Canada Top Court Reinforces Aboriginal Land Title Rights

Canada’s Supreme Court, in a decision that may have implications for Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, said aboriginal groups in British Columbia can be granted legal title to their traditional lands no matter how intensively they use them.

The court ruled today on an appeal by members of the Xeni Gwet’in and Tsilhqot’in first nations in British Columbia. The bands objected to a ruling by the B.C. Court of Appeal that restricted aboriginal title to sites where they have an “intensive presence.”

Aboriginal title “is not confined to specific sites of settlement but extends to tracts of land that were regularly used for hunting, fishing or otherwise exploiting resources and over which the group exercised effective control at the time of assertion of European sovereignty,” the court said.

The ruling may affect claims by aboriginal groups to the land that would be crossed by Calgary-based Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to the B.C. port town of Kitimat. Some aboriginal groups have threatened to use court cases to block the C$6.5 billion ($6.1 billion) project.

“We now have a foundation for new negotiations with British Columbia and Canada,” said Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, adding the ruling may be a setback for Enbridge. “Northern Gateway can’t move forward without First Nations’ approval and they don’t have it.”

National Priority

Enbridge spokesman Graham White didn’t immediately return a call from Bloomberg seeking comment.

Gateway advocates are looking for ways to get land-locked and price-depressed Alberta crude to world markets, especially after delays to TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has made building energy infrastructure a national priority, part of C$650 billion of industry investment in more than 600 existing or planned projects over the next decade to develop the country’s natural resources.

Harper’s cabinet earlier this month endorsed Northern Gateway, subject to Enbridge satisfying 209 conditions set by a regulatory review panel in December.

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