Native leaders at a national energy forum say a new era of co-operation between First Nations, resource industries and government is in the making, but they also warned that conflicts over some projects will continue.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs told a gathering of native leaders from across Canada on Wednesday that protest camps have been set up on Lelu Island, to oppose a proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG project at the mouth of the Skeena River, and in the Peace River Valley, to object to BC Hydro's Site C dam, which will drown native hunting areas and burial sites.
Mr. Phillip, who was arrested on Burnaby Mountain in 2014 while protesting the proposed Trans Mountain Expansion Project, chastised Premier Christy Clark for her recent verbal attacks on the groups, whom he said are expressing legitimate views of dissent and standing up for First Nations' environmental values.
"Our Premier has described us as 'rag tag' and the 'forces of no,' but I'm proud to be part of that group," he said. "I think she should dial down the rhetoric … it's not helpful. We need to respect each other's world view."
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde told the conference at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver that a national energy plan for Canada can only be developed if First Nations are brought aboard as partners with government and industry.
"This is a very critical time in our history as indigenous peoples and non-indigenous peoples, especially as we talk about shaping our collective energy future," he said. "If we listen and have respect, we might learn from each other … and we might grow and something new might come of it."
Mr. Bellegarde said progress is being made in developing a better relationship between indigenous people and the federal government. He noted that at a First Nations national forum on energy five years ago, provincial governments and foreign diplomats attended, but the former federal Conservative government did not.
This time, Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr attended as a keynote speaker. He was greeted with loud applause and given a ceremonial blanket as a gesture of thanks and respect.
Mr. Carr said the Liberal government in Ottawa is determined to forge an improved relationship with First Nations and promised to develop a new environmental review process that will better reflect indigenous values.
The government wants First Nations input as it reviews the environmental assessment process, including the role of the National Energy Board (NEB), and tries to design a system that wins the trust of both aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, he said.
"We've opened the door for a new way of doing things and I want to invite you in," Mr. Carr told the conference. "I'm asking you to take this opportunity to change the language on resource development, to strive for consensus. We'll never get everybody saying the same thing – it's not realistic to expect unanimity – but we can develop a process that carries the confidence of the Canadian people."
Outside the conference hall, Mr. Carr said indigenous representation on the NEB "will be increased," but he didn't say how many First Nations appointments would be made to the board.
The minister also said pipeline projects are having trouble gaining broad public support in Canada in part because there is a lack of trust in the environmental review process.
"And part of the reason was because indigenous people were not meaningfully consulted. They have to be. They will be," he said.
Mr. Bellegarde said he could sum up what First Nations want in three words: inclusion, balance and diversity.
He defined that as the "inclusion of First Nations people [in decision making], balancing between the environment and the economy, and recognizing the diversity of opinion that exists among First Nations."
Mr. Bellegarde urged government and industry to be more mindful of the spiritual relationship that First Nations have with the environment.
"We're not just open for business no matter what the cost," he said. "When we create [development] opportunities, we must do so while carrying out our responsibilities as indigenous peoples towards the protection of the lands and waters."