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Minister of State for Science and Technology Greg Rickford, left, examines a wearable electronic device that monitors the lumbar spine as Amir Servati, a University of British Columbia Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, explains how it works at the Flexible Electronics and Energy Lab at the university in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday January 9, 2014.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Greg Rickford will need to call on all his experience working with First Nations to resolve some of the toughest roadblocks in the Conservative government's plan for energy and mining development.

The 46-year-old Kenora, Ont. MP was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday to replace Joe Oliver as Natural Resources Minister. Awaiting him are brewing resource battles in British Columbia and Ontario that are both economically important and fraught with political risks for the government heading into the next election.

In both cases, Ottawa's relationship with aboriginal communities and its willingness to help finance their development are key.

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Mr. Rickford came into politics promising to work to improve First Nations' economy and infrastructure. Early in his career, he worked as a nurse and a lawyer in remote communities in Northwestern Ontario. Running for election in 2008, one of his central campaign themes was the need to improve conditions for aboriginal Canadians.

Among the top files he will have to grapple with: Stickhandling the government's consultations with B.C. First Nations over the proposed and deeply controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, and working with Ontario to make progress on the Ring of Fire mineral development, which is also mired in tough aboriginal discussions.

Much of Canada's future resource development involves land claimed by aboriginal people, said Joseph Doucet, the dean of the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta.

"And to the extent that [Mr. Rickford] has experienced sensitivity and an understanding of the issues – I think that could be really, really valuable."

The new Resources Minister has served as parliamentary assistant to the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, and since last summer, as minister of state for science and technology and the junior minister responsible for Northern Ontario, including the Ring of Fire.

Officials in the energy and mining industries said Mr. Rickford appears to be well-qualified for the job. But the new minister will face a steep learning curve at a critical time as the embattled oil and gas sector looks to expand access to markets in Asia, the U.S. Gulf Coast, Eastern Canada and the Atlantic basin.

Lauded by industry for understanding their needs, Mr. Oliver was seen as a divisive figure by aboriginal opponents of Enbridge Inc.'s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline due to his full-throated insistence that such projects are in Canada's national interest. Mr. Rickford is unlikely to take a differing view, though he could bring a better grasp of aboriginal concerns to the discussions.

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Ottawa is now engaged in multidepartmental meetings, led by senior bureaucrats, with individual aboriginal communities to address issues around Northern Gateway. A National Energy Board review panel recommended approval last December, and the federal government has until summer to make a final decision.

"The whole way the government has addressed this, there has been nothing to suggest it is not all window dressing," said Vancouver lawyer Robert Janes, who represents the coastal Gitxaala Nation. "One hopes the new minister coming in would take a different view."

In Ontario, the provincial Liberal government has been urging Ottawa to play a more substantial role in paving the way for development in the Ring of Fire, a massive chromite development near James Bay. In November, Premier Kathleen Wynne sent a letter to Mr. Harper, urging his government to match provincial funding for infrastructure development. His response could be fodder for both the looming provincial election and the federal vote expected in 2015.

"I think this [appointment] is a really good opportunity for us the province to continue to make a case that the federal government needs to come to the table and needs to be a full partner in this," Ontario Minister of Northern Development Michael Gravelle said in an interview.

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