so we're quite happy that he has that forum and I suspect he'll just lay it out the way it is. I think he's going to make suggestions on how they can do things better and on where they've gone wrong.
Mr. Sterritt said large energy projects run into significant road blocks if the proponents fail to gain aboriginal support, a point that has been driven home by the stiff opposition First Nations have mounted to the Enbridge project.
He said the appointment of Mr. Eyford is a strong sign that Ottawa wants to try a different approach.
"I think they do realize First Nations are players in B.C. and if you want to move forward, you have to treat people with respect. You have to try and work it out," said Mr. Sterritt. "I think they are starting to get the message. I just hope they are not trying to develop a playbook to find a way to get around us."