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Engage early to avoid First Nations veto, AFN chief tells energy conference

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks during a press conference in Gatineau, Quebec on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016. Free, prior and informed indigenous consent means the right to say yes or no to major resource projects, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations told an oil industry-sponsored energy conference Thursday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
October 06, 2016 - 2:35 PM

OTTAWA - Free, prior and informed indigenous consent means the right to say yes or no to major resource projects, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations told an oil industry-sponsored energy conference Thursday.

Perry Bellegarde's speech to the "Engage" conference at the University of Ottawa stressed that involving First Nations in potential projects from the get-go is the only way to achieve true accommodation — and economic stability.

"The inherent right to self determination means the right to say yes or no to projects, and I respect that right," Bellegarde told an audience that included resource industry groups, policy experts and academics.

But he twice alluded to the "v-word" — a First Nations veto — and said he'd like to put the word "on a shelf for a while" as a new relationship on resource development is worked out.

The two-day conference was staged as governments and industry attempt to come to grips with rising local opposition to major energy infrastructure of all kinds, from pipelines and liquefied natural gas plants to wind farms and hydro electric dams.

The Trudeau government just approved a major LNG project and pipeline in northern B.C. and must decide by mid-December whether to approve the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C.

An in-depth study of six controversial resource projects was presented Thursday at the Ottawa conference, illustrating how local opposition can be galvanized by a complex set of concerns including safety and local environmental degradation, values, economic benefit and historical context.

That mix has been further complicated by the Liberal government's adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an unenforceable international framework that recognizes the right to free, prior and informed consent to projects that affect traditional lands.

Bellegarde stressed that there have been 234 court judgments across Canada that have affirmed indigenous rights to self determination, including the Supreme Court of Canada's 2014 Tsilhqot'in ruling that affirmed a duty to consult First Nations.

"That's the reality that Canada must adjust to," he said.

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr has avoided a direct answer on whether a First Nations veto exists for projects on their territories, while B.C.'s Christy Clark told CTV last weekend that consent ultimately is not required.

"If we work hard to get consent and work to accommodate, we can move ahead with projects without it at the end of the day," Clark told the network.

Bellegarde, speaking to reporters after his speech, said the idea is to avoid unilaterally developing projects until a veto is required to stop them.

"People can't get their heads around that," said Bellegarde. "But they should really starting sitting down sooner than later with indigenous peoples to make sure they don't ever run into that roadblock, that headache, down the road."

The hair-splitting over the difference between saying no and a veto wasn't lost on Martha Hall Findlay, the former Liberal MP who heads the Canada West Foundation, which arranged the energy conference and co-wrote the research study.

"Well, the opposite of consent is not consent — so that does beg a question where that goes," said Hall Findlay.

"You don't want to get to the point where somebody's saying 'I consent' or 'I don't consent.'"

She said the conference theme was that projects need to incorporate local views — whether First Nations or otherwise — into project development long before you "actually dive into the regulatory process."

Bellegarde said inherent indigenous rights are a fact of modern Canadian life and spelled out a few of the implications for industry.

"If you're going to have a big megaproject you better start talking about equity ownership," he said.

"If you're going to have a big megaproject you better start talking about full inclusion and involvement. You better put indigenous peoples as part of your business planning cycle, start talking about a representative workforce, start talking about more First Nations on your board of directors.

"The days of the trinkets and the beads is over."

— Follow @BCheadle on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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