Selling Northern Gateway to First Nations called 'incredible challenge' for Prentice

A lawyer who works with First Nations in British Columbia says Jim Prentice will have a tough job selling them on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project.

B.C. aboriginal resources lawyer says Enbridge created too much of an adversarial relationship

Former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice has been asked by Enbridge to rescue its talks with First Nations on the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. (CBC)

A lawyer who works with First Nations in British Columbia says Jim Prentice will have a tough job selling them on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project.

The former Calgary MP and Minister of Indian Affairs has been tapped by the Calgary energy company to help revive negotiations with aboriginal groups opposed to the $7.9-billion pipeline, which would take bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to the B.C. coast for tanker export to Asia.

Merle Alexander, who practices aboriginal resource law at the firm Gowlings in Vancouver, said he isn't sure anyone can negotiate deals at this stage, even someone with the stature Prentice enjoys.

“Trying to counter a three to five-year process where First Nations have looked at the project, assessed it and then determined themselves that they're not supportive of the project is going to be a pretty incredible challenge,” he said.

“Really both Enbridge and the federal Crown, they've created quite an adversarial relationship with First Nations along the corridor and on the coast. So that's a pretty difficult task to come in and be asked to remedy.”

Prentice, who is the senior executive vice-president and vice-chairman of CIBC, says he believes the project can bring economic opportunities to First Nations communities while protecting the environment as well.

A joint federal review panel recommended approval of the project in December, provided that Enbridge meet 209 conditions, including developing a marine mammal protection plan, researching heavy oil cleanup and conducting emergency response exercises.  A final decision by the federal government is expected as early as June.

Prentice served as minister for Indian and northern affairs as well as environment minister under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He negotiated residential school settlement agreements and as a lawyer negotiated land claim settlements.

A spokesperson for Prentice told CBC News he won't get additional compensation for his new role with Enbridge.