The toughest aboriginal critic of Canada’s arctic natural gas development as well as the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline has signaled no quarter will be given in the marathon battle over benefits that slowed the project down to a glacial pace.

The Deh Cho, or “big river” Dene communities straddling the southern 40% of the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, boycotted a resource ownership and revenue agreement that was meant to pave the way for industry.

Participants in the arrangement include the Northwest Territories (NWT) government, the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in of the Mackenzie Delta, the Sahtu of the central Mackenzie Valley and the dispersed mixed-blood Northwest Territory Metis Nation.

In a written statement studded with harsh words — and dispatched to the Alberta home base of the gas industry plus all governments concerned across Canada — Deh Cho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian accused his northern native peers of settling for “crumbs” with a “pathetic deal.”

The deal is a web of agreements in principle intended to spell out hitherto poorly defined relationships among the three levels of authority in northern Canada — the aboriginal, territorial and federal governments.

The federal government is not yet a party to the agreement, but the native and territorial participants say it is a blueprint for a new northern order that all concerned have sought for generations.

The package centers on “devolution,” or transfer of administration and control of federal lands and natural resources that make up most of the NWT, following an example set earlier by Canada’s less fractious Yukon Territory. Key provisions call for the wealth and responsibility to be shared between territorial and aboriginal governments along lines established by native land claims agreements, a prerequisite for federal ratification.

NWT Premier Joe Handley called the package “a foundation from which to move forward and secure devolution and resource revenue sharing without delay.” He invited the Deh Cho and smaller groups not yet in the northern alliance to sign on, saying “these are inclusive agreements that provide for the addition of the NWT’s remaining aboriginal governments at such time as they are ready to participate.”

Among the arrangement’s supporters, Gwich’in President Fred Carmichael said “we must be united…so that together we can get the best deal for all northerners.”

Inuvialuit leader Nellie Cournoyea, a tireless native rights negotiator since the 1970s, said the steps “culminate many years of effort by northern governments to take control over their land and resources and the revenues generated from them.”

Sahtu leader Lary Tourangeau called the package “a very positive step forward” and pledged to seek federal ratification. Northern Metis President Vern Jones called the agreement in principle genuine “progress” for native governance and natural resource control.

But in blunt fashion, which is a northern trademark, groups left out of the package did not mince words about signaling they are far from ready to sign on. Tlicho First Nation and Akaitcho First Nation promptly demanded Handley’s resignation as NWT premier.

The Deh Cho’s Norwegian derided the whole initiative as a “secret agreement” meant to pressure his Dene communities into compromises on land claims negotiations and industrialization, not least by the C$16.2-billion (US$14.5-billion) Mackenzie Gas Project.

Unlike the Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Sahtu, who made land claims settlements in the 1980s and ’90s, the Deh Cho are still in marathon negotiations with no end in sight. Side effects include refusal to join the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which owns one-third of the proposed Mackenzie system.

With help from consultants, experts and lawyers elsewhere in Canada, the Deh Cho are pressing an aggressive version of native rights that takes the Canadian First Nations phrase for aboriginal communities literally. The strategy is understood to seek native home rule and resource ownership for the entire Deh Cho territory, leaving little or no room for political power or revenue sharing with the NWT or federal governments.

In his last days on the job before retiring as chairman of the National Energy Board (NEB), Ken Vollman has made a point of calling Canadian government attention to aboriginal rights questions that need to be answered for gas development and pipeline projects to proceed. When Vollman joined the NEB 33 years ago, the first incarnation of Canada’s arctic gas project was in conflicts with northern native communities that eventually killed it. He leaves the NEB after presiding over a marathon regulatory review of the project’s revival that remains unfinished and has seen cost estimates nearly quadruple.

Government and Mackenzie project representatives have begun a new round of discussions on actions such as gas royalty deferrals that might salvage the scheme’s economics. Federal negotiators have once again raised the possibility of government investment. Project senior partner Imperial Oil has again remained lukewarm at best, pointing out that just adding another ownership partner would not make arctic supplies competitive with looming growth in imports of liquefied natural gas.

Vollman, at an international regulators conference in British Columbia, rated “uncertainty around aboriginal consultation” as No. 1 among the three largest challenges facing anyone who tries to expand gas production and pipelines on Canada’s frontiers.

As an amateur ice hockey coach, Vollman described missing links in Canadian energy supply development policy for native-dominated regions like the NWT with a sports metaphor, suggesting that the gaps are still big enough to stop industry cold.

Project “proponents or players that start the game in the absence of adequate Crown (government) consultation with Aboriginals run the risk of being sent to the penalty box either right away or later on in the game,” Vollman said. “In addition, the nature of the penalty may be such that it cripples the team — perhaps even ending the game altogether.”

So far, progress on developing rules of the frontier gas industry game is limited to “a number of draft protocols out there that are being worked on.” Unanswered questions, despite recent legal rulings, still include what government department or agency should take responsibility for aboriginal concerns and how they should be addressed.

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