A new hurdle popped up in the path of the Mackenzie Gas Project today (Sept. 2) when one of four aboriginal communities along the proposed pipeline route filed a lawsuit demanding seats on the government panel that will conduct the development’s environmental review.

The lawsuit by Deh Cho First Nations, which straddle about 40% of the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline’s route, asks the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories to consider handing down an injunction to halt the environmental review until the case can be resolved.

The Deh Cho insist they were wrongly excluded by Canada’s federal government from agreements between it and territorial and other aboriginal authorities on the composition of the environmental review panel. The dispute is rooted in a lingering sore spot in northern aboriginal relations, prolonged failure to conclude marathon negotiations on Deh Cho territorial, economic and political rights.

Unlike three other native communities along the proposed pipeline route, the Deh Cho are still involved in major unresolved land claim issues and have so far refused to take active part in aspects of the gas project’s planning until the larger issues are settled. The Deh Cho, for instance, continue to hold out against signing a participation agreement in the Aboriginal Pipeline Group and its one-third ownership of the pipeline. The Deh Cho have confined themselves to observer status in the native business coalition.

The lawsuit neither names the Mackenzie Gas Project as a defendant nor expresses opposition to the development. Economic arms of the Deh Cho aboriginal community are developing businesses, such as a pipe-coating company, to participate in the gas development. The case centers on a demand for two of seven seats on the environmental review panel. Deh Cho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian said, “We have been forced to this action by the federal government… We could not just sit and watch as other people made the decisions on what is best for us.”

“We are being discriminated against because we do not have a settlement of our land and governance rights,” he said.

Kenya Norwegian, chief of Liidli Koe First Nation in the Deh Cho region, agreed. “We are simply asking the court to recognize our right to have a say in this project,” he said. No immediate response was made by the federal government. The gas consortium awaited developments. A former summer target for filing the project’s construction applications has already been set aside, with consortium officials explaining that the job of piecing together all the elements is too complex to set completion deadlines.

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