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The Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks during a press conference held in Toronto on Monday, July 17, 2017.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Indigenous Canadians are emerging as a powerful force in the country's energy sector, both as opponents to, and participants in, electricity, natural gas and oil projects.

Aboriginal leaders are also playing a prominent role in the Liberal government's energy deliberations as Ottawa works over the next several months to overhaul its environmental review process for major resource projects.

That heightened role was on display last week when federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr convened a two-day summit of industry leaders to begin mapping out a national energy strategy. First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders took centre stage with provincial ministers and company executives.

In an interview, Mr. Carr said a national strategy needs to be inspired by aboriginal peoples' connection with the land and their sense of responsibility to future generations.

"We embrace the relationship [with Indigenous people] that inevitably characterizes progress as a nation with protection of the land, the air and the water," he said.

"And there truly is a generational responsibility to build on what has come before and to leave the place better than we have found it. And those values are inherent in aboriginal culture and aboriginal thinking."

For those working in the resource sector, the Liberals are clearly signalling that any development must be done in full partnership with Indigenous communities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pledging reconciliation and "nation to nation" relations with Indigenous people in Canada. However, Mr. Carr says regulatory approvals must balance the national interest with those of a specific community, and some Indigenous leaders question the government's commitment to reconciliation when it is willing to approve pipelines over the objections of local communities.

On energy issues, aboriginal leaders are advocating a more rapid transition from our dependence on fossil fuels.

Still, many Indigenous leaders are eager to partner with companies on oil and gas projects if they are treated with respect, see local benefits to their communities and the environmental impacts are mitigated, Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in an interview.

It's up to each First Nation to determine how it will respond to development, Mr. Bellegarde said.

"Before you try to build anything, build a respectful relationship with Indigenous people," he told Mr. Carr's Generation Energy conference in Winnipeg.

He urged federal and provincial governments not to issue development licences until companies could demonstrate they were partnering with local Indigenous communities on procurement, work force development and revenue-sharing.

First Nations communities have been prominent in the battle against crude-pipeline projects – challenging federal approval of Kinder Morgan Inc.'s Trans Mountain expansion and opposing TransCanada Corp.'s Energy East project that the company scrapped earlier this month.

Mr. Carr defends the Trans Mountain decision, saying Ottawa needs to support the current oil and gas industry that can help finance the long-term energy transition. He insists Ottawa has met its duty to consult First Nations communities along its route.

Indigenous Canadians themselves are not unanimous in opposition to fossil-fuel development.

In British Columbia, liquefied natural gas projects are being developed in partnership with local First Nations. Royal Dutch Shell PLC-led LNG Canada has strong backing from the local Haisla Nation. In Alberta, Fort McKay First Nation Chief Jim Boucher is a strong proponent of the oil sands development that surrounds and provides employment to his community.

Still, the predominant message from the Indigenous community is that Canada – and the world – needs to speed up the transition from fossil energy to renewable sources.

Indigenous communities across the country are working with partners on energy projects, including many remote towns that are eager to reduce their reliance on diesel by developing hydro, wind or solar generation.

Though many remote communities remain dependent on expensive, unreliable diesel systems, there is a growing effort to develop renewable-energy projects that can lessen that reliance.

In a recent national survey, Lumos Clean Energy Ltd. found Indigenous communities have a financial stake in some 152 power projects, ranging from hydroelectric megaprojects to small-scale solar. Combined, those generating assets have capacity of 19,516 megawatts and will generate $2.5-billion in profits for the Indigenous communities.

Those figures are growing rapidly, Lumos president Chris Henderson said.

At the Winnipeg conference, aboriginal leaders gathered to discuss the opportunities for, and barriers to, community-led electricity development.

Isabella Pain is secretary to the executive council for the Nunatsiavut Secretariat, a self-governing Inuit area centred at Nain, on the northern coast of Labrador. The communities currently rely on diesel generation, but Ms. Pain said they are looking to develop renewable power, especially given the strong winds that blow along the coast.

"I think there are lots of benefits to reducing our reliance on diesel," she said. "We think renewables, even supplementing diesel, are going to help us get to the goal of an affordable, clean and stable energy system."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of Canada’s shame over the treatment of Indigenous Peoples since colonial times in his Thursday address to the United Nations General Assembly, but also voiced hope for a “lasting reconciliation.”

The Canadian Press

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