PRINCE RUPERT, B.C. - The federal government will set up a major projects management office in British Columbia to try to woo West Coast First Nations for the myriad of energy projects proposed in the province.
Tuesday's announcement was the third in as many weeks from the federal government as it prepares to make a decision on the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline proposal through B.C.
Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford said Ottawa will also establish a forum with the provincial government and First Nations to work toward aboriginal participation in energy developments.
"This is an important time and it's an important opportunity for Canada and its natural resource sector, a time that potentially means hundreds of thousands of jobs for Canadian families, jobs in every sector of our economy and every corner of our country," Rickford said in Prince Rupert, on the north coast.
He said energy developments proposed in B.C. could generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in tax revenues throughout Canada.
"There's no denying there's a lot at stake here."
Though Rickford said the measures are not related to any specific project, opponents of the Northern Gateway said the minister is clearly paving the way for approval.
Over the past few weeks, Ottawa has also announced improvements to marine and pipeline safety.
"It's all lining up for approval," said Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, which represents nine bands along the proposed Northern Gateway tanker route.
"If they were going to reject it, they wouldn't waste so bloody much time on process here. They wouldn't be opening new offices in B.C. for the sake of a project that wasn't going ahead. They wouldn't be announcing world-class cleanup for oil if there was no oil."
The two measures were among the recommendations last fall by Douglas Eyford, appointed by the federal government to consult First Nations as the Northern Gateway proposal foundered.
Indeed, Sterritt said the major projects office — which will be located in Vancouver — and the forum are good ideas that go beyond the northern pipeline proposed by Calgary-based Enbridge (TSX:ENB) and the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain line to Metro Vancouver.
"But they're going to have to get in the room and do some hard work," said Sterritt. "It hasn't been done well, the interaction with First Nations."
Prior to the start of federal review hearings for the $6.5-billion pipeline, internal government memos obtained by The Canadian Press contained statements about the federal government being adamant in not consulting First Nations outside of that review process.
In the face of protests, petitions and lawsuits by B.C. aboriginal groups that have the potential to derail $650 billion in oil and gas developments, that has changed.
Rickford inherited a quagmire when he took the helm of Natural Resources in March. He has taken a much more conciliatory approach than his predecessor, Joe Oliver, who began the Northern Gateway debate by branding opponents as radicals funded by foreign special interests.
He was joined Tuesday by B.C. Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad, who welcomed the measures, as well as Mayor Garry Reece of the Lax Kw'alaams and Chief Harold Leighton of the Metlakatla, both members of Coastal First Nations.
Reece called the forum and the office a "stepping stone" toward co-operation on energy developments — but not all of them.
"My people have stood up against oil. They don't support that," he said. "They're not satisfied with the information that there's going to be protection and to this day they haven't changed from that.
"We don't support that right now."
Rickford was not dissuaded.
"I think the key phrase is 'right now.' This is a confidence- and trust-building exercise."
- By Dene Moore in Vancouver. Follow @ByDeneMoore on Twitter.
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