Old way of doing business is dead

Date of publication: 
21 January 2013

If the Idle No More story tells us anything, it is that trying to avoid necessary changes is no long a viable or sensible option.

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C.—The arrival of 2013 should leave little doubt anywhere in Canada that most resource development in the country impacts on aboriginal lands and territories—and that the old way of doing business is dead.

What is perhaps not quite so clear is that the federal government is not alone in needing to respond. The provinces have control over natural resources, and often their laws and practices are the source of confrontation.

Nowhere is the clash over resources more prominent than in British Columbia, where an election will be held in three months time. That election could signal whether British Columbia can become a model for responsible, sustainable resource extraction, or will remain a costly battleground for taxpayers, First Nations and industry investors.

Of course, the battle over the Northern Gateway Pipeline is guaranteed to be a hot election item. Fierce debate is also brewing over the development of the province’s shale gas resources.

Yet these issues are only the most recent manifestations of a battle over B.C. natural resources that has waged for years—the battle over mining. If the B.C. government and industry can work with First Nations to bring about changes in this sector, it could lead to a more certain and practical way of doing resource business in B.C. The province’s politicians are going to hear a lot more about this during the mining sector’s Round-Up week in Vancouver from Jan. 28-31.

The latest catalyst for action is a Dec. 27 Yukon Court of Appeal ruling in favour of the Ross River Dena Council, which stated consultation should occur before claims are staked. Given the decision was by three B.C. appeal court justices sitting in Whitehorse, and that Yukon Mining law is based on B.C. mining law, the ramifications for British Columbia are clear. As court decisions on consultation set precedents, the ramifications are also clear for Canada.

As B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council CEO Dave Porter pointed out earlier this month, this ruling is a “blaring wakeup call” and the government and industry have two choices: spend years and huge sums fighting this and further deter investors from B.C. mining, or work to find a way to reform the law.

The industry has long known all is not well. For example:

• Years of First Nations’ legal victories in B.C. have killed or stalled almost all major metal mining projects since the mid 1990s. The free-entry system has swamped First Nations lands with claims, flooding the good ideas with the bad. Fortunes have been spent to promote projects that never should have started. One company has spent nearly two decades and $100-million pushing a mine at Fish Lake, B.C., that it was told from start would not work. Investors in another company last October saw their share value fall by two thirds after a project eight years in the pursuing was rejected at Morrison Lake.

• B.C. consistently appears down the list of favourable jurisdictions in the Fraser Institute’s ongoing survey of more than 400 mining executives around the world, with First Nations jurisdiction regularly cited as a major problem.

• In the latter half of 2012, major mining companies pulled back from expansion to focus on boosting their share value, while junior exploration companies found themselves hard pressed to raise capital.

If the Idle No More story tells us anything, it is that trying to avoid necessary changes is no long a viable or sensible option.

If change is to happen, then B.C. and its mining mess is a good place to start. The issues are well-defined; the need for reform is clear; the benefits to be gleaned are huge.

So where are our politicians on this as we head into a B.C. election campaign? Will they show leadership in promoting positive change, or will they try to cling to a rapidly crumbling status quo.

Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation Chief Bev Sellars is chair of B.C.’s First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining.