CALGARY - The former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says attitudes are shifting amongst aboriginal people when it comes to resource development.
Phil Fontaine told an energy and environment roundtable in Calgary on Friday that he's optimistic industry and First Nations can work together, though the acrimony surrounding high-profile projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline proposed by Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB) may suggest otherwise.
Fontaine said it was once unheard-of for an aboriginal community to go into business with a mining or oil and gas company. But now, resource companies and First Nations frequently discuss equity stakes or joint venture deals.
"We've come to learn and appreciate that the relationship with the government is not the only relationship that's going to be important to our future and that the private sector is a viable option," he said.
"We shouldn't fear a relationship with the private sector. We have to develop a degree of trust that ensures that we can do good business together."
Fontaine has been hired by TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP) to help win support the proposed Energy East pipeline proposal, which would carry Alberta crude as far east as Saint John, N.B.
Some 185 aboriginal communities along the route are "anxious to see what is in the cards for them," Fontaine said.
There are more than 600 major resource projects worth $650-billion planned in Western Canada over the next decade that affect at least one First Nations community, according to a report by the Fraser Institute published last fall.
Fontaine said there's not doubt that industry will "have to engage with our people in a different way and that means that both of us have to learn about each other."
While Fontaine is pleased industry players are doing a better job engaging with First Nations than they did in the past, he warned the road ahead won't always be smooth.
He said that "all peoples have the right not only to say yes, they also have the right to say no. It's incumbent upon industry to know and understand that and to respect that right."
"I'm optimistic and I'm very encouraged by what I've seen, what I've witnessed. I'm especially encouraged by what I sense is a willingness on the part of industry and resource companies to be different, positively different."
Earlier this week, Ottawa gave the conditional green light to the Northern Gateway oil pipeline through B.C., which several First Nations in that province have vowed to fight in court. One of the conditions of the approval is more consultation with First Nations communities.
Enbridge says it has signed agreements with 26 aboriginal communities along the route, accounting for about 60 per cent of the affected population, but that has a lot of work to do to get the rest on side.