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Report On Business Resources Minister Rickford faces aboriginal backlash over Enbridge project

Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford.

Adrian Wyld/CP

British Columbia's coastal First Nations have a stark message for Ottawa's new Natural Resources Minister: If the federal government wants to build a working relationship with them, then it should reject Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway project.

Following a cabinet shuffle prompted by Jim Flaherty's resignation, former minister of state for science Greg Rickford has taken over the natural resources post from Joe Oliver, who replaces Mr. Flaherty as finance minister. The most challenging issue facing Mr. Rickford is the federal government's looming decision on the Gateway pipeline, which has encountered staunch opposition from aboriginal communities in British Columbia.

"One of our conditions on stepping up to the plate and working with [the government] on future projects is that basically Northern Gateway has to be put to bed," said Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, which represents nine nations on the B.C. coast. "There's no way anybody in B.C. is going to be supporting that project any time soon."

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Mr. Sterritt's group met Wednesday with federal bureaucrats who are charged with consulting them and other aboriginal communities on the Gateway project as part of a court-mandated requirement. He has also met several times with Mr. Oliver in recent months, although not as part of the formal Gateway consultations.

A National Energy Board review panel recommended approval of the project in December, and the federal cabinet is due to make a final decision by summer. Given that decision-making role, the Natural Resources Minister is not directly involved in consultations. But both Mr. Oliver and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt have been meeting more frequently with aboriginal leaders in British Columbia since the NEB report was released.

Mr. Sterritt said the cabinet shuffle came just as he felt he was establishing a real dialogue with Mr. Oliver, who was viewed by the project's critics as having made up his mind that the pipeline's approval is in the national interest.

Mr. Rickford will now assume the job of building aboriginal support for resource development across Canada and in B.C. specifically. But Mr. Sterritt said his job will be immensely more difficult if the government approves the Enbridge pipeline.

"If you want to talk about resource projects in British Columbia, you need to build a relationship first," he said in a phone interview Thursday. "You don't show up with a project and then try to build a relationship just to get the project through. That's not the way it works."

Enbridge has appointed former Conservative minister Jim Prentice – now deputy chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce – to negotiate with aboriginal communities on its behalf. Enbridge insists it has signed agreements with dozens of bands along the route, although Mr. Sterritt said most of those are in Alberta, and in some B.C. cases, the chiefs who signed the deals were forced out of office.

Several aboriginal communities – including those represented by the Coastal First Nations group – are challenging the National Energy Board panel report, arguing among other things that the government had predetermined its outcome. And they vow to battle in court if the federal government approves the pipeline over their objections.

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Mr. Sterritt warned that people are willing to take direct action against the construction of the pipeline.

"There is no doubt that our people are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure this project doesn't go ahead," he said.

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