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A traditional first nations dancer opens the press conference of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings Ltd., and the Aquilini Group. The proponents are promoting an alternative to the controversial Northern Gateway route.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Kitimat's rejection of the proposed Northern Gateway project has buoyed the hopes of a company with First Nations connections that is dreaming of building an alternative pipeline across British Columbia.

Calvin Helin, president of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings Ltd., said in a news conference Monday that First Nations in British Columbia are in favour of his project because it would be largely native controlled and it would be routed to Prince Rupert, not Kitimat.

On the weekend, Kitimat residents voted (58 per cent to 41 per cent) to reject the Enbridge pipeline proposal. Although it was a non-binding plebiscite, the outcome has been widely seen as a serious blow to the Northern Gateway proposal because the town has a long history of industrial activity and the community was going to directly benefit from job creation.

Enbridge officials have said despite the setback the company will continue to reach out to communities in B.C. in an attempt to build support in the province.

Mr. Helin, said Eagle Spirit's proposed pipeline, which would carry synthetic crude, not heavy bitumen, has the support of "a majority" of bands in northern B.C., where Enbridge has run into stiff opposition.

Mr. Helin, a member of the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation, said non-disclosure agreements keep him from saying which bands support him.

But he did say one band – the Nee Tahi Buhn First Nation, which has about 150 members – had revoked its support for Northern Gateway and was now supporting his plan.

Ivan Giesbrecht, a spokesman for Northern Gateway, called that into doubt, however.

"Northern Gateway has not received notification of withdrawal of support by any of our Aboriginal Equity Partners. Nor have we received cancellation notification of any non-disclosure agreements," he said in an e-mail.

Enbridge, which has also long refused to name the bands that support Northern Gateway, claims to have 26 equity partnerships in place with First Nations and Métis communities, representing about 60 per cent of the native population along the proposed route.

David Negrin, president of the Aquilini Group, said his company decided to back Eagle Spirit about 18 months ago after Mr. Helin approached him proposing a pipeline that had a much higher level of First Nations involvement than had been seen anywhere before.

"His idea of First Nations partnership was very different than most business models," he said, saying Mr. Helin proposed letting First Nations choose the route and become full partners.

Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, said he doubts the Eagle Spirit project has the support it claims.

Mr. Sterritt, reached in Fort Nelson where he was attending a First Nations energy conference, said native opposition to oil pipelines remains strong because of environmental concerns and he hasn't heard of any significant support for the Eagle Spirit plan.

"I'm here with the head of the Carrier Sekani tribal council and others at this natural gas conference," he said, and none was endorsing the Eagle Spirit project. "They had heard there are a couple [of bands] Calvin has been able to convince but the reality is you've still got … all these other [bands] saying no."

Mr. Sterritt said Eagle Spirit's lack of support can be measured by the fact only two small bands sent chiefs to the Vancouver news conference.

In addition to the Nee Tahi Buhn, the Stellat'en First Nation, which has about 500 members, also attended.

"[Mr. Helin] managed to scrape up a couple to go with him to a press conference and that's about it [for his support]," said Mr. Sterritt.

He also questioned whether the Aquilini Group, which is best known in B.C. for owning the Vancouver Canucks and for its real estate developments, has the financial clout needed to fund a project as massive as an oil pipeline across B.C.

The Northern Gateway project, which is awaiting a federal cabinet ruling as to whether it can proceed, would cost an estimated $7.9-billion.

In a statement Monday, the Ministry of Natural Resources responded to the Kitimat vote by saying the federal government won't support any pipelines that aren't safe.

"We have been clear: projects will only proceed if they are safe for Canadians and safe for the environment," the ministry stated in an e-mail. "We're proud of the action we've taken to ensure Canada has a world class regulatory framework and a means for the safest form of transportation of our energy products."

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