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Douglas Channel, the proposed termination point for an oil pipeline in the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Contrary to what regular readers of newspapers might believe, aboriginal communities in Canada are not knee-jerk opponents of development. On the contrary, a careful reading of their recent responses to development proposals gives reason for optimism.

Perhaps the highest-profile example of a major natural resource project facing roadblocks in large part because of aboriginal opposition is the Northern Gateway pipeline to link Alberta's oil sands to Asian markets through the West Coast. While other players (such as the B.C. government) matter too, without aboriginal support, Northern Gateway (or its equivalent) almost certainly will not succeed. With that support, it has a fighting chance. Can that support be achieved?

Those with long memories recall the 1970s proposal to build a Mackenzie Valley pipeline to carry Northwest Territories gas to southern markets. This proposal coincided with a rising aboriginal self-awareness and organizational muscle under outstanding leaders such as George Erasmus.

As the pipeline project gathered steam, these newly organized aboriginal communities begin to complain about their exclusion from decision making despite the fact that the pipeline's greatest impact would fall on them and their land.

In the face of the growing controversy, Ottawa appointed Thomas Berger, a judge, former B.C. New Democratic Party leader and defender of aboriginal rights, to head a royal commission on the pipeline plan.

The Berger Commission exposed Canadians to something few expected: nightly news footage of aboriginal elders talking, often in their language, about the importance of the land, animals and indigenous ways of life.

Aboriginal testimony made clear their opposition to uncontrolled development on their lands – but also their desire to see land claims resolved and for greater control over their territories.

Contrary to a common misconception, Judge Berger did not recommend against the pipeline, but said it should be postponed until aboriginal people were ready for development. That recommendation, plus the changing economics of the project, led Ottawa to agree to set the project aside. The Trudeau government's national energy program seemed to put the final nail in the pipeline's coffin.

There the interest of the southern public in NWT energy resources largely ended. But after the cameras left, life continued to unfold on two parallel tracks.

On the one hand, land claims and self-government negotiations proceeded. The Inuvialuit settled in 1984, and some, but not all, of the other NWT First Nations in the Northwest Territories followed.

At the same time, largely unbeknownst to southerners, Enbridge got permission to build a 50,000-barrel-a-day oil pipeline from NWT to connect with Alberta's pipeline network. Unlike the experience with the original Mackenzie Valley pipeline proposal, this time there has been a gradual ramping up of First Nations participation – including training, employment, and contracts for local native-owned suppliers.

Nearly two decades later, ambitions for the Mackenzie Valley pipeline were reborn, with the formation of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group (APG), which has the right to own a third of the line. In December, 2010, the National Energy Board approved the project, after a seven-year review. But two year later, the consortium backing the pipeline project chopped spending on the initiative as natural gas prices slumped, and as a fiscal deal with Ottawa remained elusive.

Whether the economics will justify such a project any time in the near future is less important than what the new project reveals about the evolution of aboriginal attitudes. As Fred Carmichael, past president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council and chair of the APG, says: "This time, northern aboriginal people are at the planning table. In a sense, we are now wearing two hats. One hat we wear identifies our traditional role as guardians and stewards of the land. The other hat represents our emerging role as business opportunity developers."

The new proposal triggered the usual massive governmental environmental and regulatory assessment that immediately bogged down, to the fury of most northerners. Often aboriginal communities in remote locations have only a very limited number of resource plays on which to build a local economy. Fearful of losing their opportunity, some aboriginal people have demanded faster decision making, something that contributed to Ottawa's decision to streamline the environmental assessment process.

What lessons might be drawn from the NWT experience? Aboriginal communities gain confidence from thoughtfully negotiated modern treaties that recognize and embody their rights and decision-making power. First Nations and companies are learning to work together. Today aboriginal communities can be supportive of well-designed projects that involve them from day one, make provision for equity participation, and confer real economic benefits on them.

The moment of aboriginal readiness to engage with development that Thomas Berger foresaw is here. But the uncertain economics of the pipeline underline a different lesson that all parties on the natural resource frontier must confront: The perishable nature of opportunity. Time and tide wait for no project.

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in

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