Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told a reporter on Friday that he believed the Northern Gateway pipeline, pending regulatory approval, could still be built "if the conclusion is this project can be safe for Canadians, safe for the environment."
Now, after 25 days into a hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally agreed to schedule a meeting with first nations leaders to discuss treaty rights. Mr. Oliver should be part of that discussion; though first nations treaty rights and Northern Gateway may appear to be separate issues, the Harper government's insistence on treating them as unrelated seems increasingly tone deaf.
The inextricable link between the two issues is evident to anyone who has followed the Idle No More movement. Its anger was sparked by provisions in the federal government's omnibus Bill C-45 to reduce the number of federally protected waterways and change treaty rights unilaterally; both of these moves were seemingly intended to make way for pipeline development. The subsequent Idle No More actions have gathered significant numbers of protesters across the country, but none of them were as well-attended as those in Western Canada, where Northern Gateway's impact will be most keenly felt. Last month, B.C. mayors Gregor Robertson of Vancouver and Taylor Bachrach of Smithers signed onto a declaration opposing the pipeline, joining numerous first nations leaders in a public ceremony.
Mr. Oliver might well argue that aboriginal affairs are not his brief. But Chief Spence has already surmised that John Duncan, the current Aboriginal Affairs Minister, is not empowered to solve her problems (the Chief described Mr. Duncan pithily: "Before he would answer a question, he would always look at his people. He's not the Prime Minister.") Right now, treaty rights aren't just an aboriginal affairs matter, they're also a resources issue. They certainly affect the bottom line; a 2009 Pricewaterhousecoopers study estimated the benefits of settling treaties in B.C. at $14.5-billion, at least.
Wherever opposition to Northern Gateway is rallied, first nations are there too, and their message is clear: Environmental issues and treaty rights will not be resolved separately. Failing to allay either set of concerns could scuttle major economically important infrastructure projects, and do irrevocable damage to Canada's energy industry. If Mr. Oliver and the Harper government are serious about developing projects like Northern Gateway, and making the most of our resources, they have to address the concerns of Canada's first nations head on.