The Alward government’s main aboriginal negotiating partner on shale gas is employing two consultants with connections to Premier David Alward and his top cabinet minister responsible for shale development.

Angie Leonard, the sister of Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard, is working as an economic development adviser to the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs in New Brunswick.

And Stewart Paul, a lawyer and former chief of Tobique First Nation, once worked closely with Alward when Alward was a federal government employee. Paul holds the title of Assembly "ambassador" and is giving the assembly legal advice in its bilateral negotiating process with the Alward government.

Both are also partners in a company whose services include lobbying governments.

George Ginnish, assembly co-chair, confirmed the roles of Leonard and Paul in an interview with CBC News.

Angie Leonard

Angie Leonard, the sister of Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard, is working as an economic development adviser to the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs in New Brunswick. (LinkedIn)

He said Angie Leonard is doing work on shale gas but has no role in its negotiations with the province.

“She’s not doing the negotiating. She is providing advice,” he said.

“She has been out to the communities in regards to helping us develop an economic blueprint for training, seeing what is going on in the communities now in terms of opportunities and how we might be able to move forward.”

Angie Leonard has refused to discuss her role with CBC News.

Her brother, Craig Leonard, said in Question Period on Friday that he didn’t know his sister was working for the assembly.

Craig Leonard

Energy Minister Craig Leonard said he did not know his sister was working for the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs in New Brunswick. (CBC)

“I am not aware of any of that information,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that, any kind of information that involves the Assembly of First Nations, work that is being done with SWN through First Nations … is private enterprise working with private companies.”

Responding to accusations by Liberal MLA Bernard Leblanc that his sister’s role puts him in a conflict of interest, Craig Leonard said he had “no concern at all” that that was the case.

“That individual, that we are talking about, and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of issues these days, believe me,” he said.

Leonard later told reporters he has not spoken to his sister for two and a half years.

Stewart Paul got to know Alward in 1990s

Alward was not available Friday to talk about his connection to Stewart Paul.

As Chief at Tobique, Paul got to know Alward when the future premier worked for the federal Department of Human Resources Development in the 1990s, before Alward was elected as an MLA.

Alward was also hired as a consultant by Tobique First Nation between 1996 and 1998, but the premier’s office said this afternoon Stewart Paul was not the chief or a band councillor at the time.

Leonard and Paul are also directors of a company, Sweetgrass Financial Services Inc., which describes itself as a "privately held boutique investment group."

The company’s website, which offers links to various renewable energy groups, says it can help First Nations "by bringing corporations, governments and financing options together with aboriginal communities."

Among the services listed on the Sweetgrass website is “government relations,” also known as lobbying.

The third director of Sweetgrass, Mike Scully, is the community liaison for the AFNC-NB. Under a 2012 agreement between the Assembly and SWN Resources, a shale gas company, SWN paid the group $6,000 per month for three months, with an option for extensions, to have Scully coordinate discussions between SWN and First Nations.

Scully says Sweetgrass Financial, is a private venture between him, Paul, and Leonard, and has no connection to his role in the shale gas discussion, and is not yet doing any work in New Brunswick.

AFNC-NB's Ginnish says Sweetgrass does not do any work for the assembly and these business interests and connections of three of its employees do not affect the assembly’s ability to negotiate on behalf of aboriginal people.

"I think Mr Scully’s a lawyer so he would know what conflicts have to be declared to us and I would think he would do that at the appropriate time," he said.

“When I go in there I’m not thinking about other business interests. I’m thinking about my grandkids and my community, and how this might affect them down the road.”

Documents show that in March 2013, at a meeting Paul, Scully and Tobique Chief Brenda Perley held with SWN representatives, Paul requested “information and consideration on employment and training opportunities.”

SWN answered that it was “open to negotiating” an agreement on employment, according to SWN documents filed in a recent court action.

Scully refused CBC’s request for an on-the-record interview about his dual role with the assembly and with Sweetgrass Financial.

AFNC-NB's credibility questioned

The New Brunswick government’s ability to move ahead with shale gas development could hinge in part on whether its consultations with aboriginal communities meets the constitutional “duty to consult” established by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004.

Already, some aboriginal leaders have questioned the credibility of the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs in New Brunswick, which has taken the lead role of negotiating with the province on behalf of most First Nations communities.

Last fall, Elsipogtog First Nation Chief Aaron Sock argued in a court filing that the Assembly hadn’t properly represented his community in negotiations with the province.

In legal documents filed to support Elsipogtog’s application for an injunction to stop SWN’s seismic testing, Sock said he was “extremely disappointed to understand that Mr. Scully, who personally informed me that he was capable of handling such issues, did not do so in a professional capacity.”

Elsipogtog’s injunction application failed last fall but Sock and his lawyer T.J. Burke suggested they may launch a broader challenge to SWN’s activity, arguing the province has not met its duty to consult.

Angie Leonard’s connection to shale gas has been controversial before: in 2012 CBC News reported she had registered as a lobbyist for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers after leaving a shale gas-related job with the provincial government.

Because her brother’s cabinet duties involved shale gas, the government banned her from meeting with any provincial officials “due to the perceived appearance of a conflict," a spokesperson said at the time. Craig Leonard also recused himself from any dealings with the issue.

Craig Leonard was later shuffled out of the energy portfolio,only to return to the position in October 2012. Angie Leonard resigned from her CAPP job at the same time.

Ginnish says SWN’s funding to the Assembly does not compromise its independence.

“It certainly doesn’t put us in a position where we feel indebted to them,” he says. “We would prefer actually that the province provide all those costs but in the absence of their ability to do that I guess we need to do the best we can to review this information.”

In addition to funding from SWN, the Assembly also receives money from the federal government. It received $609,129 in 2010-11, $766,751 in 2011-12 and $1,215,516 in 2012-13.

Despite repeated requests, the Alward government has not provided CBC News with information about its funding to the AFNC-NB.

Negotiations key to shale gas industry

The negotiations with the Assembly are key to the Alward government’s plan to develop a shale gas industry.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2004 that governments have a “duty to consult” aboriginal communities on resource development that affects them.

While the province has said it will consult one-on-one with any First Nation that chooses to not work through the Assembly, the organization has been the main negotiating partner.

Four First Nations, Elsipogtog, Madawaska St. Mary's and Woodstock, are not part of the Assembly. Elsipogtog pulled out last fall, complaining the assembly hadn’t kept it in the loop during negotiations.

The AFNC-NB has no official relationship with the national aboriginal organization, the Assembly of First Nations.

Ginnish says as assembly co-chair he’s not happy with how the province has fulfilled its legal obligation to consult. “We have issues with what the province considers reasonable levels of consultation,” he says.

The province has argued that it has a low standard of consultation to meet during seismic testing, because it’s a preliminary process that isn’t environmentally intrusive. The onus to consult further will increase if test drilling and extraction happen in the future, according to Alward and Leonard.