CALGARY, Alberta, March 5 (Reuters) - Enbridge Inc said on Wednesday that Jim Prentice, a senior Canadian banker and influential former federal cabinet minister, has agreed to lead negotiations with aboriginal groups opposed to the company's controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project.
Enbridge said Prentice, vice-chairman of CIBC, Canada's fifth-largest bank, will look to build partnerships with aboriginal Canadians and First Nations communities in Alberta and British Columbia along the route of the planned C$7.9 billion ($7.1 billion) oil pipeline.
Enbridge has received preliminary approval for the project, which would ship 525,000 barrels of Alberta oil sands crude per day from Edmonton to a deepwater port at Kitimat on British Columbia's northern Pacific coast. But although regulators approved Northern Gateway in December, clearing the way for a final federal government decision by mid-June, many aboriginal groups remain opposed to the project.
"The priority right now, and this will be Jim's role, is to open up the dialogue with some of the First Nations (that) we haven't been able to and build a relationship," said Al Monaco, Enbridge's chief executive, in an interview. "The objective is to sit down, listen first and then go from there."
Prentice served as a key cabinet minister in Stephen Harper's Conservative government until he resigned to go to CIBC in 2010. Prior to entering politics the lawyer served on Canada's Indian Claims Commission, which made recommendations on land claims to the federal government.
"I will sit down with people with a blank sheet of paper and hear what they have to say and what their concerns are in terms of their view on the environment and their view on First Nations' jurisdiction," Prentice said in an interview.
"I bring an attitude to the project that is well known and I hope respected amongst First Nations based on my record. People know where I stand and where I've always stood. They know what I've done working with First Nations. I don't think there is any doubt about that."
Prentice will spend eight months in his new role but remains an employee of CIBC.