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Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.

Geoff Howe/The Canadian Press

Armed with new clout over development on their traditional lands, Canada's aboriginal people are increasingly looking to be partners in energy and mining development.

At the same time, first nations groups are insisting on their right to reject projects that fail to provide real benefits or are too damaging to the environment - even if Canadian law does not give them a formal veto.

In Niagara Falls this week, Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is co-hosting the first International Indigenous Summit on Energy and Mining, with his U.S. counterpart, Jefferson Keel, president of the national Congress of American Indians. The summit is a chance for corporate leaders from the energy and mining sectors - as well as financial institutions - to talk with native leaders and government officials about the opportunities for and challenges with first nations project partnerships.

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The stakes are enormous, with virtually every major energy and mining project in Canada requiring consultations with native communities. And the potential for bitter disagreement looms large, given differing views on just how much control over the fate of the projects that the first nations communities should have.

One study estimates that there is some $300-billion in potential mining and energy projects across Canada that require consultation with native communities, Mr. Atleo said. "The idea here is that first nations are not opposed to development, but just not supportive of the idea of development at any cost, and must be involved in helping to determine a way forward," he said.

Several high-profile clashes are now playing out across the country. In British Columbia, opposition from native communities threatens to derail Enbridge Inc.'s $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, which would transport oil sands crude to Asian markets. Enbridge has sought to win support with a $1-billion in financial sweeteners, including a 10-per-cent equity stake, but chief executive officer Pat Daniel riled opponents by insisting native communities do not have a veto over a pipeline running through their traditional territory.

On the other side of the country, Nalcor Energy - which is owned by the province of Newfoundland and Labrador - is anxiously awaiting the result of a vote at the end of this week by Labrador Innu Nation on a partnership package for the $6.2-billion Lower Churchill hydro project.

Innu leaders have praised the negotiated package that gives the community financial sweeteners and employment guarantees as well as recognition of land claims. But their support is no guarantee it will be approved in the referendum.

At the Niagara Falls summit, leaders hope to launch a "virtual institute" - an online effort that will bring together the various players and highlight both the success stories and the conflicts.

Mr. Atleo suggested that the energy and mining industries may provide a critical path to prosperity for an impoverished but rapidly growing segment of the Canadian population, so long as all parties work together prepare the communities to participate.

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Among the business leaders who will speak at the summit is Ian Anderson, president of pipeline company Kinder Morgan Canada. His company is looking to expand its Trans Mountain oil pipeline from Alberta to the Port of Vancouver, and perhaps build a new leg to Kitimat, B.C.

In an interview, Mr. Anderson said it is critical for Canadian corporate leaders to consult early and often with native communities who will be affected by a project, and not to leave the job to staff.

"It is important to continue the conversation about how industry and project proponents deal with first nations communities and respect their heritage and respect their culture and accomplish something that we can all benefit from," the pipeline executive said.

But he said he approaches those consultations much as he would deal with other communities along the pipeline's route. He acknowledged that Canadian courts rulings have set a higher standard, requiring governments - and therefore project proponents - to properly consult with first nations groups.

Mr. Anderson was less comfortable with Mr. Atleo's view that aboriginal groups have an inherent right to veto projects.

"That to my mind is space that still has to be determined by the courts if that's where it ends up," he said. "I don't like to use the word 'veto.'"

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