The former Harper cabinet minister has a deep understanding of B.C. First Nation issues around pipelines, they say
By Peter O'Neil, Vancouver Sun
OTTAWA — The prospect of Jim Prentice becoming Alberta premier is good news for B.C. First Nations opposed to Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline project, aboriginal leaders said Wednesday.
Prentice, a Bay Street banker and former federal minister of the environment and aboriginal affairs, is expected to announce that he will seek to replace Alison Redford as Progressive Conservative leader, and premier.
Prentice’s sensitivity to environmental concerns — in 2010 he bluntly nixed a Vancouver mining company’s plan to turn Fish Lake into a mine tailings dump over the objections of First Nations near Williams Lake — has won admirers on the West Coast.
More recently he has acted as an envoy for Enbridge, dangling greater riches — including possible ownership of the proposed Kitimat terminal and even the pipeline — if aboriginal leaders would consider supporting the $7.9 billion oilsands pipeline to Kitimat. By all accounts he received a cool reception.
Those aboriginal leaders said Wednesday that for the first time in history Alberta could have a premier who deeply understands B.C. environmental concerns, and accepts that First Nations can’t be bought.
“I think there’s always been the idea in Alberta that if enough revenue came to B.C., they could get First Nations to buy in,” said Art Sterritt, spokesman for the Coastal First Nations coalition of nine First Nations along the north-central B.C. coast. “That’s not true, and that’s been a hard thing to get across to them.”
With Prentice as premier, Alberta political and oilpatch leaders are more likely to get a better understanding of the depth of the opposition and realize Northern Gateway is a “futile” endeavour, he said.
Prentice was asked earlier this year by Enbridge to help turn around lack of B.C. First Nation support for Northern Gateway. Prentice has been pro-pipeline position, but also has warned publicly that First Nations will never embrace West Coast pipelines until they obtain “meaningful economic partnerships.”
But Sterritt and other leaders told him last month that a greater ownership stake wouldn’t trump concerns about spill risks.
Sterritt said B.C. aboriginal leaders approached Prentice shortly after he left Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet in 2011, hoping he could privately convince Harper that Northern Gateway is a non-starter.
At the time the project’s critics were contending with Joe Oliver, then Harper’s natural resources minister, who was alleging that pipeline opponents were radicals and even “enemies of Canada,” noted Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
Phillip said Prentice is respected in B.C. First Nation circles.
“I think he has a more in-depth understanding of British Columbia as it pertains to indigenous land rights,” Phillip said. “He’s taken the time to be better informed, and he understands the intensity of the feelings here.”
Enbridge, which is awaiting the federal government decision on the project that’s expected in June, said in a statement that the company is “pleased with the progress Jim Prentice has made in engaging with aboriginal leaders and starting a dialogue with First Nations.”
As for reports this week that Prentice is poised to enter the leadership race, spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht said: “We respect that he needs to make his own decisions about his future.”