VANCOUVER - The federal government must build trust with First Nations communities and address issues outside of billion-dollar projects if they hope to forge ahead with energy developments, says a report from Ottawa's special envoy dispatched to help resolve an impasse over major oil and gas developments in the West.
Doug Eyford was appointed in March, in the midst of tense federal review hearings for Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia. With a federal review panel report expected within the coming weeks — if not days — the report released Thursday was blunt.
"There has not been a constructive dialogue about energy projects," Eyford wrote.
The report highlighted the economic opportunities and hurdles for aboriginal communities in energy development in oil and gas.
Most aboriginal leaders understand the value and opportunities presented by energy development, the report said, but they want that development to be environmentally sustainable and to acknowledge aboriginal rights.
The report makes four overarching recommendations: build trust, foster inclusion, advance reconciliation and take action.
"We are all presented with a choice: to maintain the status quo or embrace the opportunities and potential offered by a different path," the report said.
Government should engage and consult with First Nations outside of project-specific reviews, which in the case of Northern Gateway became very adversarial, Eyford said.
"It goes without saying that if governments expect to engage with First Nations communities on matters in their areas of interest, for instance LNG plants or natural gas pipelines, they have to be prepared to address the interests of First Nations communities," he said. "Those conversations can't be had in isolation."
Eyford says the report is a "useful starting point," though just what is will change is unclear.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver thanked Eyford for his work on the report but did not commit to any of the recommendations. The report, which was handed over to the government last Thursday, will need to be reviewed in depth, he said.
"Our commitment to the environment is clear. So, too, is our obligation to create opportunity and prosperity for First Nations," Oliver said,
He reiterated the economic importance of such developments to the entire country but the report is likely too little, too late for Northern Gateway.
Minutes after Oliver finished speaking, a coalition of First Nations opponents of the pipeline announced new allies.
The Yinka Dene Alliance said its Save the Fraser declaration against the project now has more than 130 First Nations and the alliance announced support from Unifor, the largest private sector union in Canada, the B.C. Teachers's Federation, the mayor and council of Fort St. James, B.C., and the David Suzuki Foundation, among others.
"One of the greatest challenges we are faced with the today is the challenge of responsible resource development," Fort St. James Mayor Rob MacDougall said in a video statement from the sunny shore of Stewart Lake in northern B.C.
"We believe we are on the cusp of great change in the resource economy of British Columbia, and that we have a duty to ensure that these developments do not pose irreversible threats to the land, our ways of life and the natural world that so graciously supports us."
There are at least 600 major resource projects worth an estimated $650 billion planned in Western Canada over the next decade.
Kinder Morgan is expected to formally file an application this month for a $4-billion expansion of its existing Trans Mountain pipeline through the B.C. and Premier Christy Clark is touting a trillion-dollar liquefied natural gas industry.
The stakes are high, Eyford said.
"I think it's a risk not just to the companies but to Canadians as whole. These projects obviously will have a significant impact on the Canadian economy, and if they don't go ahead I think it's something that's going to impact all Canadians," Eyford said.
The Haida Nation was cited as an example of a working reconciliation process. The Haida have brokered several deals but even the president of the Council of the Haida Nation, Peter Lantin, said the path ahead is not a clear one.
"He's presented in a very blunt way that relations with First Nations are broken. There's a lot of work to do," Lantin said after reviewing Eyford's report.
"Building trust, it sounds very philosophical and intangible, but it really is the root of the problem here is the lack of trust. First Nations communities don't trust government when it comes to looking out for their best interests."
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