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The Yinka Dene Alliance protest outside the Enbridge Inc. annual general meeting of shareholders in Toronto May 9 , 2012. The Yinka Dene Alliance is comprised of First Nations members who are opposed to Stephen Harper government's stated intention to push through with the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines and tankers project, in violation of First Nations' constitutionally-protected rights.Mike Cassese

With public hearings still under way on its controversial Northern Gateway project, Enbridge has announced that 60 per cent of the aboriginal groups that qualified for an equity stake had signed on for a piece of the $5.5-billion project.

But even as Enbridge on Tuesday said the equity deals were just the start of bigger plans to build "social licence" for the project, critics said native opposition remains strong.

"The directly impacted first nations – those are the ones that count," said David Luggi, tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which opposes the project. "These indirectly impacted first nations can't litigate to stop the line anyway."

Mr. Luggi said a potential court challenge to the project is likely to come from bands whose territory is directly traversed by the pipeline.

The deadline for groups to sign on as equity partners was May 31.

"We're not identifying individual aboriginal communities – they've asked that we not do that and we are respecting their wishes in that regard," Enbridge spokesman Paul Stanway said.

Mr. Luggi said groups – including the Carrier Sekani – that claim territory that accounts for major chunks of land traversed by the proposed pipeline route have not signed agreements with Enbridge and are not included in Enbridge's total.

Enbridge agreed to make a 10-per-cent equity stake available to bands that had reserves or claimed traditional territory within 80 kilometres of either side of the project. Of the equity units provided, half went to groups in Alberta and half to groups in B.C., Enbridge said, adding that the deals represent 60 per cent of the first nation population along the proposed right of way.

The equity stakes are projected to generate about $280-million for participating communities over the first 30 years of the project.

In December, a chief representing the Gitxsan band – which has territory that is not directly crossed by the pipeline route – announced it had agreed to participate in the Northern Gateway project. But almost as soon as that deal was announced, some people in the community objected, claiming the agreement had been signed without proper consultation or authority. Protesters, objecting to the Enbridge deal and other issues, set up a blockade at the Gitxsan Treaty Society office in Hazelton.

The blockade remains in place and negotiations continue between the two sides, North District RCMP spokeswoman Lesley Smith said on Tuesday.

The deal with the Gitxsan "has not been rescinded," Mr. Stanway said.

The proposed Northern Gateway project would consist of twinned pipelines that would ship oil from near Edmonton to Kitimat and condensate back in the other direction.

The project has the backing of the federal government, which sees it as a key inroad into Asian markets for Alberta oil, but has drawn opposition from native and environmental groups over worries about potential oil spills and other risks.

Public hearings are scheduled this month in coastal communities of Skidegate, Kitamaat Village and potentially Hartley Bay.

The equity deals are about one-third of a potential $1-billion worth of benefits to aboriginal communities, including contracting and jobs, Mr. Stanway said.

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