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Members of the Yinka Dene Alliance march through downtown Calgary on May 11, 2011 to protest against Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Jeff McIntosh

Ottawa is headed for a legal showdown with British Columbia first nations if it insists on proceeding with the Northern Gateway pipeline, the leader of the Yinka Dene Alliance warns.

Chief Jackie Thomas, of the Saik'uz First Nation, was part of a delegation in Ottawa Tuesday meeting with opposition members of Parliament to build support for their anti-pipeline stand. She said her group will pursue a legal challenge if Ottawa approves the pipeline over their objections.

Along with other first-nation communities, the Dene alliance has taken a firm stand against Enbridge Inc.'s plan to build a crude oil pipeline across their land to transport oil-sands bitumen to the B.C. coast for export to Asia.

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"We will defend our rights, no matter what bully tactics the federal government throws at us," she said. "Our decision has been made: Enbridge will never be allowed in our lands."

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has lashed out at opponents to the Gateway pipeline, saying they are undermining the country's national interest and oppose all resource development.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made it a key priority of his government to diversify oil and natural gas exports beyond the traditional U.S. market to target growing Asian markets.

Ms. Thomas said the Saik'uz community is not anti-development. It is working with other mining, forestry and energy companies on projects. It is partnering with Apache Corp., a U.S. oil company, on a pipeline to feed a liquefied natural gas plant in Kitimat, which would also be aimed at exporting energy to Asia.

But the community feels an oil pipeline would be far more risky, and far more disruptive to the salmon fisheries and other species.

"They can't attempt to offset the water needs of my community, the salmon that goes in the water, and the animals and plants on the land that are in jeopardy," Ms. Thomas said.

The Gateway pipeline issue appears to be headed for a groundbreaking fight over the first nation's ability to block projects that the government deems to be in the national interest. That's assuming the joint panel of the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which is now holding hearings, gives it a thumbs up when it reaches a decision next year.

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The federal government and Enbridge itself say they recognize they have a legal duty to fully consult native communities before proceeding with major projects through their land. The B.C. situation is complicated by the fact that many of the first nations, including the Dene, do not have treaties and land claims negotiations have stalled.

But pipeline proponents say the native communities do not have a veto over projects.

Ms. Thomas disagrees.

"My benchmark has been free, prior and informed consent for major projects," she said, citing a standard adopted by the United Nations.

But she added that government has fallen short on its duty to consult, relying on Enbridge and the National Energy Board to do that work, and clearly deciding before the public hearings even began that the pipeline should proceed.

The Saik'uz chief – accompanied by union members and environmentalists – briefed NDP and Liberal MPs and met Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. They requested meetings with Mr. Oliver and Environment Minister Peter Kent, but were not successful.

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