Ottawa and the provinces may be aligning on support for new oil pipelines, but the most problematic hurdle remains – staunch opposition among First Nations.
Native leaders in British Columbia and in Eastern Canada say they have no intentions of softening their resistance to projects that would ship bitumen to coastal waters through their territories, even as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley insists approvals are closer than they have been in years.
Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), said his members have not budged from their position that pipelines through the province, including Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan Canada's Trans Mountain Expansion, pose unacceptable oil-spill risks. The group has also lent its support to Eastern First Nations' stance against TransCanada Corp.'s Energy East project.
"Like everyone else, we're monitoring these touchy-feely public statements [from governments] that are floating around. But to my knowledge, there isn't an emerging groundswell of support in First Nations communities, or anything of that nature," Mr. Phillip said.
"Premier Clark and Premier Notley are talking to each other and [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau is talking to Notley, but they don't want to talk to the indigenous people who are standing in opposition to these projects. They want to dismiss and ignore the opposition and the concerns that underline that opposition," he said.
Ms. Notley said this month she has softened her stance against the Northern Gateway line to Kitimat, B.C., from Alberta. She has also said her officials are discussing a potential deal with B.C. Premier Christy Clark's government that could result in British Columbia's support for a pipeline in exchange for Alberta buying hydroelectric power.
The Alberta Premier spoke to Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet in Kananaskis, Alta., this week about the economic importance to her province, and to the country, of getting Alberta crude to markets that would offer better returns to producers by shipping from the East and West coasts.
Mr. Trudeau said he supports the goal, but reiterated that it must be accomplished with support of First Nations. As it stands, many aboriginal groups are unmoved after years of attempts by governments and industry to convince them that the environment and their territorial rights will not suffer harmful effects, and in some cases have turned down offers of equity stakes in projects. Their opposition raises thorny legal and constitutional issues.
The $7.9-billion Northern Gateway project has a conditional approval from Ottawa, but has bogged down without B.C. First Nations support. Ms. Notley reportedly broached with the federal cabinet the idea of moving the terminus north to Prince Rupert, potentially a less controversial locale.
That won't change the opposition from the UBCIC or Coastal First Nations, a coalition of nine nations in the region, leaders said.
"I can't speak for First Nations broadly. All I know is our position continues to be opposed to Enbridge, whether it goes through Kitimat or it goes through Prince Rupert. At the end of the day, consultation by Enbridge will result in the same answer from us, which is, we oppose it," said Kelly Russ, Coastal First Nations' chairperson.
TransCanada is expected to file its application for the $15-billion Energy East pipeline to Saint John, N.B., from Hardisty, Alta., next month. It faces resistant First Nations along much of its 4,500-kilometre route. Regional chiefs from Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick have all raised concerns and complain there has been inadequate consultation undertaken by the National Energy Board and federal government.
The leaders argue they have a special relationship with the land and must protect it. And they say they are already seeing the impacts of a changing climate from burning of fossil fuels, such as crude derived from the Alberta oil sands.
Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr extended the hearing deadline by six months to give more time for those talks, but some chiefs suggest there is no room for compromise.
"I would rather starve before I took any money [from TransCanada]," Serge Simon, grand chief of the Mohawk Nation in Kanesatake, Que., said in an interview. "My grandchildren would curse me for leaving them with that legacy."
TransCanada's route requires new pipeline to be built through Quebec, traversing the traditional territory of the Mohawks from Kanesatake and neighbouring Kahnawake. The two bands are opposing the project at the upcoming hearings of Quebec's energy regulator, and have applied for intervenor status with the National Energy Board.
In a written brief to the Quebec regulator, Kahnawake's environmental chief Clinton Phillips said the community has no confidence in TransCanada's ability to ensure the safety of the line.
(Editor's note. The original online story called the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) by an incorrect name.)