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Canada’s Aboriginals Target Pipeline Development

Pipeline politics heated up Thursday in Canada when aboriginal groups across the country followed an example from the United States to declare war on the fossil fuel industry in the name of preserving native rights and “Mother Earth.”

At news conferences in Montreal and Vancouver, aboriginal chiefs unveiled a formal environmentalist treaty, named five target pipeline projects in Canada and the United States, and claimed “continent-wide” allegiance by 50 communities from both countries.

Conduits for bitumen from the Alberta oilsands are the prime Canadian quarry. The protest leaders said their model is the Sioux-led Standing Rock protest against the US$3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline for Bakken Shale oil from North Dakota (see Shale Daily, Sept. 19).

Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said in a statement, "Indigenous people have been standing up together everywhere in the face of new destructive fossil fuel projects, with no better example than at Standing Rock in North Dakota."

The targets of the alliance include TransCanada Corp.’s Energy East and Keystone XL projects, Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway and Line 3 Replacement proposals, and Kinder Morgan Canada’s expansion plan for Trans Mountain Pipeline. Enbridge also splits a 36.75% interest in Dakota Access with Marathon Petroleum Corp.

But the pipeline protest fell short of a unanimous uprising by the 1.4 million Canadians who claim aboriginal blood, including Metis and others of unofficial native descent, as well as card-carrying citizens of 617 formally recognized First Nations communities.

Only two days before the protest treaty was announced, 31 First Nation and Metis groups, organized as the Aboriginal Equity Partners (APE), urged the federal cabinet to go to bat for the most hotly contested pipeline project: the Northern Gateway proposal for a bitumen line from Edmonton to a tanker terminal on BC’s Pacific coast at Kitimat.

APE members have made deals to acquire interests in Northern Gateway when Enbridge completes its construction and creates a corporate ownership vehicle to operate the export route. The group called on the year-old Liberal government in Ottawa to reopen stalled formal consultations with aboriginal communities on the project as required by a native rights provision of the national constitution.

An APE statement aimed at the government said, “This ownership ensures environmental stewardship, shared control, and negotiated business and employment benefits. Collectively, our communities stand to benefit from more than C$2 billion (US$1.5 billion) directly from this project [Northern Gateway].”

Aboriginal attitudes to oilsands development are also far from uniform, even among directly affected communities. In the heart of the bitumen mining district, Fort McKay First Nation this summer made a deal to buy, for C$350 million (US$270 million) a 34% interest in a tank farm that is part of a Suncor plant expansion. The nearby Syncrude complex stands out as Canada’s largest employer of aboriginal workers and contractors, drawing recruits from a wide range of mostly northern settlements.

Fort McKay, which has about one-dozen community enterprises in fields from worker camps catering to bitumen mine earth moving, also agreed to collaborate with provincial and industry agencies on a regional air quality improvement initiative.

The pipeline protesters claim they stand on firm legal ground as a result of a summer victory in Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal. The ruling suspended Northern Gateway’s approval by the National Energy Board (NEB) on grounds that aboriginal relations agents of the former Conservative government failed to fulfill special, additional native consultation requirements for final cabinet ratification of the regulatory decision.

APE’s statement stemmed from a decision not to appeal the case by federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and Enbridge. The Liberal politician and the company did not declare Northern Gateway dead and said they are keeping options open for next steps.

The whole native power tangle was already headed to the top of the national law ladder. The Supreme Court of Canada is expected to clarify native rights, industry roles, regulatory authority and government duties in a case, scheduled for hearing this fall, involving two NEB and cabinet approvals of an arctic offshore seismic survey and a pipeline.

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