VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada must do more to build trust with aboriginal communities to win their support for resource projects such as oil pipelines and natural gas terminals, a government report said on Thursday.
“There has not been a constructive dialogue about energy projects. Aboriginal leaders are prepared to engage and Canada will need to address issues on their agenda,” Douglas Eyford, the federal government’s special representative on west coast energy infrastructure, said in the 58-page report.
Eyford was appointed in March to look at ways of boosting energy exports while increasing aboriginal participation in the economy.
Canada has long had poor relations with its million-strong native Indian population, which is largely beset with poverty, poor housing and high unemployment.
Unhappiness is growing and, over the last year, aboriginal bands have blockaded roads and rail lines and barricaded entry to mining and energy projects.
Many aboriginal bands strongly dislike Enbridge Corp’s plans for the Northern Gateway pipeline to take crude from the Alberta tar sands to the Pacific Coast of British Columbia and then on to Asian customers.
Some oppose the pipeline on environmental grounds, while others complain the government has long ignored laws that say they must be consulted on industrial development.
“Canada must take decisive steps to build trust with aboriginal Canadians, to foster their inclusion into the economy, and to advance the reconciliation of aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people,” Eyford said.
Energy projects could provide training, jobs and business opportunities for aboriginal people in Alberta and British Columbia, the report said.
“Historically, aboriginal Canadians have not benefited from natural resource developments in their traditional territories to the same degree as non-aboriginal Canadians,” wrote Eyford, who spent eight months consulting with aboriginal communities.
But while aboriginal leaders were aware of the potential benefits resource development could bring their people, the report found that environmental impact remains a major concern.
“Aboriginal Canadians view themselves as connected to the environment and as its stewards; this is an integral aspect of their culture. The projects, by their nature, create potential hazards in the terrestrial and marine environments,” he wrote.
Speaking at the release of the report in Vancouver, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said the government is listening to First Nation concerns and noted that economic interests would not outweigh safety on resource developments.
“We are determined to have world-class standards for the transport of our resources, whether it be by rail, pipeline or tanker,” he said. “We will not approve any projects that are not safe for Canadians and safe for the environment.”
Still, native leaders questioned government willingness to consult with them in a meaningful manner, especially if their views ultimately ran counter to Ottawa’s interests.
“Within this report, there’s some very clear recommendations to empower First Nations to participate and it can’t just simply be a way to corral us toward an answer of ‘yes,'” said Chief Bob Chamberlin of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
“There’s no sense in going through the process if that’s the only answer they’re going to have ears to listen to.”
At a separate event in Vancouver, members of the Yinka Dene Alliance, an aboriginal group, signed a solidarity accord with unions, environmental groups and a tourism trade association against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. Energy regulators are due to rule on the controversial proposal this month.
Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP has also proposed a new pipeline to carry oil from Alberta to the coast.
Chief Martin Louie of the Nadleh Whut‘en Nation told reporters that transporting crude oil across British Columbia and along its coast is simply too risky.
“The most precious thing on earth is water and that’s what we’re trying to protect,” he said, adding his alliance would take action to stop projects if they go ahead. “In trying to protect the future of our children, anybody would stand in the way of any development and that’s what we’re prepared to do.”
Aboriginal groups worry about the impact a major spill, like the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska, would have on the province’s salmon population and other wildlife.
In an effort to calm fears, the government on Tuesday released a report urging an overhaul of tanker safety plans and said it would address the recommendations ahead of any increase in traffic on Canadian waters.
Reporting by Julie Gordon.; Editing by David Ljunggren, Andre Grenon and Dan Grebler