Just over three months before the federal cabinet is to decide if it will approve of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project or not, a former federal Conservative cabinet minister has been named to the delicate job of looking for First Nations approval.
“It’s never too late to have a respectful discussion with First Nations and this is an extremely important project and an important opportunity for First Nations,” said Jim Prentice of the project which would carry Alberta crude to an marine export terminal at Kitimat.
“I’m convinced I can be helpful if I step in as an honest broker, in a sense, to work to try to build some of the relationships we’re going to need between the Gateway partners and First Nations,” he continued.
Prentice, a lawyer who was federal minister of Indian affairs northern development, is taking on the role alongside his current position as senior executive vice president and vice chairman of CIBC to work with Northern Gateway.
He is not being paid for the job and CIBC does not stand to gain financially if the pipeline project goes through, he said.
“I’m doing it because I believe in the importance of it,” he said. “And the bank has been supportive of my view … we have excellent relationships with First Nations, we’re committed to working with First Nations, and we see this project as something that could be advantageous to First Nations if it’s done in a responsible way, including in an environmentally responsible way.”
Potential economic agreements will play a key role in discussions Prentice has with First Nations.
“Primarily what needs to happen is the Gateway partners (Enbridge and oil companies) need to work out economic relationships with First Nations along the route and on the coast. These are commercial arrangements and it’s really up to the Enbridge and the Gateway partners to do that,” he said, noting that these arrangements are Enbridge’s responsibility, not the federal government’s.
Prentice has long been an advocate for economic partnerships with First Nations, and has worked on a number of negotiations including land claim settlements in northern Alberta, the negotiation of the residential school settlement agreement, and the negotiation of the Gwaii Haanas marine conservation agreement in Haida Gwaii.
“These are all analogous situations where we started from a position where there was a trust deficit and we had to work forward to build relationships,” Prentice said.
But Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, said there’s nothing Prentice can do to change First Nations opposition to Northern Gateway.
“This is not just about trust, this is about technology, this is about a project that is jeopardizing the natural capital that we have on the land in British Columbia and that we have in the ocean,” he said. “Unless he shows up at the table with some kind of new technology that this industry’s created to clean up oil, there isn’t a conversation to be had about pushing this project through.”
Sterritt said First Nations aren’t going to be fooled into thinking oil pipelines to the coast are safe, even with Enbridge bringing in someone as “high-profile” as Prentice.
“I have a lot of respect for Jim Prentice, I know him well, but at the same time this appointment isn’t going to change the position of those who are opposed to Enbridge’s project,” he said. “Unfortunate for Mr. Prentice, he’s getting on board a project and trying to promote something that First Nations in this province are not going to agree with.”
The timing of the appointment is disappointing, he said.
“We’re kind of at the last minute of a long, long, long exercise – years, eight or 10 years of conversations, with the joint review panel, with Northern Gateway, with all kinds of people – and then at the last minute, with a couple of months before [the federal cabinet] makes their final judgment on this project, Enbridge brings in somebody to try to clean up their act. Too little too late,” said Sterritt.
He also said it’s unfortunate Prentice has been brought in so late.
“If he’d been brought in eight years ago when we began this exercise we might have been able to save Northern Gateway a lot of money in trying to jam a project through an area where Coastal First Nations are never going to agree with it,” said Sterritt.