Respect is key to aboriginal approval of Northern Gateway pipeline – by Brian Lee Crowley (Globe and Mail – May 16, 2013)

Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Contrary to what regular readers of newspapers might believe, aboriginal communities in Canada are not knee-jerk opponents of development. On the contrary, a careful reading of their recent responses to development proposals gives reason for optimism.

Perhaps the highest-profile example of a major natural resource project facing roadblocks in large part because of aboriginal opposition is the Northern Gateway pipeline to link Alberta’s oil sands to Asian markets through the West Coast. While other players (such as the B.C. government) matter too, without aboriginal support, Northern Gateway (or its equivalent) almost certainly will not succeed. With that support, it has a fighting chance. Can that support be achieved?

Those with long memories recall the 1970s proposal to build a Mackenzie Valley pipeline to carry Northwest Territories gas to southern markets. This proposal coincided with a rising aboriginal self-awareness and organizational muscle under outstanding leaders such as George Erasmus.

As the pipeline project gathered steam, these newly organized aboriginal communities begin to complain about their exclusion from decision making despite the fact that the pipeline’s greatest impact would fall on them and their land.

In the face of the growing controversy, Ottawa appointed Thomas Berger, a judge, former B.C. New Democratic Party leader and defender of aboriginal rights, to head a royal commission on the pipeline plan.

The Berger Commission exposed Canadians to something few expected: nightly news footage of aboriginal elders talking, often in their language, about the importance of the land, animals and indigenous ways of life.

Aboriginal testimony made clear their opposition to uncontrolled development on their lands – but also their desire to see land claims resolved and for greater control over their territories.

Contrary to a common misconception, Judge Berger did not recommend against the pipeline, but said it should be postponed until aboriginal people were ready for development. That recommendation, plus the changing economics of the project, led Ottawa to agree to set the project aside. The Trudeau government’s national energy program seemed to put the final nail in the pipeline’s coffin.

There the interest of the southern public in NWT energy resources largely ended. But after the cameras left, life continued to unfold on two parallel tracks.

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