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Assembly of First Nations interim National Chief Ghislain Picard takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014. The Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador has formally declared its opposition to TransCanada's proposed Energy East pipeline.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The National Energy Board has officially launched its review of the controversial Energy East pipeline project with the promise of a more inclusive hearing process – even as First Nations in Quebec signal their opposition to the project and the regulatory approach being used to assess it.

The federal regulator announced on Thursday that TransCanada Corp. had completed the paper work necessary to start the regulatory hearings, setting the clock ticking on a 21-month review process expected to cost $3.65-million. An NEB recommendation will be made in March, 2018, to federal cabinet, which will then have six months to make a final determination.

The $15.7-billion, 4,500-kilometre project would deliver 1.1-million barrels a day of western crude to eastern Canadian refiners and an export terminal in Saint John, N.B. The oil industry – backed by the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan – says the pipeline would provide crucial access to new markets and world prices.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall visited his Quebec counterpart, Philippe Couillard, in Montreal on Thursday and defended the proposed $15.7-billionpipeline as important to the health of prairie province economies and a "nation-building project."

However, the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) passed resolutions on Wednesday that oppose the pipeline and condemn the regulatory process, which they say gives their interests short shrift. Mr. Couillard said the AFNQL opposition was a "significant event," noting Ottawa has endorsed a United Nations' declaration that includes the right of aboriginal communities to "free prior and informed consent" on natural-resource projects that would affect their traditional territory.

In an interview, Ghislain Picard, regional chief for the AFNQL, said at least a dozen First Nations that would be directly affected by the pipeline will have to decide whether to participate in the NEB process, which the Liberals extended by six months to give more time for consultations. But the resolutions leave no doubt about the outcome of that process.

"Now that our chiefs have decided to reject the pipeline, we will be asking that Quebec and Canada respect such a decision if they are to fulfill their constitutional obligations and if they are to respect the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," Mr. Picard said. Ottawa, he added, has been "dancing around the issue" of whether the UN declaration gives aboriginal people a veto over projects.

Montreal-area mayors have also opposed Energy East, and if the project is approved, construction would occur as the Liberal government prepares to seek re-election in fall 2019.

At a press conference with Mr. Couillard, Mr. Wall urged Quebeckers to show "generosity" towards western Canadians by ensuring their products can reach key markets.

"The transportation of our resources – whether uranium, potash or oil – is fundamental to the future success of Saskatchewan and the welfare of the Saskatchewan people," he said, adding that a healthy resource sector allows his province to contribute to national initiatives like equalization.

National Energy Board director Jean-Denis Charlebois said on Thursday the agency will ensure any member of the public, including those not on the official list of participants, will be able to have a say. He said details of that have yet to be determined, but additional board members have been appointed to hear from the general public in writing and in person along the proposed pipeline route.

"This review will be unlike any other in the NEB's history," Mr. Charlebois, who is responsible for overseeing the process, told reporters in Calgary. "We have shaped it to meet modern expectations of Canadians in terms of engagement."

Mr. Charlebois said the NEB will look at greenhouse gas emissions directly related to the construction and operations of the pipeline project, while a parallel process run by the federal environment department will look at upstream greenhouse gas emissions.

TransCanada called the NEB announcement an important milestone for the project.

"We will continue to work with all levels of government and our regulators to demonstrate the enormous benefits for our country can and will be achieved while ensuring the safe and environmentally sound delivery of Canadian-owned resources to market," Energy East president John Soini said.

As a result of feedback from communities and First Nations, the pipeline company said it has made about 700 route changes. TransCanada also said it has engaged with 166 indigenous communities, and 66 "traditional knowledge studies" are under way.

TransCanada says the project would support thousands of jobs, reduce imports of foreign oil and the amount of oil being transported by rail, and is the least greenhouse-gas-intensive means of transporting crude to market.