Prime Minister Stephen Harper has appointed key ministers and staff to meet with First Nations leaders this week in the hopes of reviving discussions around the controversial Enbridge pipeline.
Harper’s intention is to make progress on proposals to connect Alberta’s oilsands with ports in British Columbia and the lucrative Asian markets beyond.
The new initiative is in large part a response to a report from the prime minister’s special pipelines representative in B.C., Douglas Eyford. Eyford, a Vancouver-based lawyer, told Harper last month that negotiations with First Nations, especially on Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway, are a mess.
It seems clear that the federal government is hopeful that Eyford will help smooth things over and open communication with B.C. aboriginal groups.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver is one of the Harper ministers who will be spending more time in B.C. over the next few weeks.
“The goal is clear. Douglas Eyford will help identify opportunities to facilitate greater participation by Aboriginal peoples in resource development while at the same time identifying ways in which Aboriginal peoples can play a greater role in strengthening environmental protection,” said Oliver. “Our Government believes that, by working together with Aboriginal peoples, provinces and industry, all Canadians can share in the jobs and prosperity that await us if we act now for the good of Canada.”
Eyford’s report to the prime minister, and his final report in November, will not be made public.
Federal officials say they aren’t there to make specific offers, but to engage groups directly affected by the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, B.C.
Ottawa is also increasing its efforts to appease the B.C. premier. Christy Clark set out five conditions to approve the controversial Northern Gateway project, including improved methods to prevent and clean up spills and a bigger share of revenues for the province.
Ottawa already responded to some of these demands, for example, announcing new regulations last spring to improve the safety of oil tankers, oil-handling terminals, raising the corporate liability for offshore spills to $1 billion and imposing a new set of fines of up to $100,000 for safety breaches that, if unaddressed, could lead to more serious problems.
But dealing with the concerns of First Nations bands remains the biggest challenge. Coastal First Nations Art Sterritt reinforces this viewpoint. “This is our opportunity to let a group of deputy ministers know directly that Northern Gateway is a dead project.”
Federal officials acknowledge that Enbridge did a poor job in dealing with bands along the proposed Gateway route. Media reports suggest the company now faces a nearly impossible task to earn local support.
Sterritt says no amount of government meetings will change their position on the pipeline. “It’s in the wrong place. It’s trying to do the wrong thing. And it’s not going to happen. And they’re going to learn that. They’re going to learn that in spades by coming out and talking to First Nations in British Columbia.”
Coastal First Nations has launched a campaign against the proposed project today, featuring graphic oil spill imagery, and singling out Prime Minister Stephen Harper as the key federal government decision-maker on whether or not oil tankers will ‘ply BC’s pristine coastal waters.’
Polls suggest between sixty and eighty percent of B.C. residents oppose the project, and Sterritt is counting on their support. “British Columbians have been very clear in their opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and oil tankers in our coastal waters,” said Sterritt. “All eyes are now on Mr. Harper. We hope that he will respect the wishes of British Columbians and say no to the proposed project.”
In the meantime, Enbridge has come under fire for conducting fieldwork along the proposed pipeline route before the project has been given approval. When questioned about its activities, company spokesperson Ivan Giesbrecht explained that this is a normal process for any large project.
“We’re optimistic the project will be approved, we believe it’s the right thing for Canada,” said Giesbrecht. “And we’re on a timeline we’d like to keep, and while the weather is still good we want to collect as much data as possible.”
The federal government is expected announce a decision on the project by December 2013.