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Comment: Mining industry needs to recognize native rights

With the mining industry in Vancouver for its annual Mineral Exploration Roundup, the official talk is about the bright future for mineral extraction in the province. Such hyperbole is not helpful. B.C.

With the mining industry in Vancouver for its annual Mineral Exploration Roundup, the official talk is about the bright future for mineral extraction in the province.

Such hyperbole is not helpful. B.C.’s mining future is not bright and has not been for many years, and pretending otherwise will solve nothing.

The industry has huge potential, but this is being thwarted by the failure to address the root issues of First Nations rights and the environment.

The Idle No More movement is also a huge topic of conversation, but what is happening now should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed B.C.’s long history of failed relations with First Nations and bad laws such as the mining and tenure acts.

There are those in the mining industry who, recognizing this, have sought to work with First Nations to develop good relationships. But we are now way beyond tinkering, or even being satisfied with isolated success stories.

The confrontation over mining that has waged here for years shares the same roots as the Northern Gateway pipeline conflict, and should be as much of an issue in the coming B.C. provincial election.

If anyone needs more convincing of this, they need only look at the Dec. 27, 2012, ruling by the three B.C. justices sitting as the Yukon Court of Appeal, which found that the Ross River Dena Council must be consulted before claims are staked.

A Google search provides analyses from a variety of major law firms on the huge ramifications this has for B.C. and Canada. One option for government and industry is to fight this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, where First Nations have a strong winning record.

That makes sense if the goal is to keep scaring off investors and blocking projects for the foreseeable future, but who wants that? The right option is for this court ruling to be used as the catalyst for real negotiations that lead to meaningful changes to mining in B.C.

There are a number of issues to be addressed — land-use planning, resource revenue-sharing, environmental-assessment process — but a good starting point is the Mineral Tenure Act, which in one way is worse than the claims process in the Yukon because low-cost claims can be staked from anywhere online.

B.C. First Nations are now swamped with claims, none of which they were consulted on and many of which they may not know exist until someone shows up to dig holes.

It is a system that promotes bad proposals over good ones.

The 20-year battle to build a massive open-pit mine at Fish Lake, despite repeated rejection, is perhaps the most well-known example. But investors there, who have seen shares fall after $100 million of their money has gone into that battle, are not the only ones to suffer.

Another eye-opener came last October, when an eight-year effort to build a massive open-pit mine at Morrison Lake was rejected because of its negative impact on First Nations rights and the environment. Investors lost two-thirds of their share value overnight.

The law firm Fasken Martineau concluded in its analysis of this case: “In light of this outcome, it may be prudent for proponents to seriously consider whether there are any “show-stopping” environmental effects associated with their projects, and ensure that they get the views of key stakeholders, including other ministries and First Nations, before investing the significant time and resources necessary to reach the end of an [environmental assessment] process.”

In recent months, we have seen major mining companies pulling back on expansion. Juniors are starving for cash, as the Association for Mineral Exploration B.C. highlighted in a recent report to the B.C. government.

Of course, there are global economic factors at play, but these are exacerbated in B.C. For example, the province has consistently ranked outside the top third of global mining jurisdictions in the Fraser Institute’s rolling survey of more than 400 mining executives from around the world, with First Nations jurisdiction being cited as a major concern.

If mining is to achieve its potential — for all of us — then the usual hyperbole at this roundup needs to be replaced with serious talk and planning, and B.C.’s provincial politicians need to come to the table and start showing leadership.

The challenges we face are not going to fix themselves, and can only get worse if they are ignored.

 

Xat’Sull (Soda Creek) First Nation Chief Bev Sellars is chair of B.C.’s First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining, and is attending the Mining Round-Up, where she will be an aboriginal-issues panel member on Thursday. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.