The prime minister’s special envoy on West Coast energy issues says the federal government must take decisive action to engage aboriginal groups opposed to new oil and gas pipelines.

“It’s never too late to engage and do so in a process of good faith negotiations,’’ Doug Eyford told reporters Thursday after releasing his report Forging Partnerships, Building Relationships” in Vancouver.

“This won’t be an easy process. I hope my report is perceived as providing objective and blunt advice to all the parties engaged in this process.’’

Eyford’s 53-page report is based on months of consultations with aboriginal organizations in Alberta and British Columbia.

It contains dozens of recommendations, many of them directed at the urgent need to promote what he called a ‘’principled dialogue’’ about resource development with aboriginal communities in the two provinces.

“Canada and aboriginal communities are at a critical juncture in their relationship,’’ he wrote.

“The development of West Coast energy infrastructure provides an opportunity to forge partnerships and build relationships. There is a strong interest and real opportunity for Canada and aboriginal Canadians to more effectively collaborate to address their respective interests.’’

Key for reaching Asian markets

Eyford’s report is the second step in helping advance Harper’s stated goal of turning Canada into an ‘’energy superpower.’’

Those plans depend on building more pipelines, including the Northern Gateway proposed by Enbridge, and the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s existing Trans-Mountain Pipeline.

Energy exports totalled about $110 billion in 2012, but virtually of them go to the United States.

So the Harper government is trying to diversify markets for Canadian energy. Key to that effort is building a half-dozen pipelines in British Columbia to carry oilsands bitumen and liquefied natural gas to port for export to Asian markets.

Addressing concerns of aboriginal communities is critical, since pipelines will cross their traditional territories in B.C.

Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver has warned repeatedly that Canada needs to begin the work now to exploit lucrative markets in Asia, or see the window close.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity now to responsibly and safely translate Canada’s abundant resource wealth into an era of sustainable prosperity and security,’’ Oliver said after receiving Eyford’s report.

“Building stronger relationships built on trust is the key to creating momentum and I personally am committed to making this happen.’’

Regular meetings critical

Eyford’s report says significant hurdles remain to achieving that goal.

He says Canada needs to do more to build relations with aboriginal communities, including a commitment to hold regular meetings and discussions.

Regular engagement is critical, he adds, because people in those communities see the development of resource projects as part of a broader agenda of reconciliation.

And he warned support for resource development will only happen if aboriginal people are convinced the projects will not harm their land or the environment.

Among Eyford’s recommendations:

  • The federal government should spearhead consultations with aboriginal groups, industry and non-government agencies to advance pipeline and marine safety, and strategies to mitigate potential impacts of oil spills.
  • Ottawa should target funding for aboriginal education, pre-employments skills development and training to remove barriers to jobs in the resource industry.
  • The government must follow through on the duty to consult aboriginal communities about their concerns.

Pipeline plans encountering resistance

Some of that work is already underway. Earlier this week, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt released the first major review of tanker safety in two decades.

That report recommended removing the current $161-million liability limit for each spill in favour of an unlimited liability for polluters and increased funding for the coast guard and other agencies to improve their response to oil spills.

Still, plans to build more pipelines, including the Northern Gateway proposed by Enbridge, and the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s existing Trans-Mountain Pipeline, face considerable resistance particularly among aboriginal groups.​

In his interim report last June, Eyford urged Ottawa to take over the lead in stalled discussions with aboriginal groups. Ottawa responded by dispatching senior cabinet minister and bureaucrats to meet with affected groups.

Eyford said those "engagement meetings" were positive but must continue.

"I think it's a risk not just to the companies but to Canadians as a whole. These projects obviously will have a significant impact on the Canadian economy and if they don't go ahead, then I think it's something that will impact all Canadians," he said.

"Aboriginal communities remain cautious and require Canada to continue to demonstrate its commitment to improving the relationship."

'Hoping that this is really a watershed moment'

First Nations leaders in B.C. supported Eyford's call for better engagement.

Carrier Sekani Tribal Chief Terry Teegee said all three governments — provincial, federal, and First Nations — need to meet face to face to discuss these projects.

"We had a chance to meet with Doug Eyford this past May and basically told him all the issues that we have with projects such as Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, and problems in terms of the environment, and cumulative impacts, and also dealing with our rights and title."

But Teegee said he is not optimistic the Eyford report will result in a meaningful change in the relationship with Ottawa.

The Carrier Sekani First Nation has repeatedly requested meetings with the prime minister and premier of B.C., he said, but so far their requests have not been answered.

Art Sterritt, the executive director of Coastal First Nations, said Eyford knows energy projects won't go ahead in B.C. without a better relationship with First Nation communities.

"We have not had a very good relationship with the federal government over the last decade or so. And, really, I'm hoping that this is really a watershed moment."

"I'm hoping that with Mr. Eyford's knowledge and his direct line to the prime minister that we really are going to see a change in B.C. in terms of relationship with the federal government."