BY STEPHEN EWART, CALGARY HERALD
Suddenly - but with seemingly decades of warning - longstanding disputes and outstanding land claims with First Nations are at the forefront of the challenges to energy development in Canada.
From the recent armed standoffin New Brunswick, the court case in Alberta against fracking, or protests over pipelines in Ontario and British Columbia and even pushback over unchecked oilsands growth by bands that have prospered greatly from that development, First Nations are now exerting unprecedented influence on the energy sector. By continually putting offresolution of complex aboriginal issues, the federal government has provided First Nations with valuable leverage in those disputes since many of the oil and gas developments Ottawa has championed are found in, or pass through, aboriginal lands.
It's hard to understate the scope of the challenge after the Fraser Institute last month reported "there is not a single oil or gas project under proposal in Western Canada that does not affect at least one First Nations community."
It's also not a surprise. Everyone knew this was coming. As the traditional oil and gas basins across Canada have matured, the industry has steadily migrated to more northern, rural and remote locations. Those new basins are generally in the same places that are home to the 630 First Nations across Canada.
The dynamics of the conflict are likely to become more prominent after an application by Kinder Morgan Canada was filed Monday to twin its Trans Mountain oil pipeline through Alberta and B.C. A ruling is also expected this week from the same regulators on Enbridge's controversial Northern Gateway crude oil pipeline across the same provinces.
They are among 600 resource projects valued at $650 billion planned in the next decade that the Fraser Institute said face major hurdles with First Nations. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has repeatedly warned that Canada needs to move quickly on these projects to take advantage of lucrative energy markets in Asia, or that window will close.
Debate over energy policy, industry and community isn't exclusive to First Nations but the Fraser report noted they have more capacity to disrupt development.
Oilsands pipelines were an impetus for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to appoint Vancouver lawyer Doug Eyford to gauge the state of relations between industry and First Nations as momentum grows for exports off the West Coast later this decade.
"Canada and aboriginal communities are at a critical juncture in their relationship," Eyford said in his report.
"This won't be an easy process."
A separate blue-ribbon panel of academic, business, political and aboriginal leaders issued a report last week warning "energy resource development gridlock" looms.
It said the situation is mired in conflict and may compromise Canada's ability to fully enjoy the economic and social benefits from its energy resources.
"We sense a growing frustration with this situation among industry, Aboriginal peoples,
the environmental community and Canadians at large," said The Charrette on Energy, Environment and Aboriginal Issues.
The panel did not need to look far to find frustration.
One of its members is Chief Jim Boucher of the Fort McKay First Nation.
The community, 75 kilometres north Fort McMurray, has struggled to find the balance between economic prosperity that has accompanied development and the traditional aspects of the community's life under threat from the more than 100 oilsands projects.
The band is before the Alberta Court of Appeal to fight Brion Energy's Dover oilsands project and establish a 20-kilometre buffer for its traditional lands.
In the absence of settled land claims, courts in Canada have said First Nations have constitutional rights to traditional lands.
Beaver Lake Cree First Nation is also using the courts to argue against the cumulative effects of oilsands development and the Lubicon Lake Nation is in an Alberta court to fight against a fracking program Penn West Petroleum is conducting on its traditional lands.
The tensions between aboriginal communities and petroleum producers around fracking boiled over this fall in rural New Brunswick when armed RCMP officers were called in to bring an end to a standoffat the Elsipogtog First Nation.
In line with Harper's goal of making Canada an "energy superpower," the oil and gas industry is typically portrayed as a path from poverty to prosperity for First Nations.
Unemployment is virtually nonexistent in Fort McKay, for example, while the Fraser Institute put the rate on reserves nationally at about 23 per cent.
The oil and gas sector has made aboriginal relations a priority for years but the Fraser report pointed out that "despite the potential for economic prosperity, there are many First Nations' communities that are opposed to resource development."
The scale of the challenge ahead is immense. What needs to be overcome is decades of inertia - on both sides.
The propensity for an object that is in motion - in this case, oil and gas development - to stay in motion is just as pronounced as the tendency for an object at rest - settlement of First Nations' land claims - to remain at rest.
In his report, Eyford said Canada needs to do more to build those relations and urged Ottawa to take the lead in stalled talks with aboriginal groups.
Of course, that will mean finding a way to overcome physics, and history.