APTN National News
OTTAWA–Prime Minister Stephen Harper sidestepped questions Monday on whether the federal government plans to directly engage with the dozens of First Nations that have vowed to stop the planned Northern Gateway pipeline project to transport Alberta mined bitumen to the British Columbia coast.
Harper has said the construction of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline is “in the national interest.”
The pipeline would transport raw bitumen from Alberta 1100 kilometres to a B.C. port at Kitimat where it would be transferred onto tankers bound for China, which has a stake in both the pipeline and in the tar sands.
Dozens of First Nations from B.C., Alberta and the Northwest Territories have signed a declaration opposing the pipeline. Some have vowed to block the project at all cost.
Liberal interim leader Bob Rae pressed Harper on the issue Monday during question period. He asked Harper if the government planned to set up a separate process to engage First Nations directly.
Rae said the existing regulatory process doesn’t really deal with the constitutional requirement requiring consultation with First Nations before the development of projects impacting Aboriginal rights and title.
“Does (the prime minister) contemplate some additional process that will involve a direct Crown-First Nations discussion with respect to the impact of this project on First Nations?” said Rae.
Harper avoided the question and instead repeated the standard government line that there is a constitutional requirement to consult with First Nations.
“Consulting with Aboriginal groups is a constitutional requirement and, of course, that is part of any process,” said Harper.
The prime minister also stated that the pipeline was in the “national interest” and needed to be constructed.
“It is vitally important to the national interest of this country that we are able to export our energy products to Asia,” said Harper.
It remains unclear how the review panel currently holding hearings on the pipeline could possibly recommend against the project when the Conservative government has publicly declared it in the national interest.
The Harper government’s position on the pipeline appears to put it on a collision course with First Nations.
On Friday, First Nations in Alberta and the NWT signed onto the Save the Fraser Declaration opposing the pipeline.
The new signatories include the Dene Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Swan River First Nation, Smith’s Landing First Nation, Katlodeeche First Nation, Liidlii Kue First Nation, Deh Gah Got’ie First Nation, and Deh Cho First Nations.
B.C. First Nations along the pipeline’s proposed corridor have all signed on to the declaration.
“We will stop them,” said Saik’uz First Nation Chief Jackie Thomas on Friday.
First Nations leaders say the environmental risks associated with the pipeline, either a pipeline spill or an oil tanker wreck, outweigh any of the project’s economic benefits.
While Enbridge has claimed to have achieved the support of a number of First Nations for the project, the identities of these communities remain a mystery.