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Enbridge taps Jim Prentice to rescue Northern Gateway First Nations talks

Announcement met with a high degree of skepticism by Coastal First Nations in B.C.

By Susana Mas, CBC News

Enbridge has tapped former Conservative cabinet minister Jim Prentice as its point man to resuscitate stalled talks with First Nations in B.C. and Alberta over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, as the company works to meet hundreds of conditions set out by the National Energy Board.

"I am doing this because I believe that First Nations should be full partners in resource development and they should be owners of projects like the Northern Gateway," Prentice said in a statement Wednesday.

"This project can bring jobs, economic opportunity, community development and educational opportunities to First Nation Canadians. This can be achieved while protecting the environment and respecting First Nations' environmental priorities," Prentice said in the written statement.

The federal government is expected to decide before the end of June whether to approve or reject the proposed pipeline.

A report of a joint review panel recommended in December that the government approve the project subject to 209 conditions.

For Enbridge, the positive report was one step in the process to getting the pipeline approved.

"We made it our first priority to reach out in a respectful way to aboriginal communities … to further build trust," said Al Monaco, president and CEO of Enbridge Inc., in the statement.

"We believe Jim Prentice is uniquely suited to fulfil that promise."

Prentice served as minister for Indian and northern affairs as well as environment minister under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He negotiated residential school settlement agreements, and as a lawyer negotiated land claim settlements.

'Too little, too late'

If the initial reaction by one of the pipeline's most ardent opponents is any indication of the difficult work ahead, Prentice will have to draw from his 30 years of experience working with First Nations to hit the reset button on these talks.

Art Sterritt, the executive director of Coastal First Nations in B.C., met the announcement with a high-degree of skepticism, telling CBC News on Wednesday that enlisting Prentice to renew efforts to consult First Nations is "too little, too late."

"Unless he [Prentice] can show up with some new technology or a process to assure First Nations that pipelines are safe, that there is a way to clean up the mess when it happens, then there is really no sense in entering into this conversation," Sterritt said.

But Prentice is determined to see this through, telling CBC News in an interview on Wednesday "it is never too late to sit down and hear what people have to say, to hear what their concerns are and find ways to address them."

"I will sit at the table as long as I need to sit at the table to see that through."

Prentice said his first phone call was to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo. He said he has since followed up with a number of calls to other First Nations chiefs.

Prentice has made the point that big projects, such as the Northern Gateway pipeline, are dead in the water without real efforts to involve First Nations.

"There will be no oil pipelines to the West Coast without economic partnerships with First Nations," Prentice said during a speech to the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa last week.

Prentice works as senior executive vice-president and vice-chairman of CIBC. A spokesperson for Prentice told CBC News he will receive "no additional compensation" for taking on this new role.

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