In an effort to win approval for its embattled Northern Gateway pipeline project, Enbridge Inc. has appointed former Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice to help pave the way for First Nations support.
However, some aboriginal groups say that move may have come too late.
"It's a last-ditch effort and a waste of a good man," Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations in British Columbia, said Wednesday. "He's well respected by me and many others. But this is a project that's not just on its last legs, it's in its last minutes [of life]."
Mr. Sterritt compared Mr. Prentice's assignment, which is to renew talks with First Nations about possible partnership agreements with Enbridge, as being like someone "trying to give mouth to mouth" to a dying person.
But Mr. Prentice, whose years of cabinet work on First Nation and environmental files give him high credibility in aboriginal communities, is optimistic he can make a breakthrough – he says Enbridge is ready to make "significant changes" to get there.
Mr. Prentice said in a Vancouver interview that he's already started calling First Nation leaders and is confident progress can be made.
"I know there is a lot of heavy lifting to be done and it starts with listening," he said. "It's never too late to sit down and talk with people."
Mr. Prentice said he only agreed to take on the task with the understanding that Enbridge was open to change.
"They need to be open to change and they need to re-engage First Nation communities," he said of Enbridge. "I discussed it with them. I'm satisfied they are fully committed to the types of dialogue that I think are necessary about the environment and about real economic partnerships with First Nations."
Mr. Prentice said he has long believed that "First Nations should be full partners in resource development and they should be owners of projects like the Northern Gateway."
The proposed $6.5-billion project gained conditional approval from Joint Review Panel last year and is awaiting a final decision by federal cabinet, which is expected by July.
But many First Nations along the proposed route have sworn to fight the project in court, and with protests and blockades if necessary. Enbridge announced on Wednesday that Mr. Prentice, who has spent 30 years working with First Nations as a lawyer and politician, will seek to "build on agreements already in place with 26 existing aboriginal equity partners."
Although Enbridge claims to have deals with many of the bands along the route, it has never named its aboriginal partners, citing confidentiality agreements.
Mr. Sterritt said he doubts the company has as much support as it claims. He maintains that the majority of bands in B.C. are steadfastly opposed.
"The problem Enbridge faces," he said, "is that there's no way to clean up an oil spill on this coast. Until they step up and deal with that, they won't get any support."
Al Monaco, chief executive officer of Enbridge, said in a statement that he hopes Mr. Prentice can help the company build trust with First Nations.
"When we received the positive report of the Joint Review Panel in December, we said that this was only one step in the process," he said. "We made it our first priority to reach out in a respectful way to aboriginal communities – and we're committed to putting our best foot forward to further build trust. We believe Jim Prentice is uniquely suited to help us fulfill that promise."
In a statement, Enbridge said Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce has agreed to make Mr. Prentice available for the role "because CIBC believes in the importance of this project to both First Nations and to Canada."
Mr. Prentice is currently senior executive vice-president and vice-chairman at CIBC.