For decades, federal governments have done their best to avoid dealing with the many intractable issues facing British Columbia's First Nations. Provincial governments have been only slightly more engaged in trying to right many of these decades-old wrongs.
The B.C. treaty process established in the early 1990s has been a failure. In the intervening time, only two First Nations groups have signed accords. The blame for failing to reach more deals has been laid at the feet of Ottawa, which has preferred to study the often thorny problems emerging from negotiations rather than actually deal with them.
Any time a federal or B.C. government has tried to unilaterally exert rights in matters affecting the province's First Nations, they've been slapped down by the courts. Still, it hasn't stopped Ottawa from pretending and acting as if the rulings didn't give aboriginal groups any additional powers.
At least until now.
Suddenly, B.C.'s First Nations have become a top priority for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. It seems to have had a conversion on the road to Kitimat, the West Coast terminus of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. It realizes that tens of billions of dollars in energy dollars are at stake.
Without First Nations consent and co-operation, a lot of that money could go up in smoke. As a result, we're now entertained by the sight of Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver making regular sojourns to the province and talking about the importance of consultation.
You can excuse aboriginal leaders for snickering. For years, they've been unable to get Ottawa's attention. Now that it's dawned on the Conservatives that First Nations stand between them and energy riches, aboriginal leaders are atop everyone's invitation list. They're suddenly the cool kids in class. There isn't a federal cabinet minister they can't get on the line.
"They tried jamming us on Northern Gateway and it's backfired," says Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations. "They discovered that not only do we have legal power, we have political power. Joe Oliver is no longer calling us foreign-funded radicals or enemies of the state. He's now talking about sitting down and building relationships."
It's true that Mr. Oliver is taking a softer position these days. It may be because the Prime Minister's B.C. energy envoy has warned privately that taking a tough stand is a dead-end strategy. Doug Eyford, a highly respected Vancouver lawyer and treaty negotiator, knows the lay of the land and how to speak a language that resonates with aboriginal groups.
He understands that it will take lots of talk and money to get deals done, and that First Nations won't be rushed along by someone else's timetable. Complicating matters is that many First Nations lack the resources to properly investigate a pipeline's possible socio-economic impact. There are also limits to what industry can negotiate – many issues require Crown consent.
Government attempts to force through projects over the objections of a First Nations community are likely to backfire and end up in court. That could effectively kill a project whose viability is contingent on meeting certain market-driven deadlines.
It's difficult to say where all this ends. Mr. Sterritt and others contend that Northern Gateway is dead and that Ottawa should be prepared to sacrifice it in the name of other deals. Kinder Morgan also faces major First Nations hurdles. There seems a greater likelihood that B.C.'s many proposed liquefied natural gas projects will go ahead with First Nations' blessing – and that's partially because of money.
LNG proponents realized that the meagre amounts Enbridge was offering First Nations – 10 per cent equity stakes – weren't enough to move the dial. One LNG deal that recently wrapped up gave affected groups a 33-per-cent share in the project. That caught everyone's attention.
"When you're talking about projects that could have a profound impact on the lives of First Nations people, you don't just talk to us," says Mr. Sterritt. "You're going to need to get our permission before anything moves forward. That's just a fact of life."
For now, B.C.'s First Nations have the federal and provincial governments right where they want them – over a barrel.