Mining projects and protected land can co-exist, two provincial environment ministers said at a press conference on Friday after two days of meetings with their counterparts from across the country.
“We’re all committed to climate action, we’re all committed to the concept of sustainable development, and certainly, in all the provinces where appropriate, these things will coexist,” Tim Halman, environment minister of Nova Scotia, said.
Nova Scotia is now developing its critical mineral strategy, which will help the province unearth minerals like lithium, copper and chromite that are essential for battery production to support the electric vehicle industry and renewable energy.
Nathan Cullen, water, land and resource stewardship minister for B.C., gave the possibility of simultaneously developing mining projects and protected areas a “yes and yes.” He points to the Tahltan Nation in northern B.C., who are interested in both mining and ambitious conservation targets.
“Climate change response requires us to be able to effectively and sustainably have a mining industry in Canada to secure those minerals that go to the solutions we require,” he said.
Cullen notes traditional mining practices will need to change to make the industry sustainable, but he said B.C. is committed to ensuring biodiversity and mining exist in harmony. Mining is not allowed in national parks. It is also not permitted in B.C.’s provincial parks, but the province allows it in other protected areas.
The ministers’ meeting was the first in-person gathering since the United Nations’ COP15 biodiversity conference in Montreal last winter, which marked the signing of a landmark biodiversity agreement, similar to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate. Signatories agreed on ambitious targets of protecting 30 per cent of the world’s oceans and lands by 2030.
There is still a question of how receptive the provinces are to protecting 30 per cent of Canada’s land and oceans. No province is obligated to meet the 30 per cent threshold; rather, Canada as a whole must reach that target, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said at the press conference.
It’s also still unclear what percentage of Canada’s protected land will be fair game for development as part of the federal government’s critical mineral strategy.
For example, Nova Scotia’s goal is to protect 20 per cent of its lands, whereas British Columbia has committed to a 30 per cent target for both lands and oceans. Some provinces doing more and others doing what they can is how Canada will reach its target, Guilbeault said.
It’s an ambitious plan given the country has fewer than seven years to double its number of protected areas to reach the 2030 goal. Currently, almost 14 per cent of Canada’s land and nearly 15 per cent of marine areas are under some form of protection.
About half of Canada’s environment ministers skipped the meeting on biodiversity loss, including representatives from Ontario and Alberta, two of the country’s largest provinces. It’s still unclear how much land Ontario and Alberta are willing to protect and conserve.
Indigenous rights played a central role in the COP15 agreement, though there’s still a question about how protections for land and water defenders will manifest in Canada. A federal policy paper shows the government aims to “ensure the full protection of environmental human rights defenders by 2030.”
So far, that goal remains incomplete. The Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG) — a B.C. unit of the RCMP responsible for policing “large-scale resource-based industrial projects” — has faced scrutiny over its surveillance and response to old-growth logging protests in Fairy Creek and land defenders on Wet’suwet’en territory opposing the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The unit came under an investigation by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, an independent watchdog, in March.
Neither Guilbeault nor Cullen, the B.C. minister of water, land and resource stewardship, commented on how the C-IRG might be affected by Canada’s obligations to the COP15 biodiversity agreement.
Mining companies are snapping up claims to develop Indigenous land. But what happens when a nation doesn’t consent?
Reconciliation isn’t the only thing threatened when mining exploration companies fail to get consent from Indigenous nations, says one ethical investor.
Provinces — and the junior mining companies that obtain exploration permits connected to a nation’s ancestral territories — ignore consultation with Indigenous Peoples at their own peril, as the oversight can set the stage for future conflict, court challenges and delays, hampering any future economic development before it begins.
Currently, B.C. grants exploration rights to junior mining companies after they fill out a couple of forms and pay a small fee to stake the land for mining exploration. Jamie Bonham, head of stewardship at NEI Investments, says Indigenous consultation and consent should be part of the process, too.
“It seems pretty clear we need to get this part of it right,” says Bonham. “Without it, we will struggle to see the potential this industry can realize.”
In B.C., the Gitxaała Nation has gone to court to challenge such regulations within the province’s Mineral Tenure Act. The Gitxaała Nation is launching the challenge to protect their territories after a 2015 Yellow Giant Mine tailings breach, in which wastewater flowed into a nearby creek for six weeks. Water samples exceeded health guidelines for arsenic, lead and mercury, among other contaminants. The spill has resulted in $2 million worth of cleanup costs.
Companies that secure mining stakes aren’t required to consult with or receive consent from Indigenous nations to whose territory their permits are connected. When those mining stakes are sold, this can poison the relationship between First Nations and the major player that typically develops a mine.
Mining operations are fundamentally in conflict with B.C.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which incorporated the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into B.C. law, Bonham says.
For Bonham, receiving free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous nations to develop a natural resource project offers the industry a more ethical approach that can mitigate conflict between nations and mining companies. Without it, conflict arises through the courts, civil disobedience and other direct actions by nations attempting to stop development they never agreed to in the first place. In 2014, for example, a group of Tahltan First Nation elders blocked access to Red Chris Copper and Gold Mine in B.C. over fears it would threaten salmon spawning lakes. The Gitxaała challenge is just the latest of such conflicts.
The issue of free, prior and informed consent — one of the central tenets of UNDRIP — is vital to address as Canada expands mining development under its Critical Minerals Strategy, which will unearth key materials required for the energy transition. Keeping on with business as usual, just harder and faster, won’t make the consultation problem disappear, Bonham says.
“So we do need a fundamentally different approach, and I think maybe sometimes you have to go slow, at first, to go faster,” Bonham says. Instead, Bonham thinks consent should be given at the exploration phase to create a strong foundation that doesn’t sprout conflict down the line for a project.
In Ontario, the issue has already arisen, says Anna Baggio, conservation director for the environmental non-profit Wildlands League. Last year, Barrick Gold Corp. launched a $100-million lawsuit against two junior mining companies from which it had bought mining claims. Barrick, the major player in the mining world, abides by free, prior and informed consent, but the junior exploration companies did not. The junior companies later sold mining claims Grassy Narrows First Nation did not agree with, Baggio explains.
Junior companies that seek nations’ consent for mining claims offer a “value-added” deal, Bonham says. It brings a level of certainty to the project for everyone by building a solid foundation with local communities.
“Enough companies have been burned now by buying projects that had a lot of problems with them that they’re gonna be looking for ones that don’t,” Bonham says.
For Lawrence Martin — interim director of land and resources at Mushkegowuk Council, a tribal council of eight nations in northwestern Ontario upriver from the Ring of Fire — the state of mining in the province is a “scary place to be at the moment.”
Ontario encourages companies to consult with Indigenous nations for mining exploration, but the province does not have a UNDRIP law, and consent is not yet in the legislative language, Baggio says. So many permits flow in every day that Martin’s team has a dedicated staff member to track all of them across the tribal council’s territories.
“It’s not an easy job to track them all down and get in touch with them and contact the community and help them respond,” Martin says.
The underresourced and understaffed tribal council is struggling to catch up with an exploration boom as the province hurtles towards development in the Ring of Fire, a region at the centre of Ontario’s critical mineral plans, Martin says.
For Bonham, the risks for industry in the Ring of Fire are only magnified given the significance of what needs to be built, which includes a highway through carbon-rich peatlands. Dozens of junior and intermediate mining companies are also currently in the exploration phase of developing projects in the region.
“For the size of the investment, it would seem even more important to get the alignment with UNDRIP right, lest uncertainty on this issue puts the greater investment at risk.”
By Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on May 30, 2023