By Lloyd Dolha
First Nations from across the province voiced their outrage at the Harper government’s open advocacy for the proposed Enbridge Gateway pipeline on the eve of the public federal environmental hearings on the matter—a move First Nations say undermines the integrity of the process by essentially creating a predetermined outcome. “Federal politicians advocating for and promoting the proposed Enbridge project before the environmental review commences puts the entire review process in jeopardy,” said Grand Chief Ed John, a leading member of the First Nations Summit political executive. “We question how the three National Energy Board panelists, who were appointed by the federal government, can fairly review this proposal when the prime minister and minister of natural resources openly promote what they perceive as the necessary outcome?” He added, “In the end, it will be the federal government which decides on the panel’s report, a decision that has apparently already been made.”
At issue is an open letter sent out by the federal minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, touting Canada’s “commitment to diversify our energy markets.” In the letter, Oliver cites the need for Canada to diversify our natural resource products away from our traditional U.S. trading partner to the booming Asia-Pacific market economies in order to create employment and economic growth and ensure increased financial security for western Canadian families. “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade…” writes Minister Oliver. “These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national interest.” The slant appears to be a direct reference to the $16 million in funding received by BC Aboriginal groups from the Coast Opportunity Funds, a group connected to foreign foundations that fund anti-oil sands projects and their perceived influence on the federal environmental hearings on the proposed pipeline.
In response to Minister Oliver’s assertions, the Dene Nation of Yellowknife charged that the panel hearings on the proposed Enbridge pipeline are being hijacked by foreign-funded radicals are misinformed and “constitute an attempt at inappropriate influence over the regulatory process.” “The minister’s allegations about radicals using foreign money to achieve an ideological agenda were sweeping, and we assume he was referring to the Dene Nation and other First Nations and aboriginal organizations participating in the review process,” said Dene national chief Bill Erasmus. “Our mandate is to preserve and protect our communities, our land, and our culture, and it is our democratic right to participate in hearings that will impact us.” Dene chiefs will present oral evidence at the hearing in Edmonton later this month. Prime Minister Stephen Harper further invoked the ire of First Nations in a CBC interview. “I don’t object to foreigners expressing their opinion,” Harper said. “But I don’t want them to be able to hijack the process so that we don’t make a decision that’s timely or in the interests of Canadians.”
The Yinka Dene Alliance, a group of five First Nations who are leading opponents of the pipeline project, also expressed their outrage at the comments made by the prime minister and the minister of natural resources attacking foreign “radicals” fighting against the national interest. The Yinka Dene accused Minister Oliver of disrespecting the federal government’s own laws and the rights of First Nations in his attack on opposition to the pipeline. “The fix is in with this government. How can any Canadian trust that the Enbridge review process will be conducted fairly and independently with Harper breathing down the review panel’s neck?” asked Chief Larry Nooski of the Yinka Dene Alliance. “We have had deep concerns about this Enbridge review process from the very beginning because it doesn’t respect First Nations rights.” “It’s ludicrous for the federal minister to parrot tar sands lobbyists by directly attacking our communities that have decided the Enbridge project is too dangerous and against our laws,” added Chief Nooski. “We’re not foreign. These are our lands. To imply that our decision against Enbridge has been manipulated is deeply disrespectful of First Nations people and our many neighbours who have joined our cause and support our decision to refuse this pipeline.”
The Joint Review Panel is the independent body mandated by the federal environment ministry and the National Energy Board. The three-member panel includes Sheila Leggett, a vice-chair of the National Energy Board, Kenneth Bateman, an energy lawyer and former executive of the energy sector and Hans Matthews, a geologist with a background in mining, minerals, and resource management. Their recommendations and environmental assessment of the project will inform the federal government’s final decision on the pipeline based on whether or not it is in the public’s best interest. The hearings are scheduled to last up to 18 months in BC and Alberta, and more than 4,000 people and groups have applied to give oral evidence before the panel.
The immense scope of the highly controversial project has BC First Nations seeking a higher standard of consultation of “informed consent” on the matter because of the risks inherent to First Nations. “The federal government has a clear legal to consult with First Nations,” added John. “Given the long list of Supreme Court decisions on the range of consultation options and given the magnitude of potential impacts of Enbridge’s proposal, the necessary consultation standard must be to seek the informed consent of First Nations whose Aboriginal title and rights will be impacted by this proposed project.”