The Canadian government has landed a fresh chance to overcome aboriginal opposition to major pipelines out of the Alberta oil sands.
In a surprise move Jim Flaherty resigned after eight years as finance minister, allowing Prime Minister Stephen Harper to shuffle his cabinet and remove some of the bad feelings that have been building between his government and First Nations over three projects — Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion and TransCanada’s Energy East.
The biggest obstacle was a fractious relationship over three years between First Nations and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.
The low point was reached when Oliver labeled opponents of Northern Gateway as “foreign radicals (who were) hijacking” Canada’s regulatory process based on evidence that they were being funded and advised by sources in the United States who were attempting to filibuster public hearings.
He was never able to rebuild trust, which may have prompted Harper to select him for the finance portfolio, while filling the natural resources post with Greg Rickford, who before he entered politics worked as both a nurse and lawyer among aboriginal communities in northern Ontario.
Rickford entered government promising to try and improve the economy and infrastructure in First Nations by drawing on his understanding of how important resource development could be to remote areas.
He inherits Harper’s grand plan to transform Canada into an energy exporting “superpower” through C$650 billion in investment over the next decade.
Entrenched resistanceBut he was immediately confronted with the entrenched resistance among First Nations to Northern Gateway.
Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine communities on the British Columbia coast, said a condition of working with the government on future projects as that “Northern Gateway has to be put to bed.”
“There’s no way anybody in British Columbia is going to be supporting that project any time soon.”
Sterritt said Rickford’s job will be made greatly more difficult if the government approves the Enbridge pipeline by the mid-June deadline set by the National Energy Board.
He said that building a relationship among government, industry and First Nations is a careful process that requires time and sensitivity.
“You don’t show up with the project and then try to build a relationship just to get the project through. That’s not the way it works,” he said.
Sterritt reiterated that his communities remain willing to “do whatever it takes to make sure this project doesn’t go ahead.”
Joseph Doucet, the dean of the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta, told the Globe and Mail that extent to which Rickford has shown an understanding of the aboriginal issues “that could be really, really valuable.”
CAPP: Critical periodDavid Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said Canada is facing a critical period in its natural resource development, requiring Rickford “to get up to speed quickly on a number of files.”
CAPP said the new minister’s experience in aboriginal affairs and northern development, and also as Minister of State for Science and Technology, are “all very relevant to the success of the oil and gas industry.”
A spokeswoman for the Alberta-based Pembina Institute, an independent environmental think tank, said the big hope is that Rickford “will listen to and understand some of the (environmental and aboriginal) perspectives of people who do have concerns, whether that be about pipelines or the pace and scale of oil sands development.”
The government has been provided with a blueprint by Douglas Eyford, its own special representative on West Coast energy infrastructure, who completed an eight-month study last year by concluding that there “has not been constructive dialogue” with aboriginal communities.
“Canada must take decisive steps to build trust with aboriginal Canadians, to foster their inclusion into the economy and to advance that reconciliation of aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people in Canadian society.”
Rickford has yet to lay out his strategy for dealing with his biggest challenge. His office said he would need more time to review the issues before making any public statements.