Northern Gateway president John Carruthers said he expects discussions with Aboriginal groups over the contentious pipeline project to get easier after the National Energy Board issues a ruling later this year.
Responding to questions from the Joint Review Panel members in Prince Rupert, Carruthers said Monday that if the $6.5 billion project to connect Alberta's oilsands and Kitimat with a pipeline gets a green light, he expects First Nations groups currently boycotting the process will be more open for discussions.
That came as a surprise to Carrier Sekani Tribal Council chief Terry Teegee, who said his group won't change its mind if the Joint Review Panel comes out in favour of the plan. Teegee said it was a "big assumption" on Northern Gateway's behalf to think that it might mean a thawing of relations.
"We're so much at odds, I don't understand what the idea would be to talk to them," Teegee said. "We already know where they're at and they obviously know where we're at. It's pretty cut and dry and clear that we're in opposition to the project."
The tribal council hasn't participated in the formal environmental view process and are preparing to take their objections to court if both the federal regulatory body and the cabinet give Northern Gateway approval to proceed onto the next phase of their design.
"It's been pretty plain to see that what we are going to do is file litigation if it is approved," Teegee said. "If it isn't approved then it's an essentially a favourable decision."
At the hearings, Enbridge vice-president for western access Janet Holder said the company has come up with a revised strategy for First Nations involvement which will include targeting groups which have cut off contact with the company. She said the proponent wants to encourage dialogue by setting up one-on-one meetings between chiefs and senior company executives.
"Let's start on a fresh sheet of paper and start moving forward," Holder said.
Holder acknowledged that some communities have been resistant to talks in the past, but the company has no plans to give up.
"We've never taken that no as a real no," she said.
Carruthers said the company's goal is to have First Nations communities along the right of way to be better off than they are now if the pipeline is built. He said he was personally touched visiting some of the communities suffering from high unemployment and suicide rates.
"It really hit home that Northern Gateway could be an opportunity for those communities," he said.
The JRP panel members spent close to three hours asking questions Monday, touching on topics ranging from funds Northern Gateway plans to set aside funds for training to how the company plans to achieve its goal of having 15 per cent of its employees come from First Nations ethnicity.
In response to a question from JRP member Hans Matthews about how many members of its senior executive team will come from Aboriginal backgrounds by 2025, Holder replied that the company will try to keep that number as high as possible.
There are currently six people working out of the Northern Gateway head office in Prince George in both managerial and non-managerial positions, three of whom are Aboriginal.
"We want to maintain that, at least," Holder said.
The company has laid out a number of incentives for First Nations groups, including setting aside a 10 per cent equity stake in the pipeline. Of the 22 terrestrial First Nations groups offered a chance to participate in the equity program in B.C., 11 have accepted.
Offers have yet to be officially made to some coastal First Nations groups.
If the project goes ahead, the company hopes to award contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Aboriginal companies during the construction phase. Among the areas they expect First Nations groups will bid for are for catering, road building, logging and trucking.
The JRP members also asked about the $3 million the company has set aside for skills training development for workers in the north. Chairwoman Sheila Leggett wanted to know how Northern Gateway was measuring the success of its training plans and how it will know it will have the skilled workforce needed to build the pipeline.
Witness Catherine Pennington said the company needs to be "responsive and nimble" in adjusting to the changing employment environment, but added the company has opened up lines of communication with all northern colleges and universities.
Monday's testimony wrapped up the questioning of the Aboriginal and public consultation panel.
Northern Gateway's final witness panel, which focuses on shipping and navigation, was sworn in late in the afternoon.