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Aboriginal leaders, Japanese envoy, Bob Rae head to Prince George for First Nations summit

The ambassador of Japan will be in Prince George this week, along with former Ontario premier and interim Liberal Party of Canada leader Bob Rae, several industrial personalities and a who's who of national aboriginal leaders.

The ambassador of Japan will be in Prince George this week, along with former Ontario premier and interim Liberal Party of Canada leader Bob Rae, several industrial personalities and a who's who of national aboriginal leaders.

They are gathering with a wide array of local aboriginal representatives to wrestle out loud with one of the most complex issues to ever face area First Nations: what to do with the great power and great risk of imminent industrial development.

"It's to bring all our First Nations communities together to discuss how these megaprojects might affect our territories," said Terry Teegee, elected chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, the group spearheading the summit. All in attendance are invited guests for large but closed-door sessions.

The most pressing single topic, Teegee said, was liquified natural gas (LNG). "When you think of the northeast and all the concerns there around fracking [fracturing shale rock deep underground to get at sequestered gas] and the whole extraction process, all the north-central region having to consider pipelines cutting across their territories, and the west coast First Nations dealing with the shipping aspect, we all have different concerns depending on where you are, but we are linked by the overall issue."

In order to develop a unified voice where possible and also identify the points of nation-to-nation disagreement, the summit will call out all the key issues related to LNG and industrial development in general.

One general point of agreement already know, said Teegee, is the intention of all northern B.C. First Nations to assert their legal jurisdiction. Since almost no treaties exist between themselves and the federal/provincial bodies that claim to own these resources, they are preparing to make it clear that such assumptions are not their view and they are willing to take preventative actions on projects that don't meet their indigenous approval.

"The communities I represent do not think the current regulatory process has enough consultation and does not adequately look at environmental concerns," said Teegee.

He stressed, though, that the summit was intended to be a talking circle, not a call to oppose industry. There are benefits to resource development, he said, but there had to be a better set of government-to-government discussions about sharing the wealth and the risks instead of downloading the consultation obligations to individual companies.

The North Central Local Government Association — the collective of municipalities and regional districts across the same affected region — applauded the summit.

"The First Nations LNG Summit is yet another example of how First Nations are leading the way when it comes to balancing economic growth and environmental stewardship," said association executive director Oliver Ray. "But more than that, by bringing together such a comprehensive list of First Nation representatives, the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council has clearly illustrated an irrefutable fact: there is strength in numbers."

The fact the ambassador of Japan, Norohiro Okuda, sees the benefits for his country in attending the summit is the best illustration of just how globally critical this region is, said Teegee. What used to be just forestry, then coal, making other nations look here for investment, now it is a full array of resource products, the largest of which is LNG.

Ray said there was broad consensus among northern municipalities that addressing the relationship with our region's First Nations was critical to success for all.

"In the past, aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities in northern B.C. have often acted independently when dealing with industry or senior levels of government. That’s changing," he said. "Repeated recognition of aboriginal rights and title in the courts, and the heartbreaking but necessary work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have gone a long way in setting the stage for a brighter future. The legacy of residential schools and the effects of colonialism have affected our ability to find common ground. To put things in context, 10 years ago, almost everyone attending a summit like this was alive when it was illegal for aboriginal people to vote. But there is a generational shift at play now, and we’re seeing some real signs of progress. More than ever, old attitudes are being replaced with optimism and a willingness to work side by side."

When First Nations members are seen not as neighbours but as peers and partners, perhaps even part of the industrial development sector, while at the same time non-aboriginal people agree that environmental concerns are afoot as much or more than money matters, it makes the complexity of land-use management and resource developments impossible to understand without a shared approach, said Ray. He added that the association is as much a representative of First Nations governments as it is for mainstream municipalities.

The First Nations LNG Summit takes place Wednesday and Thursday in Prince George.