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Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel shakes hands with Chief Na’Moks of the Wet’suwet’en Nation before the start of their annual general meeting for shareholders in Toronto on May 9.MARK BLINCH/Reuters

The official with Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline walked into the Island Gospel Fellowship Church in Burns Lake, B.C., and got a face full of tiny feathers.

It was, the company understood, an act of hostility by the local Wet'suwet'en nation – perhaps even a death threat on a day of federal review hearings into the $6-billion twin-pipeline proposal. "These feathers covered the hair and clothing of the Northern Gateway representative targeted by this feathering incident," Enbridge reported in a document filed with the National Energy Board. A member of the Wet'suwet'en then explained that local traditional laws against trespassers were "strictly enforced" and "punishable by death," Enbridge wrote.

There is, according to the Wet'suwet'en, one problem with the account of that January day: The eagle down blown by an elder over both Enbridge and members of the federal joint review panel wasn't a declaration of hostility. It was a declaration of peace – and the misunderstanding, they say, is the latest sign of the gulf that separates Enbridge from the first nations whose support it is seeking for Gateway, which would carry Alberta crude to the Pacific.

Enbridge drew the exact wrong conclusion from the eagle down, said Wet'suwet'en environmental assessment co-ordinator Mike Ridsdale, and then worsened it with a description of a "ceremonial incantation addressed to the 'northern gods.' "

"We don't have northern gods. We have spirits that guide us," Mr. Ridsdale said. The Wet'suwet'en have demanded Enbridge correct the record.

The wording "shows total disrespect" for the Wet'suwet'en, he said, adding that with the eagle down misinterpretation, Enbridge is mischaracterizing its interactions with the Wet'suwet'en, who remain among the groups along the Gateway route most opposed to the project. For example, a Wet'suwet'en clan has erected a cabin directly on the proposed route as a pre-emptive blockade. Enbridge officials have also been handed eagle feathers – different from down – as a notice of trespass on Wet'suwet'en land, while at one meeting, the Wet'suwet'en "sang a traditional war song," Enbridge reported.

But the eagle down was important, since it was meant as a shift in tone, Mr. Ridsdale said.

"It was an attempt by the Wet'suwet'en to make sure there was peace during the joint review panel hearing," he said. "Nobody would be mad at anybody."

In a statement, Enbridge said "the traditions and underlying intentions implicit in a subsequent eagle-down ceremony were not described at the time of the ceremony," and it is "pleased" they have now been made clear.

The significance of eagle down is, however, widely known: It is clearly explained, for example, as "a symbol of peace" in the opening pages – and even on the back cover – of Eagle Down is our Law, an important book on the customs in the area. But according to Roger Harris, who once worked in aboriginal relations for Enbridge, the company has struggled by using Alberta-based consultants not sufficiently versed in B.C. cultures, and operating with discomfort around those they meet – including bringing security to community meetings for fear the stage could be rushed.

"It was always hard to convince them to take a deep breath. You want to be in the rooms where people are hostile – that's where you make your friends," said Mr. Harris, adding that he has not seen such tensions escalate. "I've never been to a community where I ever felt threatened."

Still, the eagle-down misunderstanding provides an insight into the tough task that Enbridge faces as it seeks to bury steel on land claimed by dozens of first nations, many with intricacies – involving numerous clans, houses and hereditary chiefs – that can be difficult to discern.

Amid the complexity, the company has made missteps. It signed an agreement with the Gitxsan that was subsequently rejected by some hereditary chiefs, who said it wasn't negotiated by a proper representative, although Enbridge has said it remains in force. And Enbridge contractors cut down culturally modified trees – an important living reminder of first nations history – on Haisla land near Kitimat, B.C., an act that continues to complicate relations with a first nation located at the critical terminus to Gateway.

But Enbridge has also sought to do good. Representatives of 42 first nations attended a second business summit to learn ways aboriginal companies can profit from Gateway. Enbridge provided scholarships for 15 B.C. native leaders to attend leadership and management programs at the Banff Centre and was a major sponsor behind a Mètis economic summit. The company has conducted three separate tours, involving at least eight first nations, of oil-sands facilities.

It has nonetheless struggled . Even the offer of a 10-per-cent aboriginal ownership stake, which Enbridge intends to fund, has been rejected by three out of 18 Alberta nations and 10 out of 22 B.C. inland nations.