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The National Energy Board's endorsement of the Northern Gateway pipeline has set out a well-considered path from a regulatory perspective. That is, after all, what the NEB's role has always been in the often heated debate surrounding Enbridge's proposal.

The project will now unfold against a much broader and more complicated backdrop. The report sets out a thorough regulatory framework surrounding environmental and safety considerations. The critical issue still to be negotiated, however, is the full economic participation of First Nations. And this is a requirement that now falls to Enbridge.

The stakes for Canada are high.

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It's clear that the status quo on resource development no longer holds and we are charting a new course. How we manage our way forward with the Northern Gateway project will play a major role in determining Canada's economic and social future, especially as it relates to resource development and the Asia-Pacific basin.

To be clear, the United States will always be Canada's best customer when it comes to energy exports. But as we move toward North American energy self-sufficiency at a speed that has caught even Americans by surprise, Canada needs to diversify its customer base.

With our dependence on that single customer and with all the growth in Asia-Pacific energy demand, we need to pivot toward these new markets. The NEB report acknowledges that such expansion is "in the public interest" and that Canada will be better off if Northern Gateway proceeds.

Embedded in this shifting reality are challenging constitutional and legal issues related to West Coast energy corridors, terminals, shipping routes and marine management. These are areas that require the regulation set out by the NEB report. But they also require the negotiation of economic partnerships with First Nations.

Enbridge must continue to advance those negotiations, albeit in a complicated environment, because British Columbia is a tapestry of unresolved treaty and land claims.

The inclusion of First Nations in the process must be about far more than observing the constitutional duty to consult and accommodate. It is about getting traction on economic terms in a difficult legal and constitutional environment.

The duty to consult and accommodate was designed in anticipation of the day now arrived. It's designed to ensure that First Nations have a seat at the table in decisions involving resource development, such as Northern Gateway, and to ensure full economic participation in those decisions.

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The constitutional difficulties are well understood: The federal government acknowledged that its relationship with aboriginal communities needed to be redefined when it appointed Douglas Eyford as special representative on West Coast energy infrastructure earlier this year. It gave him a mandate to consult with aboriginal communities in British Columbia and Alberta that could benefit from future energy infrastructure development.

His recent report addresses the need to promote a "principled dialogue" about resource development with aboriginal communities, noting that West Coast energy development will provide new opportunities to forge partnerships and build relationships.

The job now falls squarely on the shoulders of Enbridge to build upon the regulatory foundation set forth by the NEB decision and Transport Canada's 2012 review of the state of preparedness for marine oil spills.

These are just some of the elements and approaches that will allow Enbridge to obtain the social licence required for Northern Gateway to proceed.

Nation-building is never easy. When it comes to Northern Gateway, though, it's less about vision than it is about the heavy lifting that Enbridge will now undertake.

I am optimistic, and Canadians should be optimistic too, about the future of Northern Gateway and its essential role in our economic prosperity. But neither should we have any illusions about the work ahead and the ongoing need for respectful dialogue.

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Jim Prentice is senior executive vice-president and vice-chairman of CIBC and a former minister of Indian and northern affairs.

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