By GORDON HOEKSTRA, VANCOUVER SUN
VANCOUVER - B.C. First Nations dismissed the appointment by Enbridge of former Conservative Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice to attempt to renew talks on the Northern Gateway pipeline project.
First Nations along the proposed $6.5-billion pipeline said on Wednesday that Enbridge is wasting its time trying to negotiate support for the project at this point in time.
The project has faced stiff opposition from B.C. First Nations, who have stated that the risk and consequence of a spill on land or in the ocean outweighs any economic benefits.
Several First Nations launched legal challenges after the project received approval before Christmas from a National Energy Board-led environmental assessment. The federal government has 180 days, until about June, to make a final decision on the project, which is meant to open new markets in Asia for bitumen from the Albert oilsands.
Yinka Dene Alliance coordinator Geraldine Thomas-Fleurer said Prentice’s appointment will not change their opposition.
She said she views Prentice as too cosy with the government he used to serve.
“It’s very, very incestuous,” said Thomas-Fleurer. “Our people are still very, very adamant that Enbridge is not the project they want to go through our traditional territories. They can’t gamble the safety of water and fish species.”
The Yinka Dene Alliance represents six First Nations in north-central B.C. whose traditional territory covers about 25 per cent of the pipeline route.
Lake Babine Nation chief Wilf Adam said the project remains a non-starter, regardless of Prentice’s involvement.
“It’s the wrong pipeline, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. We are not changing our minds,” said Adam, whose First Nation is not part of the Yinka Dene Alliance.
He said it is simply too late for Prentice’s involvement, a person of whose stature should have been involved with First Nations from the start of the project a decade ago.
Adam said Enbridge’s entire approach — he learned of Prentice’s appointment through Twitter and not directly from the company — is a lesson in how not to properly consult First Nations.
Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt said he was surprised that Prentice, who has his respect, would take on the job given that First Nations in B.C. have already rejected the pipeline.
“This project is on its last legs. Is he trying to rescue it with some mouth-to-mouth? It’s just not going to work,” said Sterritt, who allowed he would be willing to sit down with Prentice.
Coastal First Nations say there would need to be a huge improvement in the ability to clean up oil from the ocean. No one is addressing that issue, which would take years to resolve, they say.
For industry or government to have any chance of dealing with First Nation on these types of projects, the federal government also needs to implement the recommendations of its special envoy, Douglas Eyford, from his report released before Christmas, said Sterritt.
Eyford bluntly concluded there had been no constructive dialogue between First Nations and the federal government on pipelines. He suggested creating a Crown-First Nations-corporate “tripartite energy working group” as a forum for open dialogue on energy projects.
In an interview, Prentice said he fully understood there is a lot of “heavy lifting” to be done with First Nations in building relationships, economic partnerships and addressing environmental concerns.
“From my perspective, it’s never too late to talk to people. It’s never too late to sit down and listen. And it’s never too late to make changes to a project,” he said.
Prentice said his first call after accepting the position was to Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He said he will be meeting directly with other First Nations leaders.
Prentice said he has no deadline, but added he believes he will get a sense of what he is up against reasonably quickly.
Prentice said he was first asked to help by the companies that want to ship oil on the pipeline, which includes Suncor, Nexen, Total and Cenovus.
He will take on his new role for Enbridge, for which he is not being paid, while remaining senior executive vice-president and vice-chairman of CIBC. The bank made him available because it stated it “believes in the importance of this project to both First Nations and to Canada.”
Prentice was Indian Affairs minister in 2006 when treaties were signed in B.C. and the residential schools settlement was reached.
Enbridge senior officials were not available for an interview on Wednesday.
Following the completion of a successful environmental assessment, Enbridge CEO Al Monaco said the company would reach out to First Nations. “We believe Jim Prentice is uniquely suited to help us fulfil that promise,” Monaco said in a statement Wednesday.