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At a business conference in the Alberta Rockies last week, some of Canada's heaviest hitters in energy offered their renditions of essentially the same tune.

Market access was the topic, and the consensus among the premiers of Alberta and New Brunswick as well as bosses at the largest pipeline and oil companies was that we as a nation should have it.

That means oil flowing to where it will fetch its highest price, whether that means the coasts of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico or Pacific. The result: jobs and a stronger economy across the country.

A key reason for snags, they agreed, is opponents have swayed some of the public against their well-backed-up assertions that the oil sands are being developed responsibly, and the industry is bringing all available technology to bear in cutting carbon emissions and transporting the stuff safely.

Then Miles Richardson stood up and abruptly changed the tune with the most important reminder of the day – that any road to riches in Asia for the energy sector passes through numerous First Nations territories, and major long-standing problems need to be solved first.

Mr. Richardson knows whereof he speaks. A former president of the Haida Nation on the B.C. coast and a former chief commissioner of the B.C. Treaty Commission, he talks passionately about his people's ancient connection to the land and how the relationship between B.C. native groups and Ottawa is broken.

Many in the oil patch see native resistance to projects as a soft obstacle to overcome. It's anything but. It's a legal problem that could push back by years the Alberta-based industry's bid for market access, something that has already caused much friction with aboriginals.

So, Mr. Richardson said: Listen up.

Canada has dragged its feet for decades as natives on the coast sought treaties to spell out their relationship with the rest of the country. The absence of settled claims actually gives First Nations rights and title to all aspects of traditional lands, courts have ruled.

His point is that failure to reach deals only makes life messier for companies as they fear economic windows closing before multibillion-dollar projects can get built.

"If there isn't an agreement with government, First Nations are going to have a view on whether a proposal ought to proceed and, if so, they'll lay out terms on how it can proceed," he said in an interview. "If agreement can be reached, great. If it can't, nothing's going to proceed."

Of course, the constitution requires that aboriginal people be consulted on resources projects, something that federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has acknowledged often. There's no widespread agreement, though, on what constitutes consultation: Does it mean informing communities or getting support?

Mr. Richardson contends that First Nations have nothing less than veto power.

"I'd make the case that First Nation jurisdiction is every bit as good as the Crown's. That's why we need to negotiate treaties and reconcile them so all of society has the same rules," he said. "In the absence of treaties, which sort these issues out, groups like industry are caught in the middle and are going have to deal with both parties."

So where does this leave the oil patch, as it seeks to get oil and gas to the coast on proposed pipelines such as Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway?

Late to the party, for one thing. Northern Gateway, facing a regulatory decision this month, has been in the works since the start of the last decade, though the B.C. treaty process has plodded along for much longer. Some native leaders have already promised court battles if pipelines are approved.

This week, Doug Eyford, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's special envoy to West Coast First Nations, is due to release a report on strategies for getting aboriginal people to support development projects and share in benefits.

Mr. Richardson said the industry would do well in that regard to back First Nations in their quests for treaties, as opposed to viewing them as hurdles that need to be cleared to proceed with pipelines.

"That's their call, if they want to start over. But the path they're on is the path to one of the biggest battles we're going to see in this country, as far as I can see."

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