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Aboriginal 'Nations' Expanding Mackenzie Opposition

Canada's entry in the arctic natural gas pipeline race is still not out of the woods. Aboriginal consent, a key item for resource developers in the Northwest Territories, continues to elude the C$7 billion (US$5.6 billion) Mackenzie Gas Project.

On the eve of a scheduled Nov. 23 decision by the project on whether to go ahead, it still fell short of enlisting support from the Deh Cho, a region of 13 aboriginal communities that straddle the southern 40% of the proposed 760-mile Mackenzie Valley Pipeline.

"We hear 'em clawing at the door but we're not ready yet," Deh Cho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian said in an interview, while attending a weekend native environmental conference in the Alberta capital of Edmonton. He described Deh Cho and industry negotiators as still groping for an elusive agreement on land access and community benefits.

"They're still quite far apart," the chief said. "There are times they think they're close. There are times when they can't even see each other."A C$31.5 million July out-of-court settlement of a Deh Cho protest lawsuit against federal and Northwest Territories agencies did not soften Dene resistance against harming northern land and water, he said.

Nor have the 13 Dene and Metis communities in the 80,000-square-mile Deh Cho region been converted into gas industry supporters by a string of promises from Ottawa. Besides coverage of native regulatory costs, the help includes C$500 million pledged in July for community aid ranging from education to roads. The pot was sweetened Nov. 17 by an offer from Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan that the industry consortium described as taking care of its financial needs. The package includes up to C$2.8 billion in project assistance including C$1.2 billion in potential royalty deferrals and a C$1.6 billion loan guarantee for aboriginal partners in the pipeline.

The Deh Cho region is still looking for a deal that caters to its ambitions directly. "Our people have been very hard line," Norwegian said. "We've never said whether we're for or against the pipeline."He added the Deh Cho are also still not ready to sign up as partners with the more northerly Inuvialuit, Gwich'n and Sahtu communities in the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which has a one-third ownership share in the Mackenzie Valley project.

The lawsuit settlement only stopped a court case. "There's still some aggressive action we could look at to put our point of view across,"Norwegian said. He did not reveal details. But the Deh Cho are registered as formal interveners in forthcoming hearings on the gas megaproject by the National Energy Board and an environmental joint review panel of federal, territorial and aboriginal agencies.

Deh Cho policy towards the gas industry consortium of Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, ConocoPhillips Canada and ExxonMobil Canada is "no pay, no play"Norwegian said."If they're going to come through our territory they need to deal us as though we are a government. We will act like a government," the chief said.

"If they travel through they need to pay access fees and benefits to communities, and we need to be able to levy taxes," Norwegian said."Edmonton may be the gateway to the North but we are the Kuwait of the North."

Demands for aboriginal protection and Mackenzie gas development benefits have spread into northwestern Alberta, where Dene Tha' leader Val Bonnes said "we're all in this together."She said "we've got to put conditions in place that will mitigate the environmental impact right now - so there is zero impact." Norwegian told an environmental conference, held by the Edmonton-area Yoti Foundation, that the gas project is just one element in industrialization of the 720,000-square-mile Mackenzie watershed including Alberta's Fort McMurray oilsands mining district."It's all connected," he said.

All the gas will be burned by oilsands projects as plant fuel and more than 1,100 northern wells will be drilled to keep the Mackenzie pipeline full, he predicted, citing industry documents filed with the NEB. Norwegian said he is about one-third of his way towards raising C$1.8 million (US$1.4 million) for an environmental assembly of 68 First Nations in the Mackenzie watershed, to be held in mid-2006 at a location still to be chosen in the Deh Cho region.

"We're all speaking the same language," said Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a Sioux spiritual leader from South Dakota. "We are at the crossroads . . .scientific findings have confirmed that violations against Mother Earth have caused the lack of energy to sustain our planet and our future."

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