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Harper Cabinet Prepares for Major BC Pipelines Push Targeting First Nations

The Harper government is sending several of its cabinet ministers and bureaucrats to BC starting next week to try and appease opponents of its plans to build oil pipelines to the West Coast.

Chris Hall writes for CBC News, that "Prime Minister Stephen Harper is signalling he intends to make progress on proposals to connect Alberta's oilsands with ports in British Columbia and the lucrative Asian markets beyond."

According to Hall, this initiative is in response to a report last month from Douglas Eyford, Harper's special pipelines representative in British Columbia, who indicated that negotiations with First Nations on pipelines weren't going well.

Eyford's report will not be made public, but sources told CBC News that "Eyford urged the federal government take the lead role in dealing with Indian bands on both the Gateway project and the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans-Mountain pipeline."

First Nations leaders are to meet with Harper's delegation on September 23, in Vancouver. The delegation will include deputy ministers from Aboriginal Affairs, Natural Resources, Environment and other departments with direct oversight of the proposed pipeline projects.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said the request to meet came on Thursday, with no preamble or agenda, and no clue as to what Ottawa's going to put on the table.

"I have a sinking feeling that perhaps they're covering their backsides in terms of a consultation record,'' Phillip said in a Vancouver interview. "And looking towards laying the groundwork that will be necessary when the decision is finally made by Prime Minister Harper and the cabinet, regardless of what the joint review panel comes forward with in terms of an approval or a rejection of these proposed projects.''

Other key ministers have also been directed by Harper to promote the pipeline projects in BC, starting Monday. They include Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, who will be in the province all week. Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq are reportedly planning trips to BC before Thanksgiving.

All of the above have requested to meet with the First Nations, according to Phillip. In addition, Premier Christy Clark also wrote to request a sit-down with them.

Phillips said he found it "very disturbing" that there was such "an urgency attached to both letters." He noted that this is the first the chiefs have heard from politicians in months.

Federal sources told CBC that "the objective is to work proactively to convince First Nations, community groups, and B.C.'s government that moving oil through the province is good for the economy, and good for them."

This new conciliatory approach from the federal Conservatives is the latest in a fall campaign to help achieve Harper's vision of Canada as an energy superpower by unlocking the country's oil deposits in Alberta for international trade.

On another front, Harper wrote a letter in late August to US President Obama, proposing joint standards for reduced greenhouse gas emissions in both countries in return for approval of the proposed $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Ottawa has also been trying to court BC Premier Clark's approval on the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline. Clark rejected the project in May, but has since outlined new conditions for its approval, including improved cleanup and prevention methods for oil spills and a larger share of revenues for the province. The federal government has responded to some of the demands, announcing new safety regulations for oil tankers and higher corporate liability for offshore oil spills.

But the upcoming meeting shows that Harper still sees First Nations opposition to the pipelines as one of his most significant obstacles. Hall writes that federal sources "acknowledge that Enbridge did a poor job in dealing with bands along the proposed [Northern] Gateway route," and at least three First Nations oppose US-based Kinder Morgan's proposal to triple the capacity of its Trans-Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver.

The Coldwater Indian Band will be going to court in October seeking a judicial order that would prevent Ottawa approving the expansion without their consent. Coldwater Chief Harold Aljam said that he has met with Eyford, but no one from the federal government has contacted them.

What the September 23 meeting between Harper's delegation and First Nations leaders will achieve has yet to be seen. But as Hall points out, for First Nations "the fear is the Harper government intends to push through both pipeline proposals no matter what."

Image Credit: Prime Minister's Office / Flickr

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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