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First Nations, gov't summit gains newfound urgency

Vaughn PALMER / Prince George Citizen

Invitations went out this week for an unprecedented "all-chiefs gathering," aimed at shoring up the relationship between the B.C. Liberal government and the 200 First Nations in the province.

"On behalf of the Honourable Christy Clark, premier of B.C., in partnership with the First Nations Leadership Council we kindly ask that you hold Sept. 11 (open) for the all-chiefs gathering," said the framed official notification bearing the logos of the province and three organizations representing aboriginal people.

"A meeting of First Nations from across B.C. and provincial cabinet ministers," it continued. "The gathering will allow direct discussion among key decision makers as we work together in strengthening the relationship between B.C. and First Nations."

Day-long session to be held at the venerable Hotel Vancouver in downtown Vancouver. Agenda and other details to follow, subject to the input of participants on both sides.

The summit has been in the works for months. But it gained new-found urgency in late June with the landmark recognition of aboriginal title by the Supreme Court of Canada, widely seen as a game-changer for the economy, resource development and land use.

"Obviously, that plays into how we build our relationship going forward," confirmed John Rustad, minister for aboriginal relations and reconciliation.

Rustad spoke Friday after a bumpy meeting the previous day between senior government officials and the leadership council, an umbrella group for the three main organizations representing aboriginal people in B.C.

Council members, drawn from the First Nations Summit, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, reportedly vented concerns about the lagging pace of "engagement" by the province on a range of issues.

The government has its own concerns about relations with First Nations, on the economy in general and the drive to develop an industry based on the export of natural gas in liquefied form in particular.

First Nations cooperation is critical on the LNG file, given the narrow window of opportunity for securing the necessary billions of dollars of investment in an increasingly competitive global energy market.

Premier Clark has been stepping up the attention she pays to First Nations issues, as evidenced by the recent hiring of Musqueam leader Wade Grant as her special adviser on First Nations issues at $80,000 a year.

The all-chiefs rubric for the coming summit builds on the theme of a "chief-to-chief" meeting that Clark held on May 1 with Chief Sharleen Gale of the Fort Nelson First Nation.

The session was prompted by a bureaucratic blunder where the government exempted natural gas development from proper environmental review without bothering to consult the affected First Nations beforehand.

On learning of the order on the eve of a native-organized forum on the LNG industry, Chief Gale fired back by expelling provincial officials -- including cabinet ministers Rustad and Rich Coleman -- from the forum, then announcing a moratorium on further natural gas development within the band's traditional territory.

The Liberals immediately rescinded the offending order, insisting it was a mistake. Still, Chief Gale said the show of disrespect to her people would be placated by nothing less than a face-to-face meeting with the premier. Clark obliged by reworking her schedule on the eve of a seven-day trade mission to Asia.

"I wanted to sit down chief-to-chief with Sharleen Gale and really find a way through that," Clark told The Canadian Press in a recent interview. "She heads up a nation of about 900 people, and I represent a province of about 4.5 million people, but nonetheless, those chief-to-chief meetings are important, and if we are going to get there on LNG and include First Nations in that and make sure First Nations benefit, it requires an attention to detail that perhaps we haven't had before."

Clark was back in the northeast on June 20 for another makeup session on the natural gas file, following on a long-standing invitation from the five First Nations in the Treaty 8 Tribal Association.

"What we talked about was resetting our government-to-government relationship, finding a way for us to sit down together and work through all the cumulative impacts -- the environmental impacts, the water impacts, the potential job impacts for different First Nations -- to do them all at one table," Clark told reporter Jonny Wakefield of the Alaska Highway News after the 90-minute face-to-face with tribal association leaders in Fort St. John.

But she also seized the moment to underscore the urgency of getting going on developing natural gas for export, given dwindling markets for the B.C. product in North America.

"One of the things we need to come to grips with is that we either need to export this resource and grow the industry, or we are going to see this industry shrink, along with the number of jobs and opportunities in the northeast," she told the reporter. "The price [of natural gas] is not high enough in North America to sustain the jobs that are here today."

All part of the backdrop for the all-chiefs gathering in early September. And given the central importance of First Nations on the economic file, there won't be a more high-stakes session in the current term of the B.C. Liberal government.

Whatever Trevor

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