Different approach to overcoming aboriginal opposition

The federal government has made new commitments to help secure First Nations support for big energy projects in BC


Canada’s most important energy projects involve moving bitumen and natural gas across BC to the Pacific coast, but their success is threatened by opposition from aboriginal groups along the various pipeline and tanker routes.

While it’s not yet clear exactly how the feds will follow up on the new commitments, they are promising an approach that’s significantly different from how things were done before. And if it has its intended effect, the odds of projects like Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain being built will improve. 


In at the ground floor

It’s clear that these federal moves are largely motivated by a desire to build energy infrastructure across BC. This week’s announcements closely follow the recommendations of the November 2013 report by Douglas Eyford, the federally appointed special representative on West Coast energy infrastructure.

In that report, Eyford brings up a number of reasons why the federal approach to consulting with First Nations has jeopardized the future of major energy projects. He emphasizes that the federal government has largely relied on private industry to consult with First Nations, only getting involved directly when the regulatory processes begins, which can be years after engagement starts. Eyford recommends the Canadian government reach out much earlier to ensure proper levels of Aboriginal engagement – something the courts have clearly stated is not optional.

Unfortunately for the proponents of ongoing projects, it’s too late for the federal government to get involved early. Still, the federal government seems to want to make up for lost time. In May, the feds announced the creation of a centralized Major Projects Management office in Vancouver, and in this week’s announcement the government commits to conducting more consultation with Aboriginal groups in key policy areas, such as resource development.


One step at a time

Another critique brought up by Eyford is the Canadian government’s focus on reaching final treaty agreements. Unlike much of the rest of Canada, BC lacks historic treaties with First Nations, which explains much of the uncertainty that exists here between industry and aboriginal communities. The BC government has made a considerable effort since 1993 to sign more treaties, but this has proven to be tremendously difficult, with just four treaties signed (and another 50 in negotiation). 

The federal government has now announced it will no longer focus exclusively on completing treaties but will begin trying to reach interim agreements, hopefully ones that will incrementally build toward treaties over time. This is a practice BC has been pursuing with notable success for years, and it’s another of Eyford’s recommendations.


Clarifying who’s expected to do what

One of the most important findings of the Eyford report was that the federal government was relying too much on industry to engage with Aboriginal communities. There are several reasons why industry can’t do the whole job: there are some issues industry simply can’t resolve, some proponents are more skilled at engagement than others, and the role industry is expected to play has not been adequately explained.

The federal government is apparently working to address these concerns with a commitment to update the consultation guidelines for its official and, for the first time, also producing guidelines for industry. 


Dealing with issues only Canada can handle

Finally, the federal government says it will tackle a number of issues that only it can, which may remove some of the most contentious roadblocks inhibiting industry and provincial government negotiations.

One such issue is fishing rights. The Canadian government had refused to negotiate fishing rights with First Nations since 2009, pending the release of the 2012 Cohen report on declining sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. To say that this has complicated provincial negotiations is a profound understatement. The federal government announced this week that they will resume negotiating fishing rights.

The feds also announced that they will re-examine a controversial funding rule whereby Aboriginal communities that are able to bring in their own revenues lose federal funding for education, health and social services.

Thirdly, the Canadian government promised to clarify its approach for resolving shared territory disputes between Aboriginal groups, a common conflict industry is not equipped to address.


Big-picture reforms

In addition to these changes, the Canadian government also announced that it will “renew and reform” its overall treaty-making policy: the Comprehensive Land Claims Policy, which has not been updated since 1986. And leading this mission will be none other than Douglas Eyford.

If Eyford’s findings are consistent with what he’s previously written, expect him to recommend the federal government take a much more active and timely role in engaging with First Nations on major resource issues, and not leave so much of the work on industry’s shoulders.

It’s too early to say whether the Canadian government’s new commitments will help resolve conflicts between Aboriginal communities and energy-industry proponents in BC. Much will depend on what federal officials can accomplish on the ground. But this week’s announcement shows that the federal government realizes the status quo has not worked. The feds seem to realize they need to up their game if their high-priority projects are going to succeed.


Peter Severinson is the research director for Resource Works. Follow on Twitter: @pseverinson

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