The warnings, from both First Nations and industry leaders, came as regulators are expected to rule within weeks on a the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline proposal by Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB)
Miles Richardson, former president of the Haida Nation in northwestern British Columbia, said aboriginal right and title must be recognized.
"Canada needs to build a constructive relationship with the Pacific Rim. Canada needs markets for our energy and abundant resources around the Pacific Rim. We're all a part of that," said Richardson, who was also chief commissioner of the B.C. Treaty Commission.
"And if you move goods ... from the east of Canada over to the Pacific Rim, who's there? In B.C., the First Nations are there and I want you all to understand that the situation of First Nations in B.C. is unique in this country. The situation of First Nations in B.C. is unique for one reason — we have never concluded treaties."
Richardson told the audience populated with prominent corporate leaders: "You need to, as a business community, push the federal Crown."
A joint review panel decision on Northern Gateway, which would ship 525,000 barrels of oilsands crude per day to the northern B.C. port city of Kitimat, B.C., is expected by year-end.
Proponents of the project say Northern Gateway would be a crucial link to Asian countries hungry for Canadian energy, diversifying markets and providing a big economic boost for the country.
But environmental groups, several First Nations communities and other opponents say those benefits are far outweighed by the risk of a spill from the pipeline itself or from supertankers traversing inhospitable coastal waters.
Enbridge CEO Al Monaco said his company has a "ways to go" toward building more support that goes beyond winning regulatory approval, adding that about 26 agreements have been signed with First Nations communities.
"What I do is look at things that we can control and certainly having a very thorough application, making sure we're speaking to people in the community, making the project the safest it can be and making sure we're looking after the environment — those are the things that we can do," Monaco told reporters.
"Obviously there are some broader issues with First Nations rights and title that the government is looking after."
Ian Anderson, who heads up the Canadian division of U.S. pipeline giant Kinder Morgan, said First Nations issues need to be addressed.
His company is planning to nearly triple the size of its Trans Mountain oil pipeline between Alberta and the B.C. Lower Mainland, also with an eye to expanding Canada's oil export reach to Asian markets.
"Facing up to our situation . . . is mission critical. It's not someone else's problem to solve. It's our issue to resolve — all of us," he said.
"Governments, industry average citizens, members of the public — we all have to recognize that there is work to be done to advance the ball down the field, one step at a time, but in a very committed way," Anderson added.
"We've got to listen. We've got to learn. We've got to help create economic certainty for industry for our country, but only through hard work with our First Nations communities to make them partners in what we're trying to accomplish."
Douglas Bloom, president of Canadian LNG at Spectra Energy, said First Nations "discontent" gets noticed on the world stage. For companies looking to build multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas facilities on the B.C. coast, that's a concern.
"First Nations issues in Canada are important, complex and not likely to be solved in the short run," said Bloom. "But it's during that short run that we must convince customers and investors that these projects can be done, and to do this we must ensure that First Nations benefit economically from these developments."
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