The federal government must shoulder much of the blame for the entrenched opposition to the Northern Gateway oil pipeline, says the Prime Minister's special envoy on aboriginal and energy issues.
Doug Eyford says the Enbridge project – which Ottawa declared to be in the national interest – has foundered in large measure because industry was left alone to navigate complex First Nations issues, when there should have been more political oversight. His remarks were made last week at a conference for treaty negotiators, industry and government, and a copy of his address was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
"I've been surprised at the extent to which the federal government has been content to allow project proponents like Enbridge to engage aboriginal communities with little or no Crown oversight, direction, or assistance," Mr. Eyford said.
Ottawa's decision on Enbridge's pipeline proposal to get Alberta oil to the B.C. coast, opening up international markets, could be announced as early as today. The federal cabinet is expected to give Northern Gateway a green light, but the project still faces significant hurdles that have increased with each passing month. Northern Gateway, 10 years after it was first proposed, now faces a battery of legal challenges and threats of civil disobedience, led by First Nations.
Mr. Eyford was appointed in 2013 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to gain aboriginal support for proposed energy projects in British Columbia worth about $100-billion. In his final report, Mr. Eyford concluded that the federal government needs to do more to build relationships with First Nations, and recommended cultural awareness training for federal officials at all levels.
Six months since his report was tabled, Ottawa has still not fully responded to it. In his speech last week, Mr. Eyford said the federal Crown's approach to engagement with First Nations is still proving to be inadequate.
"There is a lot at stake and not just in terms of our national economic agenda," Mr. Eyford said.
Mr. Eyford revealed that Ottawa missed an early opportunity to bring First Nations on board, and only started that outreach in recent months.
"I was struck that some of the communities that are today threatening judicial proceedings and civil disobedience were at one time requesting meetings with federal officials and making what I believe, in retrospect, were feasible proposals to address the environmental and other issues associated with the project. … Regrettably, there was no uptake."
Mr. Eyford speculated that that occurred because Ottawa didn't initially appreciate that laying new pipelines to get more Alberta oil to the B.C. coast wouldn't happen unless First Nations interests were addressed.
British Columbia is different than the rest of Canada because there are almost no treaties in the province, so the pipeline route must cut across lands that are subject to land claims. That, combined with overlapping claims by a large number number of Indian Act bands, many with small populations and little capacity to evaluate energy projects, creates a complicated route for a proposal such as Northern Gateway.
With the opposition to the transport of heavy oil mounting, the B.C. government is increasingly indifferent to the fate of the Northern Gateway project. B.C. Premier Christy Clark hopes to shield her ambitions for a liquefied natural gas industry, which has moved forward in partnership with aboriginal communities, and says the Enbridge proposal is not close to meeting her conditions.
But Mr. Eyford warned that B.C. could end up damaging its reputation with investors if it cannot win over aboriginal support for resource development. "Opposition to these projects by aboriginal groups may doom the development of oil, and natural gas pipelines and related infrastructure because neither industry nor our trading partners are prepared to idly stand by to wait out the results of judicial proceedings that can take a generation to complete."