Prime Minister Stephen Harper has named an envoy to defuse the tension between First Nations and the energy and pipeline industry that threatens his plan to quickly develop Canada's natural resources.
Vancouver-based lawyer Doug Eyford will focus on energy infrastructure in Western Canada and submit a preliminary report directly to Harper by the end of June and a final report by the end of November.
He is to examine First Nations concerns about the troubled Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, as well as the development of liquid natural gas plants, marine terminals and other energy infrastructure in British Columbia and Alberta.
He will discuss environmental protection, jobs and economic development, and First Nations rights to a share of the wealth from natural resources. But he said he won't argue in favour of development.
"It is essential that we work closely with First Nations communities, in order to incorporate their knowledge and experience," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said Tuesday from Terrace, B.C., where he announced Eyford's appointment.
"This truth exists independently of the Crown's constitutional duty to consult on individual projects."
Eyford is also the federal government's chief negotiator on comprehensive land claims, but Oliver said his appointment was cleared by the federal ethics commissioner.
The federal NDP welcomed Harper's attention to First Nations concerns in natural resource development.
But critic Jean Crowder said such a move would not have been necessary if Harper had listened to First Nations in the first place, well before opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline and the government's resource agenda boiled over.
"First Nations have loudly and clearly said that resource development won't happen without them at the table," Crowder said in an interview. "I think this is an afterthought because they bungled the process and now they have to step up and do something."
Won't be involved in hearings
Oliver stressed that the envoy won't get directly involved in regulatory hearings for the Northern Gateway pipeline or any other project.
"The representative's report will not replace negotiations between aboriginal communities and industry on specific projects and is not intended to," the minister said. "It is meant to encourage and stimulate those discussions.
"This will not be dialogue for dialogue's sake, but dialogue in search of solutions. We don't want another process. We want a product."
It's the first concrete step to come from a crisis meeting between Harper and leading chiefs in the midst of widespread protests in January.
The prime minister promised to empower top officials to deal with First Nations complaints about rights, treaties and the sharing of natural resource wealth and to continue a dialogue with the Assembly of First Nations.
But the AFN did not appear to be part of Tuesday's announcement and did not have any immediate comment.
The assembly has complained that a new process set out in January 2012 was going nowhere because the federal government was not consulting First Nations people nor had it given its bureaucrats a clear mandate.
Unrest boiled over in December, with a protesting Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and demonstrators in the Idle No More movement demanding more government consultation and a larger role for First Nations and environmental protection in the government's resource development agenda.
Protesters rallied against the government's overhaul of environmental assessment and environmental protection legislation, arguing that Ottawa had failed to meet its responsibility to consult with First Nations before changing protective laws.
Meanwhile, some First Nations have abandoned federal hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline that would link the Alberta oilsands and the West Coast, saying they can no longer afford to participate. British Columbia has not yet sanctioned the project.
While many in Ottawa believe the Gateway project is dead, Alberta Premier Alison Redford told The Canadian Press this week that she believes the pipeline will eventually be approved. However, she stressed that regulatory approval alone is not enough.
"I think there is a lot of work to be done with respect to First Nations, to ensuring that there's economic benefit for communities right through," she said in an interview Monday.
"I think it would be wrong to think (Northern Gateway) has gone off the books and shouldn't happen or won't happen.
"But I do think that everyone is realizing that as the date of that decision gets closer, that there's a great risk that it could not happen and they're now understanding what the consequences could be."