Canada's national chief says developments need native approval

Tue Jul 24, 2012 6:24pm EDT
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By Scott Haggett

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The head of Canada's national aboriginal lobby made a forceful call on Tuesday that the country's natives be included as key players in decisions on the development of natural resources on their lands, as well as sharing in the revenues.

Shawn Atleo, who was re-elected last week as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in an interview that the Canadian government and the companies looking to exploit natural resources on First Nations territories must move to include aboriginal groups in the development process and get their consent before mines, pipelines or other projects go ahead.

"The requirement for consent ... is so very clear that First Nations will have a say," he said. "The opportunity that presents itself is for First Nations to move from being an afterthought, groups that are courted well after a project is well under way through its development process. That has never been acceptable but it's becoming even more recognized today that First Nations must have a meaningful role to play."

Many of the 630 aboriginal communities represented by the Assembly of First Nations are affected by mining developments or projects like Enbridge Inc's planned C$6 billion ($5.9 billion) Northern Gateway Pipeline project, which will take oil sands crude to a port at Kitimat on British Columbia's Pacific coast.

Northern Gateway has the support of the federal government, and on Monday, the British Columbia government outlined five conditions, including aboriginal consultation, needed for the project to win its approval.

The federal government has acknowledged it is required to consult with First Nations groups before approving the project, and National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on the project have heard from First Nations affected by the pipeline. But Atleo said those consultations have been inadequate.

"Both the NEB, as well as the current environmental assessment process, fall far short of common law" requirements, he said. "The new standard which is minimally acceptable from an international perspective is free, prior and informed consent. That is a banner that we'll stand firmly behind."

Atleo also said that revenue sharing from resource development is key to boosting the economic development of often impoverished aboriginal communities and building support for resource-development projects among native groups.

"A fair share of resources from our territories is at the forefront and a way to support First Nations out of poverty and into prosperity," he said.

(Editing by Leslie Adler)