Since his appointment three months ago as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's envoy for First Nations and energy issues in Western Canada, Doug Eyford has mostly stayed out of the public eye.
He has been spending almost half his days on the road, seeking to identify First Nations concerns about the development of oil and gas pipelines across B.C. Then he will recommend ways to accommodate them.
His report is not due until November, but in an interview with The Globe and Mail, he says one thing is already clear: A one-size-fits-all policy won't solve the challenges ahead. There is reason for optimism, however. The B.C. government's work to enlist the support of aboriginal communities on a natural gas pipeline, Pacific Trail, could hold the key to success.
Joe Oliver [Minister of Natural Resources] tells me you are making progress – can you bring us up to speed? I haven't heard much since your appointment was announced.
That has been deliberate. I'm not holding public meetings with the people I'm seeing. I'm having discussions with First Nations representatives, project proponents and representatives from the B.C. and Alberta governments. I'm able to tell you the dialogue has been respectful and constructive.
Relationship-building is key – it's an essential element for governments to make progress on First Nations' issues, and that's the consistent message I'm hearing.
There was some skepticism when your appointment was announced about whether First Nations would talk to you, because of their suspicions about the agenda of the Harper government.
I've certainly encountered very willing participants to sit down and discuss this issue. Everyone that I've asked to meet with, has agreed to meet. There have been challenges in setting up the meetings – you can often travel 12 hours for a 90-minute meeting with one group. I'm doing my best. I expect by late summer I will have met with all of the groups that are directly affected on the pipeline routes.
Have there been any surprises, or a single event that gives you a sense of the challenge in meeting your mandate?
The biggest challenge – not for me but for government – will be to address the diversity of views from the various communities. It's difficult to identify a consensus view among First Nations groups. Each has different perspectives based on geography, traditions, capacity and experience with economic development in their traditional territories. My preliminary view is that trying to address that diversity of views with one government policy is probably not the most pragmatic way for governments to proceed.
Does the B.C. government have a role in moving this file forward?
What the province did on the Pacific Trail Pipeline initiative, to me, is an indication of how governments can, in a creative and flexible way, address First Nations issues and also provide incentives for First Nations to become partners in energy projects. And B.C. has demonstrated with its reconciliation protocols on forestry a different way for governments to involve First Nations communities in economic development.
I'm trying to find a diplomatic way to ask this, but, do they get it in Ottawa? There seems to have been a miscalculation, on the part of Enbridge, at least, on how to proceed in B.C. How does Ottawa view this challenge?
I think there is a general understanding of the nature of the challenge in relation to these projects.
This interview has been edited and condensed.