VICTORIA — A second British Columbia First Nation says it has signed on to a sharing agreement with Enbridge Inc., (TSX:ENB) in exchange for its support for the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, but just as the first deal was nullified after an internal fight, this second one, too, appears in jeopardy after the chief that signed the agreement was turfed and a new band council looks at whether they can get out of it.
It’s an indication of the delicate job Enbridge has undertaken to ensure aboriginal bands along the pipeline route are adequately consulted, and it’s also an example of why aboriginal groups who might be interested in exchanging their support for some much-needed revenue from the project are reluctant to speak about it openly.
Enbridge maintains it has the support of 20 of an estimated 43 bands located within 80 kilometres of the proposed twin pipelines and about half of those 20 are in British Columbia, including the deal the Gitxsan signed and then rejected.
But telephone calls to the band offices of those B.C. First Nations along the pipeline route turned up only one other band that has signed a deal.
Recently-elected Yekooche First Nation Chief Henry Joseph said he’s called in lawyers to review the agreement his predecessor chief and council signed with Enbridge to share part of the pipeline profits.
“The previous chief and council had their own view and my view and the elders council view reflects what the views of my members are and that, you can deduce, is very different,” said Joseph from his Prince George, B.C. office.
But Joseph said it’s too early to declare the deal between his First Nation and Enbridge dead.
Last month, the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs of northwest B.C., voted to reject a $7 million Enbridge equity-sharing deal that lone Gitxsan Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick signed on behalf of the chiefs.
Calgary-based Enbridge says it offered the 43 B.C. and Alberta First Nations located along the proposed 1,177-kilometre pipeline route from Bruderheim, Alta., to Kitimat, B.C. a 10 per cent equity stake in the project, worth about $400 million.
Enbridge spokesman Paul Stanway won’t name the 20 the company says have already signed.
“The deals we have with them, talking to the media is not one of the requirements,” said Stanway.
The Canadian Press contacted the more than 20 B.C. First Nations along the pipeline route, with only former Yekooche chief Partner Schielke confirming outright a deal with Enbridge.
Others, including the Burns Lake Indian Band, said they signed protocols with the company, but didn’t yet consider them equity deals. The Prince George area Lheidli T’enneh Band and Terrace’s Kitselas Indian Band, expressed interested in Enbridge, but say they have yet to sign anything.
The Terrace-area Kitkatla First Nation and Burns Lake’s Lake Babine Nation said they had worked with Enbridge in the past, but are no longer interested in Northern Gateway.
The Prince George-area McLeod Lake First Nation, the Fort St. John-area West Moberly First Nations and the Burns Lake-area Skin Tyee First Nation, did not return repeated telephone calls.
The situation is in stark contrast to that in Alberta, where First Nations support appears more open and pragmatic. Leaders there are concerned about their land title rights and what they will receive if the project goes ahead.
“If Enbridge does get the approval for this project, I would like to be able to ensure that Enoch Cree Nation can work alongside with Enbridge to ensure employment for our band members — to be able to be there during the construction phase if anything is found, whether it be graves, old Indian artifacts, so that we can provide and do the ceremonies that are required,” the band’s Leigh Ann Ward told Northern Gateway review hearings in Edmonton last month.
But the The Yekooche and Gitxsan are reflective of the tough slogging Enbridge faces in B.C. when it comes to convincing aboriginals to sign on to the pipeline project.
There’s genuine interest among some aboriginals, but fierce local politics, the absence of signed treaties, widespread distrust of the pipeline and fear of an environmental disaster are proving enormous challenges to overcome for Enbridge, despite the company’s public image that all’s well.
“We believe we are having successful talks with a number of First Nations,” said Stanway. “First Nations have a lot of concerns and we need to address those concerns and we’ve been trying in good faith to do that.”
He acknowledged the lack of signed land-claims treaties in much of British Columbia “complicates the issue.”
Prof. George Hoberg, an environmental and natural resource policy and governance expert at the University of B.C., said aboriginal court challenges of the pipeline are likely despite Enbridge’s efforts to reach deals with First Nations.
“Current Canadian law does not require that the government get approval of First Nations in order to proceed with a project like this,” he said. “It does, however, require that First Nations be consulted and accommodated. The burden of accommodation will be very challenging in this case with so many First Nation so adamantly opposed.”
After Derrick signed with Enbridge last December, he was forced into hiding after band members nailed shut his office in Hazelton, posted a 24-hour watch nearby and put up Derrick-wanted posters across northwest B.C.
A leaked copy of the rejected Enbridge-Gitxsan equity deal reveals the public role the Gitxsan were expected to take in supporting the pipeline.
The 32-page agreement says one of its primary purposes is “to encourage (the Gitxsan) to participate in and support the Northern Gateway Project, through the regulatory process, during construction and throughout its lifetime of service to Canada’s energy industry.”
Burns Lake Indian Band Chief Al Gerow said he was preparing to launch a local Northern Gateway awareness campaign last month when disaster struck his community, increasing the pipeline stakes.
An explosion that levelled Burns Lake’s Babine Forest Products mill, killing two people, injuring 19 others and putting 250 people out of work indefinitely, has Gerow and others taking a harder look at an Enbridge equity deal.
Gerow said a previous council signed a protocol agreement with Enbridge to study the pipeline proposal, but did not sign the equity deal.
Gerow said he’s now interested in the business opportunities offered by Enbridge, even though he and others are aware of the environmental risks of an oil spill.
The Enbridge equity deal offered to his First Nation includes $7 million, he said.
“From a business perspective, what that would offer a band to do is have an anchor to be able to utilize those resources to create other economic opportunities for the community,” said Gerow. “I’ve advised Enbridge that I do want to canvass each and every one of our band members to find out specifically what their feelings are and what they feel we should do.”
Neighbouring Chief Wilf Adam of the Lake Babine First Nation said his band worked with Enbridge in the past, but now rejects the project on grounds that an environmentally damaging spill is inevitable.
Adam said the proposed pipeline route passes less than 100 metres from his home.
Grand Chief Ed John of B.C.’s First Nations Summit, the largest aboriginal organization in the province, said he questions what Enbridge is calling deals with First Nations because he’s not hearing much support for the pipeline.
“They’re spinning their stories,” he said. “You give the community a bit of money to do some research on the impacts of the project, does that mean the community supports the project? No. Enbridge is telling communities that if we provide funds to you, you can’t oppose the project.”
Stanway maintains the deals Enbridge has with the First Nations “are not expressions of interest. They are signed agreements.”