First Nations hold the key to the Northern Gateway pipeline – by Ken Coates (Globe and Mail – June 18, 2014)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in regional innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy in Saskatchewan, and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

The government of Canada has made an obvious and much-anticipated decision on the Northern Gateway pipeline, but the debate is far from over. Based on the report of the Joint Review Panel, which recommended approval subject to important modifications and conditions, and the government’s strong commitment to resource development, few expected the plan to be rejected.

Now the real work begins. The criticism of the Northern Gateway project is broad and comprehensive, but there are three main opponent groups who have to be addressed:

First are the environmentalists, who oppose the expanded development of the oil sands and see the northern Alberta resource as a climate-change danger. This group is substantially unreconcilable. Their critique is well-known, and the federal government has rejected their intervention on many occasions. There is no federal effort to mollify this group.

Second are the environmentalists concerned about the potential effects of an oil spill on northern British Columbia and the coastal waterways outwards from Kitimat. The worries expressed by this group are widely held and would mobilize many residents to take action. Here, the government is making a commitment to world-leading standards of construction, supervision, emergency response and remediation.

The third group of critics are the First Nations along the proposed pipeline route. Some First Nations are in the first two groups. But there is a large group – the relative size is unknown – that insists on proper attention to aboriginal rights, an appropriate level of consultation (much higher than has been used to present), adequate and substantial participation, and a fair return to First Nations from the project, should it proceed.

It is with the latter group that the fate of the project, in political terms, rests. First Nations are upset about how the Northern Gateway proposal has unfolded to this point. They are far from reconciled to the idea of a major bitumen pipeline through their traditional territories. With land claims unresolved throughout this territory and with widely different views of the meaning of the Supreme Court orders on “duty to consult and accommodate,” First Nations believe – and assert – that they hold the power to determine if the Northern Gateway Pipeline proceeds.

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