CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - A coalition of British Columbia native leaders who oppose plans for a major oil pipeline through their lands criticized Canada's natural resource minister on Wednesday for remarks they said appeared to prejudge the regulatory outcome.
The Yinka Dene Alliance, made up of five aboriginal groups, said Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's comments about being supportive of Enbridge Inc's C$5.4 billion ($5.7 billion) Northern Gateway pipeline showed the process is "deeply flawed."
The project, which would take oil sands-derived crude to the Pacific Coast from Alberta, is aimed at opening up lucrative Asian markets. The aboriginal groups, whose lands make up about a quarter of the proposed route, have staunchly opposed it, despite Enbridge's offer of equity stakes.
"Communities across the North have been told we're supposed to bring our concerns forward to the National Energy Board. But now we have the federal minister saying that they've made their decision in Ottawa without hearing from a single soul at the hearings," Chief Fred Sam of the Nak'azdli First Nation said in a statement.
On Tuesday, following meetings in Alberta with his provincial and territorial counterparts, Oliver said he is supportive of Northern Gateway because it would reduce Canada's reliance on the United States as a buyer of the country's oil.
That would benefit the entire Canadian economy, he said. The federal-provincial talks were aimed at developing a national energy strategy.
Regulatory hearings into the project are scheduled to begin before the National Energy Board and a Joint Review Panel in early 2012.
"We think it's crazy for the minister to say that this project is in the national interest. This is in the interest of Enbridge. This project will violate our rights and those of many other First Nations," Takla Lake Chief Dolly Abraham said. "We need a process that recognizes our right to make decisions about how our lands are used."
Last week, Oliver said that Ottawa would respect the jurisdictional rights of provinces and native groups as it works to advance policies to bolster Canada's position as a major global energy supplier.
"We have to work together and arrive at solutions. We're not riding roughshod over anybody," he said in Calgary.
The other members of the central British Columbia alliance are the Nadleh Whut'en, Saik'uz and Wet'suwet'en First Nations.
Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; editing by Rob Wilson