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Prentice tasked with seeking First Nations approval of Northern Gateway

Just over three months before the federal cabinet is to decide if it will approve of Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline project or not, a former federal Conservative cabinet minister has been named to the delicate job of looking for First Nations approval.

"It's never too late to have a respectful discussion with First Nations and this is an extremely important project and an important opportunity for First Nations," said Jim Prentice of the project.

"I'm convinced I can be helpful if I step in as an honest broker, in a sense, to work to try to build some of the relationships we're going to need between the Gateway partners and First Nations."

Prentice, a lawyer who was federal minister of Indian affairs northern development, is taking on the role alongside his current position as senior executive vice president and vice chairman of CIBC to work with Northern Gateway.

He is not being paid for the job and CIBC does not stand to gain financially if the pipeline project goes through, he said.

"I'm doing it because I believe in the importance of it," he said.

Potential economic agreements will play a key role in discussions Prentice has with First Nations.

"Primarily what needs to happen is the Gateway partners (Enbridge and oil companies) need to work out economic relationships with First Nations along the route and on the coast. These are commercial arrangements and it's really up to the Enbridge and the Gateway partners to do that," he said.

Prentice has long been an advocate for economic partnerships with First Nations, and has worked on a number of negotiations including land claim settlements in northern Alberta, the negotiation of the residential school settlement agreement, and the negotiation of the Gwaii Haanas marine conservation agreement in Haida Gwaii.

"These are all analogous situations where we started from a position where there was a trust deficit and we had to work forward to build relationships," Prentice said.

But Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, said there's nothing Prentice can do to change First Nations opposition to Northern Gateway.

"This is not just about trust, this is about technology, this is about a project that is jeopardizing the natural capital that we have on the land in British Columbia and that we have in the ocean," he said.

"Unless he shows up at the table with some kind of new technology that this industry's created to clean up oil, there isn't a conversation to be had about pushing this project through."

Sterritt said First Nations aren't going to be fooled into thinking oil pipelines to the coast are safe, even with Enbridge bringing in someone as "high-profile" as Prentice. The timing of the appointment is disappointing, he said.

He also said it's unfortunate Prentice has been brought in so late.

"If he'd been brought in eight years ago when we began this exercise we might have been able to save Northern Gateway a lot of money in trying to jam a project through an area where Coastal First Nations are never going to agree with it," said Sterritt.

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