Aboriginal Input On Pipelines Is Key To Better Relations: Study

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OTTAWA — A new paper warns against tossing out the current environmental assessment system over some high-profile pipeline conflicts with First Nations.

In a study to be released today by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, author Bram Noble takes a look at eight case studies across Canada and concludes indigenous engagement is critical to resource project assessment outcomes.

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Cheryl Bear, left, a councillor with the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation, and Hereditary Chief Pete Erickson, of the Nak'azdli First Nation, listen during a news conference about the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline in Vancouver, on Oct. 1, 2015. The Federal Court of Appeal says Canada failed in its duty to consult with aboriginal people before giving the green light to a controversial pipeline proposal to link Alberta's oilsands to British Columbia's north coast. (Photo: Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The Liberal government in Ottawa is currently embarking on a stem-to-gudgeon review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the mandate of the National Energy Board amid loud protests involving proposed oil pipeline projects running west and east from Alberta.

Pipeline debates don't tell the whole story

But the pipeline impasse can give a skewed view of indigenous participation, suggesting on one hand monolithic First Nations opposition — which is not the case — and on the other hand a perception of an aboriginal veto, which also doesn't exist.

Noble, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Saskatchewan who holds a PhD in environmental assessment, makes the case that environmental assessments over the past decade have taken on much broader and deeper impacts, including land claims, land rights, benefit sharing and regional planning.

Environmental assessment 'the front lines' of reconciliation

As Noble writes: "It is now the front lines of conflict and reconciliation between aboriginal peoples, government and resource developers.''

That's a lot to ask of a system that was designed to weigh environmental impacts against economic benefits.

"It is now the front lines of conflict and reconciliation between aboriginal peoples, government and resource developers.''

Noble says it shouldn't be taken as an indictment of the environmental assessment process itself nor of the central role affected indigenous communities must play in determining resource project approvals or rejections.

He'd like to see more comprehensive, basic regional assessments carried out by governments, in advance, that aren't driven by specific project proposals. Environmental assessments of projects could then take place within defined parameters, and not be the driving force behind big-picture decisions involving land claims or land use planning.

"Part of the challenge that we're seeing is that in many of these regions, developers and project proponents are the first people on the ground, not necessarily provincial or regional governments,'' Noble said.

The result is that major regional planning decisions can get grafted on to a single project assessment, which causes delays. The reaction to the delays is to "streamline and circumvent'' the environmental assessment process.

That's what took place under the previous Conservative government in 2012 and, many argue, served to further undermine public confidence in the system.

Aboriginal input simply a fact of life in Canada

With more than 600 First Nations across Canada, Inuit, plus off-reserve indigenous peoples and the aboriginal title of Metis people recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada, getting aboriginal input on resource projects is simply a legal and constitutional fact of Canadian life.

Noble sees that as a good thing.

"I'm a little skeptical of fears around what might happen if you provide more engagement, more authority, delegate more control,'' he said.

Last week in Prince Rupert, B.C., representatives of 21 First Nations met as a self-styled "Major Projects Coalition'' and adopted a plan to develop technical expertise on resource project ownership and a common approach to environmental stewardship.

"I'm a little skeptical of fears around what might happen if you provide more engagement, more authority, delegate more control.''

"Information shared at coalition meetings is helping to better inform the business decisions our communities have to make and adopting a work plan is an important step forward,'' Joe Beven, the chief of Kitselas First Nation, said in a release Monday.

Noble's case studies show examples of First Nations doing their own environmental assessments, with project proponents incorporating the findings.

Of the seven specific projects he examined, four were approved, two were rejected and one is under a conditional provincial approval. An eighth environmental assessment in the study involved Saskatchewan's regional examination of the Great Sand Hills area, which has been dotted with some 1,500 small oil and gas wells over the decades.

Success doesn't necessarily mean a project is approved

The point that can be lost in the raging pipeline debates, says Noble, is that success is not measured by whether a project ultimately is approved or rejected. Similarly, delays in assessments also don't necessarily indicate a poor process.

Nor is success a function of how much conflict is involved in getting to a resolution.

The case studies, he said, show how environmental assessments provide "a formal and structured opportunity to inject conflict, if that's the best way to have the voices heard.''

— Follow @BCheadle on Twitter

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