In a sign of the times, a descendant of a renowned Canadian native statesman has become the first aboriginal member of the National Energy Board. After eight years of battles that repeatedly slowed down Canada’s northern natural gas pipeline project and amid signs the conflicts are spreading, aboriginal relations are emerging as a government and industry priority. Strater Crowfoot — a former Siksika (Blackfoot) chief whose great-great grandfather, Chief Crowfoot, a Canadian counterpart to Sitting Bull in the American West, led high plains tribes of hunters and warriors to open southern Alberta for peaceful settlement by signing Treaty 7 in 1877 — joined the NEB this month.

Soon after the federal cabinet in Ottawa made the appointment, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who comes from the gas industry capital of Calgary, confirmed that the struggles of industrial projects in regions of large native populations have caught the government’s eye.

At the same time, in NEB hearing rooms and offices, native rights conflicts were spreading from arctic gas to oilsands pipeline projects. Simpcw First Nation, a branch of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) in British Columbia, urged the NEB to suspend approval of a C$400 million (US$360 million) plan by Kinder Morgan Canada Inc. to increase capacity on its Trans Mountain Pipe Line carrying oil from Edmonton to Vancouver. The proposal is one step in a phased, multibillion-dollar program of increasing Alberta exports to the U.S. West Coast, the Gulf of Mexico region and eventually Asia.

The Simpcw, who claim ancestral rights to the B.C. interior crossed by Trans Mountain, plus Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park, demanded special compensation and environmental hearings in their capital at Barriere, 41 miles north of Kamloops.

The NEB reserved decision on the demand after a long legal wrangle. Enbridge Inc.’s C$4 billion (US$3.6 billion) Gateway Pipeline proposal, for a new oilsands delivery route from Edmonton to a proposed supertanker terminal on B.C.’s Pacific coast at Kitimat, has also run afoul of native claims.

Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, a Prince George counterpart to the Deh Cho coalition resisting the C$7.5 billion (US$6.8 billion) Mackenzie Gas Project in the southern Northwest Territories, has warned the NEB not to proceed on the Gateway construction application scheduled for later this year. A possibility of legal appeals clouds the outlook for the oil plan, just as an unresolved Deh Cho lawsuit continues to hang over the gas project.

As in the arctic gas case, aboriginal quarrels ignited by oilsands pipelines are more about national policy than industry plans.

In the Gateway tangle, the native demand, echoing a Deh Cho grievance about the MGP, is for seats on the economic and environmental review panel that will determine the project’s fate. The resistance feeds on court rulings since the mid-1990s that recognition of aboriginal communities as First Nations by an ’80s Canadian constitutional reform was not merely symbolic. The decisions say there are genuine aboriginal rights to traditional tribal territories, whether or not the land involved is inside official reserves established by formal treaties.

Just what the rights are, and what requirements they create for other land users such as pipeline projects, remains to be determined by the NEB, the courts and negotiations. Crowfoot emphasized, in an interview, that the federal cabinet did not appoint him to the NEB only to fight for one faction in its many-sided cases. He is a judge rather than an advocate. “I’m here to do a job for all Canadians, not just the one group,” he said.

But Crowfoot and his heritage add a dimension to the NEB because its members do much more than sit on project approval panels. They craft practical methods of implementing national policy in fields ranging from pipeline safety and tolls to energy trade and environmental protection. Unfinished work at the board includes a new manual for carrying out government commitments as well as the court rulings requiring native consultation on energy developments.

The NEB withdrew a guidance document as a result of the latest legal decisions. Industry, and especially the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association, has been looking for clear instructions ever since. “I’m a resource here,” Crowfoot said as he moved into his new job. “I think I bring a different perspective.”

Crowfoot, 51, served five two-year terms since 1987 as elected chief of Siksika Nation east of Calgary, Canada’s second-largest reserve. For more than seven years he headed Indian Oil and Gas Canada, an agency responsible for royalties from production on reserves. He also worked as vice-chairman of the Indian Taxation Advisory Board, which develops reserve property tax systems across the country.

As he took his place at the NEB, he did not announce any advice or telegraph how he will decide cases. But his views showed in an address to the 2006 annual spring conference of the Canadian Association of Members of Public Utility Tribunals, an Ottawa assembly of senior officials from provincial agencies such as the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board as well as federal agencies.

“The first key…is to understand that First Nations ultimately want the same thing as everyone else,” Crowfoot said. “We want business and job opportunities on our lands. We want revenues that help us build infrastructure and provide better quality services that help our people. In fact, if anything we want these things more than other Canadians because they are precisely what we are missing now.”

Native communities “of course” protect their environment, sacred places and traditional livelihoods, he said. But aboriginal hunter-warrior heritage and industry can be a good match, he suggested. “My personal perspective is that resource development today is no different than the buffalo hunt was in the past. These resources are gifts of the mother earth,” Crowfoot said.

He advocated policies to help with the hunt for economic big game. He suggested a national agency for negotiating aboriginal participation in resource projects, clarified property and business rights on native land, improved federal accountability for payments to reserves, and a financial vehicle that would enable First Nations to sell bonds or borrow funds for industrial partnerships. Businesslike native affairs policies would tackle causes of disputes before the NEB. “The bad news is that it is not easy right now for a First Nation to share in the benefits of a resource project,” Crowfoot said.

The Canadian prime minister trekked to the Northwest Territories capital of Yellowknife to highlight the national government’s desire to see the MGP built. “I see the pipeline as a symbol,” Harper said. “If it proceeds it will signal to the investment capitals of the world that Canada’s North has finally come of age. In a speech in London, England, last month, I described Canada as an emerging energy superpower. Some of that energy is in the Mackenzie Delta, and there is much more waiting to be discovered in the Eastern and High Arctic.”

The prime minister acknowledged that northern business leaders, including Delta aboriginal chiefs, as well as gas industry executives were annoyed when the MGP’s environmental Joint Review Panel of NEB, federal, territorial and native representatives announced an extension of hearings into next April to accommodate everyone who wants a say. “So be it,” Harper said. “After 30 years I suppose the project can wait another five months. The regulatory process must be allowed to run its course. But we should take this time to ask ourselves some hard questions. Like why it takes so long to get approval for your resource projects in the North.”

Complex federal supervision of northern territorial and aboriginal affairs alike is at least partly to blame, the prime minister said. “For many years Ottawa has done as much to frustrate northern development as to facilitate it.” As a Conservative, he was referring to a system that has grown up over generations of mostly Liberal regimes in Ottawa. His administration, still less than a year old, intends to make a difference if it lasts, he indicated. The Tories echo Crowfoot in setting their hearts on a more independent Canadian North as a jurisdiction capable of dealing with projects efficiently.

The Tory targets include “devolution,” or at least province-like resource ownership and development jurisdiction, and revenue-sharing that stops Ottawa from siphoning off all the proceeds, he said. But territorial communities were also warned they have to contribute by learning to co-operate with industry.

While a “new deal” is possible, “it won’t happen unless the North builds an open, competitive market economy where the resource industry can flourish,” Harper said. “It won’t happen unless you make sure projects like the Mackenzie Pipeline come to fruition.”

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