Harmony unlikely among First Nations on pipeline issue, AFN national chief says

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, admits it will be tough to find common ground among Indigenous communities when it comes to major pipeline projects.

“We’re diverse in Canada as Indigenous people. So the point that we’re supporting as the Assembly of First Nations is right — the very important right — of self determination,” Bellegarde said in an interview with CBC Radio’s The House.

“And that means the ability to say yes and/or no.”

On Tuesday, the government granted conditional approval to a major liquefied natural gas hub on the British Columbia coast.

Pacific NorthWest LNG, backed by Malaysian-owned energy giant Petronas, signed impact agreements with four First Nations near the site of the proposed gas terminal, which will result in cash payments to those whose territory is significantly impacted by the project.

But other communities vehemently oppose the idea of pipelines. Donald Wesley, a hereditary chief with the Gitwilgyoots tribe, called it “the biggest mistake of [Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s] career.”

Pacific Northwest LNG 20160927

Christine Smith-Martin, of the Tsimshian First Nation, holds up a jar of salmon before the federal government announced the approval of the Pacific NorthWest LNG project. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

A group of six First Nations from the area issued a statement Tuesday saying the project “does not meet the test” for respecting Indigenous rights and would be challenged in court.

“They’re on different ends of the sphere already,” said Bellegarde.

As an advocate for 634 First Nation communities​, Bellegarde said his role on controversial energy files will be to push the government to consult with affected communities.

“[Environment Minister Catherine McKenna] is doing the best she can, and I lift her up, because last year’s COP 21 in Paris is the first time there’s ever (been) a reference to Indigenous people and Indigenous people’s rights,” he said.

“It’s a start, but to give it practical teeth and practical measures here in Canada, there should be a more robust consultation of Indigenous peoples and elders.”

Frustrations mounting 

The LNG announcement wasn’t the only point of friction between Indigenous communities and the government this week.

On Monday, Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, boycotted a reconciliation ceremony attended by the visiting royal couple, citing “the ongoing negligence of Indigenous child welfare policies across this country.”

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde

Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde told CBC Radio’s The House that frustrations with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are mounting. (CBC)

“Patience is running out in our First Nations communities, because what I’m hearing across Canada from the chiefs [is], ‘Perry, Chief Bellegarde, yes thank you for lobbying to get that $8.4 billion … but we don’t see it in our communities yet,'” he said.

Bellegarde says Trudeau has made progress on the five promises he made to First Nations chiefs back in December, but said the government still needs to work on repealing legislation imposed on Indigenous people by the previous government.

“We have lots of work to do,” he said. “He came out last year and made some strong statements. We have to keep pushing.

“We’ve always got to keep having that hope. When was the last time we’ve had $8.4 billion invested in First Nations people? That’s another issue of getting [it] out to our communities, but that’s unheard of, that’s unprecedented.”

Listen to CBC Radio’s The House at 9 a.m. (9:30 NT) on Saturdays.

Follow on Twitter @CBCTheHouse

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