Inside Politics

Talking key to First Nations consultations over pipeline

It's one of Joe Oliver's most common refrains when talking about oil sands resource projects:

"We have a moral and constitutional obligation to consult with Canada's First Nations," intones the Minister of Natural Resources.

Constitutionally speaking, he could not be more right. If you're going to run a pipeline through native land, you've got to sit down and talk about it with the natives. The 1982 Constitution and any number of Supreme Court of Canada rulings have spelled that out pretty clearly.

But what makes for a constitutionally acceptable consultation when it comes to Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline?

A number of the First Nations along the route and at its terminus on the B.C. Coast can't stand the idea of a giant pipe full of bitumen passing through their traditional territory. The risk of a spill - no matter how remote - means there will have to be a pretty persuasive argument and a whole lotta face-to-face time with federal government officials.

Enter the Joint Review Panel (JRP). That's the public inquiry run by the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency tasked with determining whether the Enbridge pipe is safe for the environment and is in the national economic interest. There are hundreds of intervenors and thousands of people making oral statements.

Lots of them are native groups and individuals.

But if the Harper government thinks the Joint Review Panel is enough to satisfy their constitutional obligation, Jackie Thomas would like to tell them they are wrong.

"It doesn't even meet the legal standard," argues the chief of the Saik'uz First Nation near Vanderhoof, B.C. They are part of the Yinka Dene Alliance and the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council in Central B.C.

"They can say they consult but they actually are trying to pawn off a lot of it on either the JRP or Enbridge," she adds.

Chief Thomas, who will be in Ottawa Tuesday morning for a news conference on the subject, won't let the government get away with that.

"I think that what they are forgetting is that they've actually recognized the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and that actually talks to free, prior and informed consent. And on a mega-project like this, I think that's what we should be seeking."

So what's a government that wants a pipeline to do? Here's Chief Thomas' suggestion.

"The federal government should come to our community saying, 'we would like to talk to you about this project.' With the authority and the mandate to negotiate how it will be and the process that we are going to follow and the terms. And not a letter in the mail. And not advertisements on the radio and TV."

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