Pipeline debate threatens federal-First Nations relationship

B.C.'s aboriginal relations minister led a delegation of business and First Nations leaders to Ottawa Friday, to make sure the federal government's enthusiasm for oilsands exports doesn't set back aboriginal treaties and economic development.

Nanwakolas Council among 60 B.C. First Nations opposing Northern Gateway pipeline proposal

A delegation of B.C. business and First Nations leaders was in Ottawa this week, trying to ensure the federal government's enthusiasm for exporting oilsands bitumen doesn't burst other efforts already coming down the pipe to recognize aboriginal treaties and strike new agreements for economic development.

The delegation was led by Mary Polak, B.C.'s aboriginal relations and reconciliation minister.

First Nations leaders have spoken passionately about their concerns and opposition to the pipeline, which would travel across First Nations territory in northern B.C. The pipeline proposal is currently under review at National Energy Board hearings.

Speaking to Power & Politics host Evan Solomon, Dallas Smith, the president of the Nanwakolas Council, said that even though he is not from the territory that will be directly affected by the pipeline, he's been working in support of the concerns of his fellow First Nations.

"I think the opposition is based on the risk," Smith said. "But there's more at hand, there's a relationship that needs to be built with the federal government right now and this is going to be really tricky to manoeuvre around, making sure that the whole relationship doesn't get caught up in this issue." 

"We're really concerned... about the ripple effect of this project and what it's going to do to our already non-existent relationship with the federal government," Smith said, later clarifying that the relationship is not really "non-existent" but is definitely "not as genuine" as the First Nations relationship with the B.C. government.

Polak said that the federal government's enthusiasm for the Gateway project hadn't emerged as a barrier yet.

"I don't think Enbridge has to become the dominating issue," Polak said. "In the two days that we've been here, Enbridge hasn't come up once."

However, Polak did suggest that the federal government could do more to improve its relations with First Nations, something her government has made a priority.

B.C. hopes to sign 10 new non-treaty agreements with First Nations by 2015.

"If you develop that relationship around mutual consent, around working together, then you don't end up in the adversarial relationships that happen when you're reacting after a project has been proposed," Polak said.

Polak and her delegation met with the governing Conservatives' B.C. caucus this week, as well as the Senate Aboriginal Peoples committee, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield and National Chief Shawn Atleo from the Assembly of First Nations.

"The relationship has to start somewhere," Smith said.