VANCOUVER - An aboriginal group along the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline says Enbridge's (TSX:ENB) claim of widespread support among First Nations is a "sham."
On Tuesday, Enbridge announced it had signed agreements with 60 per cent of the aboriginal communities on the route, saying it's proof there's more support for the pipeline than opponents would suggest.
But the executive director of the Coastal First Nations, an alliance of 10 First Nations who oppose the project and that live on the land the pipeline will traverse, accused Enbridge of manipulating the facts.
Art Sterritt questioned how many First Nations along the route actually support the project, which would transport oil along the $5.5-billion pipeline between Bruderheim, Alta., and Kitimat B.C.
Paul Stanway, Enbridge's spokesman on the pipeline, wasn't available for comment Wednesday. But he said Tuesday the equity-sharing deals mean there isn't the wall of opposition that project opponents sometimes claim.
However, Enbridge has refused to name the First Nations that have signed deals.
"We have checked with all the First Nations along the pipeline route west of Prince George and only two First Nations have signed equity agreements," said Sterritt in a statement.
Sterritt called Enbridge's numbers flawed, noting the company expanded its corridor by 80 kilometres to boost the number of supporters, and many of the First Nations who have signed on are located outside of any area that could be impacted by a potential spill.
The company also included the Metis in the tally, but Sterritt said that aboriginal group doesn't have rights or title to land inside the corridor.
Of the two aboriginal groups that have said they have signed an equity deal, Sterritt noted the Gitksan people have rejected the agreement and some in the community are working to stop the project.
Enbridge has said First Nations who sign the deal will get about $280 million over 30 years, and the cash would start flowing within the first year of the pipeline's operation.
There are 45 First Nations along the pipeline, but Stanway wouldn't give a final figure on how many signed on because of contractual agreements.
Support for the project among aboriginal groups is split about evenly between Alberta and B.C. First Nations, said Stanway.
The B.C. Metis Federation said in a statement that while it has been seeking a voice for Metis on the pipeline, the federation's leaders oppose the project.
Enbridge's signed deal is with the Metis Nation British Columbia, but the federation called that group incompetant and said it does not speak for the wider Metis community.
"Despite the obvious Metis community and family concerns, MNBC signed the Enbridge equity deal announced May 26th with absolutely no mandate from Metis people or communities in British Columbia," the federation said in a news release.
"In some of proposed corridor locations, the Metis population count is greater than the local First Nations."
The public hearing process on the proposed pipeline is at about the midway point, and in September formal hearings will begin where expert witnesses will testify under oath to the review panel.
The Coastal First Nations includes the Wuikinuxv, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xaixais, Nuxalk, Gitga’at, Haisla, Metlakatla, Old Massett, Skidegate, and Council of the Haida Nation, an alliance representing some 20,000 members.