CALGARY -- Engaging with aboriginal groups along the route of the proposed Energy East pipeline hasn't been without its challenges, but the former chief of the Assembly of First Nations believes TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP) is on the right track.
Phil Fontaine has been working with TransCanada on the community outreach aspect of Energy East, a $12-billion proposed pipeline that would ship Alberta crude to refineries and export terminals in Quebec and New Brunswick.
"I've really been impressed with the company's commitment to full engagement with aboriginal communities. In my view, they get it," Fontaine told reporters after a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.
"The community outreach has been impressive. We're involved in that of course in a big way and it's not without it's challenges, but I believe we're on a good path."
TransCanada filed its regulatory application for Energy East to the National Energy Board a week ago. Several environmental groups have vowed to fight the pipeline, raising concerns over the ecological harm that would result from a spill as well the project's enabling role in oilsands growth.
The company says it has met with 158 First Nations and Metis communities across the six provinces the pipeline would traverse.
"The outreach so far has worked and we're going to press on," said Fontaine.
In his speech, Fontaine said it's a misconception that First Nations are against resource development full stop.
"Simply put, we are not in favour of development at all costs," he said.
Consultations with First Nations should not be seen as "an additional burden of doing business in Canada," he said.
Rather, communities want to ensure they get a fair share of the economic benefits and that their land is protected from environmental harm.
"Don't go into our communities thinking that you can shortchange our people, that you can go on the cheap, that we're an easy sell, that we're an easy mark," he said.
"We want to safeguard our lands and our waters for future generations, just like you do. We all want the same thing...So it shouldn't be difficult to obtain consent of aboriginal peoples or indigenous peoples if you know and appreciate that we are after the same thing."
The First Nations population is the fastest growing in Canada at three times the national average. Half of that population is under the age of 25, said Fontaine
"We can either look at that as a burden or as an opportunity. And given where we are today, I would suggest that we look at this as an opportunity," he said.
"And the challenge really, if we want to achieve success with this opportunity that's before us, is to make an effort to create a very highly skilled, very mobile workforce. Right now, we are so dependent on elsewhere."