12/02/2011 08:08 EST | Updated 02/01/2012 05:12 EST

B.C. First Nation Backs Northern Gateway Pipeline

A B.C. First Nation has announced it is backing the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project to ship oilsands and crude to the West Coast, despite fierce opposition from dozens of other groups in the area.

Chief Elmer Derrick said the hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan have decided to partner with Enbridge Inc. in the proposed $5.5-billion project.

The announcement comes a day after opponents said they will not allow the proposed Enbridge and KinderMorgan pipelines to cross their unceded territory, saying they will stand in front of bulldozers if they have to.

Derrick said the Gitxsan believe the project is important to the economic future of their group and the country.

"Over time we have established a relationship of trust with Enbridge. We have taken a detailed look at this project, and we believe it can be built and operated safely," Derrick said.

Nations divided

Derrick hopes the move doesn't tarnish the group's relationship with other native bands that oppose Northern Gateway.

"We have always been frank with our opinions on different projects, and we respect the positions taken by the other First Nations, our neighbours," he said.

The 33,000-square-kilometre Gitxsan territory sits north of Northern Gateway's proposed route, but the line would cross six streams that feed into a lake the First Nation relies on for fishing.

Chief Na'Moks representing the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs said they had banned the pipeline from going through their territories to protect not only themselves but other communities.

"Enbridge is just not going to happen," he said in a statement released Friday. "We have reviewed the project, and we have made a decision based in our traditional laws that we will not allow the devastation of an Enbridge oil spill in our lands to affect us and other communities further away who are all connected to us through the water."

The pipeline would run from Alberta's oilsands to the B.C. coast, carrying oil to tankers for export to the U.S. and Asia.

On Thursday, 55 First Nations leaders from across B.C. signed a declaration promising to halt the proposed Enbridge and KinderMorgan pipelines.

However, Janet Holder, the Enbridge executive in charge of Northern Gateway, said "a number" of other supportive agreements have already been signed.

"Based upon our current negotiations we do believe that we have support from the majority of our First Nations along our right of way," she said.

Due to confidentiality, Holder declined to say how many of the 50 groups with which Enbridge is negotiating have signed on. The company is offering up a 10 per cent stake to those groups in total.

"It is up to the First Nations to come forward if they want to go public. It's not our right," she said.