Canada's Federal Court of Appeal has struck down approval of Northern Gateway, one of the country's most controversial pipelines, finding that the government "offered only a brief, hurried, and inadequate" opportunity for dialogue about the project, particularly with First Nations.
"It would have taken Canada little time and little organizational effort to engage in meaningful dialogue on these and other subjects of prime importance to Aboriginal peoples," said the ruling, issued earlier this month, but only released on Thursday by lawyers representing the Gitxaala Nation, one of many parties involved in a legal challenge against the pipeline. "But this did not happen."
Enbridge, the company behind the pipeline, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The $7.9 billion project, consisting of two pipelines, each more than 1,000 kilometers in length, spanning from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, British Columbia, is designed to ship oil international markets. It would have moved up to 525,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
It was green lit after a National Energy Board joint review panel approved it in 2014, subject to 209 conditions, in the midst of strong opposition from First Nations, municipalities, provinces, and environmental groups.
In a statement to VICE News, Enbridge said Northern Gateway will consult with its Aboriginal Equity Partners and other supporters to determine their next steps, but they "are fully committed to building this critical Canadian infrastructure project while at the same time protecting the environment and the traditional way of life of the First Nations and Metis peoples and communities along the project route."
Eight First Nations, along with four environmental groups, and one labor union launched a legal challenge against the project, which was heard by the court in October.
On June 23, the court found the federal government had failed to meet its constitutional obligation to consult with First Nations about the potential impacts of the project.
"The inadequacies — more than just a handful and more than mere imperfections — left entire subjects of central interest to the affected First Nations, sometimes subjects affecting their subsistence and well-being, entirely ignored," said the ruling.
Many impacts of the project were left "undisclosed, undiscussed, and unconsidered," it continued.
JFK Law, which released the decision, called the court's ruling a "major victory" for First Nations, whose rights and interests they say were overlooked in the assessment of the pipeline.
"It is also a resounding win for the environmental and union organizations who were part of this litigation, and who sought to hold the government accountable for the process used to evaluate the significant environmental effects of industrial projects like this proposed pipeline," the firm said in a press release.
Time was already running out for project, which was scheduled to start construction by the end of 2016. In May, Northern Gateway, along with the four stewards who represent the 31 First Nations and Metis owners of the project, requested a 3-year extension to the sunset clause that established the start date, citing delays in getting approval from other regulators, judicial challenges, as well as the need to gather more support from First Nations communities.
"Clearly, we're not focused on construction schedules and a construction start date," said Catherine Pennington, Senior Manager and ?Director of Community Partnerships at Northern Gateway Pipelines in Prince George, told the CBC on Tuesday. "We've been focussing almost exclusively on building relationships with indigenous communities and we really need the time."
Letters of comment — over 2,000 — poured into the National Energy Board, with members of the public weighing in until Monday as the Board considered the request.
The Yinka Dene Alliance, which includes several First Nations in Northern B.C., celebrated the victory in a statement, saying the decision confirmed that the government's consultation "fell well short of the mark."
"Yinka Dene Alliance First Nations refused Northern Gateway permission to enter our territories as a matter of our own laws, and now the Court has made it crystal clear that the government must listen to us and take our laws seriously," said Chief Larry Nooski of Nadleh Whut'en First Nation, also involved in the legal challenge.
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk