A day after native groups rallied in a show of force against the Northern Gateway project, a hereditary chief announced that the Gitxsan people had signed on as a partner in the $5.5-billion proposal – allowing Enbridge to make good on its contention that native opposition to the company's plans is far from unanimous.
But even as Enbridge welcomed the support of the Gitxsan nation and praised the vision of its leaders, dozens of native groups remained staunchly opposed, insisting that the pipeline-and-tanker project poses an unacceptable risk of oil spills and other problems.
"Enbridge has always had a strategy of offering money to lots of First Nations. Lots of First Nations have refused this money," Chief Jackie Thomas of Saik'uz First Nation, said in a statement, adding that Enbridge is using a "divide and conquer" tactic in an attempt to win over its critics.
The Saik'uz, along with dozens of other bands, have signed a declaration opposing the project, which would ship crude oil from Alberta to the B.C. coast and condensate from Kitimat to Alberta.
And it's not clear that the agreement – which hereditary chief Elmer Derrick announced on behalf of the Gitxsan hereditary chiefs – will be universally welcomed even in Gitxsan territory.
Under the agreement, the Gitxsan would receive an undisclosed stake in the project and would receive at least $7-million in net profit over the life of the project.
"This agreement was done by the few, not by the many," Norman Stephens, also a hereditary chief, said in a telephone interview from his home in Gitanmaax.
Mr. Stephens said he knew nothing about the pact until he heard about it Friday and called it an "embarrassment" to the Gitxsan.
"Seven million dollars is a very small amount of cash when you look at all the damage that could be done – not just to Gitxsan territory, but to all the other nations," Mr. Stephens said, adding that the pact undermines positions of bands that stand to be more directly affected by the project.
On a conference call with reporters, Mr. Derrick said the agreement was reached after several years of discussions between hereditary chiefs and Northern Gateway representatives.
As part of its approach, Enbridge has agreed to provide a 10-per-cent equity stake to aboriginal groups who help finance the project and agreed to provide financing to ensure groups have money to take advantage of the offer.
The Gitxsan people, who were involved in a landmark native-rights court case in the 1990s, claim a territory of 33,000 kilometres in northwestern B.C.
The pipeline route does not cross Gitxsan territory but it does cross five or six streams that drain into Babine Lake, which is a source of salmon that Gitxsan rely on, Mr. Derrick said.
Asked about the potential rift with other bands, Mr. Derrick said he hoped there would be no negative repercussions.
"Hopefully it will not impact our relationships negatively – we have always been frank with our opinions on different projects."
Mr. Derrick said the project would bring jobs and opportunity to an area characterized by high unemployment and few opportunities, noting that many Gitxsan people have trained in trades but have to leave the region to find employment.
Enbridge says the project would involve a peak work force of about 3,000 people during construction and employ about 1,150 people during operations.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in Burlington, Ont. to open a new arts centre, was asked by reporters to talk about the importance of the Northern Gateway project.
Canada's economic prosperity depends on its resource development and, in particular, the development of its energy sector which is one of the largest and growing sectors of the Canadian economy, he said.
There are rigorous processes in place, both in terms of consultations with aboriginal groups and environmental assessment, and those processes will continue, he said.
With a report from Gloria Galloway