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Pushing Enbridge pipeline through without First Nations' consent?

Last week, some of the biggest players in the North American oil and gas markets gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver for the Canadian Oil and Gas Export Summit. While protesters outside the hotel yelled “No tankers, no pipelines, no tar sands,” industry insiders presented their visions for the future development of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project, the Keystone XL pipeline, and Alberta tarsands oil.

This is the second of a special three-part series on the Summit.

(Page 2 of 3)

Ford warned audiences that engagement with First Nations would become more complicated in the future, not less. Following the Save the Fraser declaration, First Nations have become increasingly dramatic in voicing their opposition, such as the Bella Bella student hunger strike and the Yinka Dene Alliance Freedom Train, which culminated with a mass protest and disruption of Enbridge's annual general meeting in May.

Coupled with environmental non-government organizations (ENGO)s, he said, the tactics risked becoming more confrontational in the future.

“ENGOs are most effective when they align with First Nations,” he said. This pairing is powerful because environmental groups are “often far more nimble and determined and far better at communication than government and industry” and “well-funded”.   The First Nations, meanwhile, had well-defined rights over their traditional land and could use them to block the kinds of developments that environmentalists opposed.

When an audience member questioned whether a small group of First Nations could actually win a legal battle against pipeline proponents, Ford responded succinctly:

“There's a long line of dead lawyers who have fought Aboriginal rights and title.”

Whether they acknowledge it or not, he said, the First Nations were a “fourth level of government”. Proper engagement with First Nations leaders, he stressed, was in some ways even more important to the regulators than any other aspect of a project — more than engineering, more than economics. Screwing up on First Nations engagement, he said, would likely make any industry proponent the equivalent of a “project manager barista”.

The spectre of Exxon Valdez

Ford outlined the “visceral” importance of clean water to the coastal First Nations – anything that has an impact on the water, he said, has a profound effect on the First Nations. He also pointed to the spectre of the Exxon Valdez spill – a “dumb, dumb, dumb” accident – as the reason for which many Aboriginals are wary of the Northern Gateway pipeline.

"We really struggle as industry proponents with how we marry society's desires with the business drivers that underpin every project," he said. "If a project is designed by an engineer, you know there is a start date and end date. We struggle with how that can be managed to achieve social license."

Ford said the pipeline could be approved, but that there were major challenges ahead due to the current opposition of First Nations leaders.

Enbridge will go through: Paul Fisher

The last speaker of the day after Ford was Enbridge commercial's vice president, Paul Fisher. Fisher’s presentation was a marked contrast to Ford’s. Fisher emphasized the economic benefits of the pipeline to First Nations and assured that the Northern Gateway pipeline would go through because it would increase Canada's competitiveness in the global market. 

At one point during his brief presentation, Fisher showed a PowerPoint slide with the words “civil disobedience will result.” It was an unsourced quote from an article about how First Nations groups would respond if Northern Gateway were approved.

In a chastising tone, Fisher smiled and remarked: 

That's not how you try and get along with people.” 

While Ford stressed the importance of consultation with First Nations, Fisher presented a more nuanced picture of Aboriginal rights in the face of developer interests:

“Aboriginal treaty rights are not absolute,” he said. “Rights may be infringed upon. If infringement does occur, consultation is required. A project proponent has the obligation to mitigate infringement or provide accommodation, but that must be proportional to the scope and scale of the infringement. Accommodation can be reduced by a court.”

Fisher stressed the gains that First Nations stand to make by supporting Enbridge on the pipeline: 

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