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North Gateway reportedly offering bigger stake to First Nations

But aboriginal leader says support of Coastal First Nations is not for sale

By Peter O'Neil, Vancouver Sun

OTTAWA — Backers of the $7.9-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, keen to improve aboriginal support, are dangling the possibility of a much bigger native ownership stake, according to a B.C. First Nations leader.

The overture comes from former Conservative cabinet minister Jim Prentice, who last month accepted a lead role in trying to win over critics, said Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, a lobby group that represents several aboriginal groups on the north coast.

The move comes more than two years after Enbridge boasted that 60 per cent of “aboriginal groups” along the pipeline route had accepted an offer to take an equity stake in the pipeline.

Enbridge has a general policy of not identifying its backers or making public how many are from B.C.

But testimony last year from a senior executive showed that just 11 of 27 B.C. groups representing people within 80 kilometres of the route accepted equity offers.

One of those groups is the Abbotsford-based Metis Provincial Council of B.C., a debt-plagued organization that was criticized by Metis organizations based closer to the route for backing Enbridge.

More than 130 B.C. First Nations, including the majority not eligible for equity deals, have signed the anti-pipeline Save the Fraser Declaration.

Prentice is working with Enbridge and the project’s financiers, the Northern Gateway Pipeline Limited Partnership, to build support for the 1,177-kilometre pipeline that would link the Alberta oilsands to Pacific markets through a port in Kitimat.

Prentice, who attended several meetings with B.C. and Alberta First Nation leaders this month, sent signals that the pipeline backers are prepared to expand on a previous offer to let aboriginal groups own up to 10 per cent of the project, Sterritt said.

“They’re not talking about (a minority equity stake), they’re talking about ownership,” Sterritt told The Vancouver Sun. “He basically takes the position that First Nations should own this.”

Jason Hatcher, a spokesman for Prentice, refused to divulge details of the talks. But he said Prentice has not proposed a new equity proposal beyond the offer of up to a 10-per-cent stake, valued at $280 million over 30 years, that’s been on the table for years and was rejected by most B.C. First Nations.

Hatcher said Prentice, who has been critical of Enbridge’s handling of the aboriginal file in the past, has long believed that First Nations must have a greater stake in pipeline projects.

Prentice, executive vice-president and vice-chairman at CIBC, declared in a February speech that there “will be no oil pipelines to the West Coast … without meaningful economic partnerships with First Nations.”

Prentice, who held the Industry, Aboriginal Affairs and Environment portfolios while serving in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, made that same point more strongly in a news release last month from Enbridge announcing his appointment.

“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.”

Hatcher said Prentice has “been very, very consistent in his positions, and obviously the release stands for itself.”

Hatcher refused to comment on Sterritt’s assertions.

“Jim committed to a respectful dialogue with First Nations and aboriginal leaders and any positions that he takes he’s going to communicate directly with them, and that dialogue can’t occur effectively through the media. It wouldn’t be respectful to do that.

Sterritt, one of the project’s strongest opponents, said he’s told Prentice in two meetings this month that a sweeter financial deal won’t sway the leaders his group represents.

“I let it be known Coastal First Nations was not for sale, and neither was anybody else. Unless they can deal with the environmental risks there really is no conversation.”

The Harper government, an outspoken proponent of getting Alberta’s oilsands to Asian markets, is to rule by June on whether the project can proceed. A federal review panel gave Northern Gateway a thumbs-up in December, saying the project could go ahead provided it met 209 conditions.

But the federal government and the pipeline’s proponents face the sticky issue of constructing a massive, and potentially risky, industrial project through B.C. territory claimed by a number of First Nations.

The Supreme Court of Canada has set a strict test requiring governments to consult and accommodate First Nations before proceeding, and critics like University of B.C. political scientist George Hoberg argue that the test hasn’t been met.

“How does authorizing a bitumen pipeline accommodate the concerns of the many First Nations along the route who adamantly oppose the pipeline?”

Enbridge testimony in 2013 before the federal panel revealed that the 60 per cent First Nations approval mark that the company boasted about a year earlier was reached due to huge support from Alberta, where 15 of 18 groups signed the pact. In B.C. only 11 of 27 B.C. organizations accepted the equity package, senior executive Janet Holder told the panel in 2013.

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