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Patricia Kelly, left, of the Sto:lo First Nation, marches with Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, right, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, to a protest outside National Energy Board hearings on the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Burnaby, B.C., on Jan. 19, 2016.


As a coalition of First Nations ramps up its opposition to new pipeline and tanker projects, some aboriginal leaders are cautioning against the group's blanket condemnation of the oil sands issued this week, saying the industry is funding important programs in their communities.

Opposition from some First Nations to individual pipeline projects is long-standing. But on Thursday, 50 indigenous communities in Canada, plus some U.S. tribes, unveiled an accord that commits them to stand together against the building of any new pipelines and rail projects, or increased tanker traffic, that would facilitate the expansion of oil sands production. They say they are concerned about the risk of spills and climate change.

As of Friday, the coalition's ranks had grown to 85 First Nation signatories.

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The move may amplify a growing divide in Canada's indigenous communities. Not every First Nation leader is against new pipeline projects – especially in Alberta, Saskatchewan and northeastern British Columbia, where many aboriginal leaders have a stake in the oil and gas industry.

Next month in Calgary, an advocacy group for those First Nation communities will host a Pipeline Gridlock Conference to discuss aboriginal issues around pipelines, and ways to build new projects with indigenous interests front and centre.

Stephen Buffalo, president and chief executive officer of the Indian Resource Council, said the coalition voices legitimate concerns, but every industry has an environmental cost and it's unfair to target oil alone. He said many energy-dependent aboriginal communities have already taken a hit because of two years of low crude prices

"From a First Nations standpoint, we're really trying to not be poor," said Mr. Buffalo, who hails from the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alta.

"Oil and gas, and energy, is one way to advance, and build our communities, and build houses and rec centres and hockey rinks."

Chief Wallace Fox said his oil-rich Onion Lake Cree Nation – which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary north of Lloydminster – shares all First Nations' concerns about the land and water. But he said the community's heavy oil resource has led to jobs and revenues for housing and education programs, such as a Cree language immersion program.

"If we didn't have that, we would be in the same situation – for example – as those who face a big housing crisis across Canada. We use our own money, our own source funding, to try to meet the needs of First Nations," Mr. Fox said.

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"The reality is we still need this product to get from point A to point B," he said of pipelines.

The federal government will decide before Christmas whether to approve Kinder Morgan Inc.'s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver. The project has attracted the ire of Lower Mainland municipal leaders. The most vocal First Nations opposition to that project has come from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation – a key member of the coalition – which is based on Burrard Inlet near the export terminal.

At the same time, Trans Mountain said it now has more than 40 letters of support from aboriginal communities and associations in Alberta and British Columbia. As of mid-September, the company had signed 18 benefits agreements with 22 aboriginal communities along 95 per cent of the pipeline corridor, a company spokesman said in an e-mailed statement.

In a letter submitted to the National Energy Board last December, Chief Clifford Calliou of the Kelly Lake Cree Nation said some of the project would occur within its traditional territory in northeastern B.C., and that it is "satisfied with the mitigation measures" promised by Trans Mountain.

"The Kelly Lake Cree Nation is of the view that there will be positive effects as a result of the project," Mr. Calliou said in the letter.

Enbridge Inc.-led Northern Gateway ran into a wall of First Nations opposition on the British Columbia coast, but the company claimed it had significant support among aboriginal communities in Alberta and along the pipeline route. It says there are 31 aboriginal communities that are part of its ownership groups, though some that initially expressed support have revisited that decision amid internal battles.

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In Edmonton, the NDP government is in a battle to show that its ambitious climate-change plan and other measures will help the province build the cross-country goodwill to build at least one new pipeline to allow for growth in crude exports and to carry Alberta oil to new, international markets. The government, elected in 2015, argues that Alberta is now on the forefront in the battle to reduce Canada's greenhouse gases – but previous years of inaction are sticking to the province's reputation.

"I get why they're in a position where they need to say no – no matter what," said Alberta Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman, speaking about the First Nations coalition against pipelines.

"It's them having an opportunity to express their frustration with what's happened in the past," Ms. Hoffman said.

"I want to honour what they're saying, but also acknowledge that there are other First Nations who know how important it is to safely get our product to tidewater."

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