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Aboriginal Leaders Angered by Outright Government Support of Northern Gateway Pipeline

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Aboriginal leaders from around the country came down on Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver this week for voicing support of Enbridge Corp.’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the British Columbia coast for pickup in Kitimat by mega-tankers.

“The First Nations Leadership Council is greatly troubled by recent comments by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver advocating for the proposed Enbridge Gateway pipeline to proceed even before the Joint Review Panel’s environmental review has begun,” the First Nations Leadership Council said in a commentary published in the Rossland Telegraph.

They and other aboriginal leaders were responding to statements made by Oliver in a public letter released on the eve of hearings into the $5.5 billion, 730-mile-long dual pipeline. In it, he suggested that radical, foreign groups based in the United States were funding the opposition. At the same time, Harper was promulgating the pipeline project.

The hearings before the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project Joint Review Panel began on January 10 in Kitimat, British Columbia, with testimony from six Haisla First Nation hereditary chiefs.

"Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth," Oliver wrote, according to CTV News. "No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams."

Aboriginal leaders and Liberal Party officials said such statements were inappropriate and jeopardized the impartiality of the panel.

“Federal politicians advocating for and promoting the proposed Enbridge project before the environmental review commences puts the entire review process in jeopardy,” Grand Chief Edward John said in the chiefs’ statement. “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 Environment openly promote what they perceive as the necessary outcome? In the end, it will be the federal government which decides on the panel’s report, a decision that has apparently already been made.”

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs wrote an open letter to Harper and Premiere Christy Clark reiterating its November 2011 resolution, the Coastal First Nations Tanker Ban and Save the Fraser Declaration, which “prohibit the transportation of crude oil by pipeline and tanker on the north and south coast and through the Fraser River watershed,” the group wrote in the letter. “As Indigenous Peoples, we continue to exercise our laws and jurisdiction to protect our lands, our waters, our coasts and our rivers, as we have done for thousands of years and both the Save the Fraser Declaration and the Coast First Nations Tanker Ban are grounded in our laws.”

The hearings in the Haisla First Nation village began with a welcome ceremony, after which six Haisla hereditary chiefs spoke of the land’s bounty and their distrust of the way companies would handle an oil spill.

“We the Haisla people are standing in front of a double-barreled shotgun,” said Chief Ken Hall, speaking to the panel. “The proposed pipeline will come through our back door. And the ships will come in and transport the crude oil. The impact of any spill will be a disaster.”

Hearings will continue through spring 2013. More than 4,000 people and groups have signed up to give testimony.

Pipeline proponents say that over the course of the project, it will generate 600,000 sorely needed jobs. The fight parallels the struggle in Washington, D.C., against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would wend its way south from the oil fields to the Gulf of Mexico. That decision is pending.

But aboriginals say the economic development does not weigh much next to the impact it would have on the land that sustains everyone. And they said they will take a firm stand against destructive development, especially without adequate consultation.

“The federal government has a clear legal responsibility to consult with First Nations,” John said in the chiefs’ statement. “Given the long list of Supreme Court decisions on the range of consultation options and given the magnitude of the 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.”