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Former Conservative federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice is shown at the Canadian American Business Council during an interview in Ottawa on Monday, November 19, 2012.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

Where a less-optimistic person might see tremendous hurdles, former Conservative cabinet minister Jim Prentice suggests there is an "historic opportunity" to partner with First Nations to achieve Canada's West Coast energy ambitions.

The Harper government is in the midst of a full-court press, with ministers and senior bureaucrats conducting a Canadian version of shuttle diplomacy from Ottawa to British Columbia to consult aboriginal leaders on various oil and gas pipeline plans.

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Some First Nations leaders complain the consultations are a thinly disguised sales job – a last-minute effort to fulfill a constitutional requirement to consult them before presenting them with a project approval on the contentious Northern Gateway crude project.

A year ago, Mr. Prentice – who was an Indian Affairs minister in the early years of Conservative reign and is now deputy chair of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce – slammed his former colleagues for neglecting their responsibility to engage with First Nations on resource development.

Ottawa has since picked up the pace. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt have made several trips west, with Mr. Oliver making announcements about tanker and pipeline safety aimed at re-assuring both natives and non-natives.

A report on CBC last week suggested the Harper government is stepping up its effort to win First Nations support for Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline, sending a delegation of deputy ministers later this month to meet with some chiefs.

Despite considerable skepticism among aboriginal leaders, Mr. Prentice applauded that effort.

"I don't think it is possible for Canada to achieve access to the West Coast for hydrocarbons without engagement with First Nations, and without meaningful economic participation by First Nations in the projects," Mr. Prentice said in an interview.

"And I think we have an historic opportunity to achieve that."

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The former cabinet minister-turned banker said both Canadian and foreign investors are keen to work with the aboriginal communities and recognize the need to bring them in as economic partners.

But it's not that simple.

The federal and provincial governments remained mired in a land claims negotiations that have gone nowhere, and resource issues are key areas in the talks.

Some communities struggle with a lack of capacity to engage with governments and companies in a way that ensures they are getting a fair deal, and their timetable is driven more by the need for caution than any corporate agenda.

And more fundamentally, many aboriginal communities view some developments as simply too risky to the environment, which provides their livelihood. While there is broad support for liquefied natural gas terminals and pipelines, there is more fear concerning oil pipelines and massive crude carriers plying the treacherous waters off the coast.

The industry appears to have discounted the likelihood of crude pipelines crossing British Columbia, and is now focusing on pipelines to eastern Canada and expended capacity to the United States, both by pipe and by rail.

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But Mr. Prentice said the West Coast remains the prize.

"The fact remains that virtually all of the incremental demand for natural gas and oil over next 20 years is in the Asia-Pacific basin," he said. "So it is imperative that Canada achieves West Coast access."

Shawn McCarthy is the Globe and Mail's National Business Correspondent and energy reporter

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