Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, whose government is pushing hard this fall to get support from First Nations, said he is worried opportunities for "billions of dollars" of development could be lost if agreements cannot be struck in a timely way with aboriginal leaders.
"There is a tremendous amount of competition – and these opportunities do not stay forever," Mr. Oliver cautioned in an interview as five deputy ministers from Ottawa met with native leaders in Vancouver in an effort to forge a new relationship with First Nations.
The push is coming because two major oil pipelines worth a combined $12-billion and six liquefied natural gas projects with a total value of $35-billion are proposed in British Columbia. But there is also considerable resistance to some of those projects, most notably the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which First Nations say cannot proceed. All of the projects are in native territories and few bands in B.C. have signed treaties with the government, which leaves them in a powerful bargaining position.
Opposition leader Tom Mulcair, who was also in B.C. on Tuesday meeting native leaders, dismissed the government initiative, saying Mr. Oliver is using "coded language" to suggest his government is willing to listen, while paving the way for energy developments by declaring they are in the national interest.
"But you can't push through big projects unless you respect Canadian law. And Canadian law … requires consultation with First Nations, and that doesn't include sending Joe Oliver out with his index finger wagging," Mr. Mulcair said.
Mr. Mulcair said court rulings have made it clear that governments need to engage in "meaningful consultation" with First Nations before allowing resource developments on their traditional territory.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said that means officials from Ottawa will have to "go out into the communities along the pipeline routes" and not just meet with chiefs in a Vancouver boardroom.
He speculated that Douglas Eyford, a B.C. lawyer Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently appointed as his energy adviser, has told officials in Ottawa that proceeding on the energy projects without First Nations approval would be difficult.
"That's my sense. They look very grim sitting across the table from us," Mr. Phillip said.
He dismissed Mr. Oliver's concerns about delays, saying the federal government has slowed the process by "ignoring" First Nations interests in B.C. for the past three years.
"His sense of urgency is self-imposed," Mr. Phillip said.
But Mr. Oliver said it is important to recognize that even mega-projects such as the $16-billion Mackenzie Valley pipeline proposal can falter with too much delay.
The Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline was proposed in the 1970s, but stalled after a federal inquiry raised concerns about a lack of treaties in the region. The project was revived in 2004 with native support, and in 2011 it got cabinet approval – but declining gas prices halted development.
"I am concerned [about a repeat in B.C.] and that's why we are working so hard to move the agenda forward," Mr. Oliver said. "We don't want a lost generation. We want all this opportunity to be realized as quickly as possible."
Mr. Oliver said his government has identified energy-market diversification as a strategic national objective, but insisted Ottawa is not endorsing any specific project and will wait for the regulatory process to play out before making any decisions.
"I'm not forecasting anything specific here," he said. " But I just have to believe that with so much potential benefit, and with a strong desire on the part of the [native] leadership to do the best for their communities, we're going to be able to get something done."