Hopes of a history-making deal giving aboriginal communities a one-third equity stake in a natural gas pipeline from the Mackenzie Delta have started to unravel.
A scheduled signing in Hay River, Northwest Territories, was scrapped Wednesday when Mike Nadli, Grand Chief of the Deh Cho First Nations, insisted on taking the proposal to his people for consultation.
Nadli had earlier said he would oppose the pipeline until the Deh Cho had negotiated a land claim with the Canadian government, covering the lower 40 percent of the Mackenzie Valley route.
"We're not against development," he said. "We have some concerns. We need to bring the deal to our people." He did not indicate when he would return, but some sources fear the postponement will stretch over several months.
Aboriginal opposition was instrumental in scuttling initial attempts to develop Mackenzie Delta gas in the mid-1970s and NWT Premier Stephen Kakfwi told this week's meeting in Hay River that delays now could allow the Alaska Highway project to proceed first, delaying the Delta for 10 to 15 years.
The Delta gas owners' consortium — Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil Canada, Shell Canada and Gulf Canada Resources — refused to sign a memorandum of understanding without the signatures of all 38 Native representatives at Hay River.
But Imperial senior vice president K.C. Williams said the producers will "take the time necessary to understand the reasons why some parties are not prepared to sign the memorandum. We are breaking new ground and the discussions are complex."
The Aboriginal Pipeline Group — made up of Inuvialuit, Deh Cho, Sahtu and Gwich'in — has spent the last 18 months developing the framework under which aboriginal communities would put up C$1 billion towards the C$3 billion pipeline.
To gain an equity stake, First Nations would be required to secure shipments of 400 million to 500 million cubic feet per day from gas producers outside the Delta consortium, which plans to ship 800 million cubic feet per day.
Some Native leaders were unhappy with the one-third ownership ceiling, but Aboriginal Pipeline Group member Doug Cardinal said a 100 percent equity stake made no sense because of the risk and the lack of Native expertise to take full responsibility for the project.
"It's a very, very dangerous commitment by First Nations," he said. "We have to learn to walk before we run."