The concerns of the mining industry have not been featured as prominently this provincial election cycle as they have in the past.
In the 1990s, investment in mineral exploration was at a 20-year low, with large swaths of capital and people leaving the provincial mining sector. The industry wanted change.
In 2017, the mining industry is less vocal – and that’s likely a sign of the stability of British Columbia mining sector, says Stewart Muir, executive director of the Resource Works industry advocacy group.
“This is not a phase where B.C. mining and exploration have any big asks of government,” Muir said. “If things were to continue more or less as they are, they would be in a good place.”
Yet while the BC Liberal government has faced criticism that it has too cozy a relationship with the mining industry – a CBC analysis released in April found that the party had received $4.7 million in industry donations over 10 years – the industry itself still has some concerns about B.C. government policies.
In February the Fraser Institute released a report finding that B.C. had the longest mine-permit process in Canada. The report was based on a survey of global mining executives, 60% of whom said wait times have lengthened in the province.
There are also a number of non-industry issues. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples highlights concerns about violations of aboriginal land rights. Union and environmental concerns also mean that some parties have platform proposals that both help and hurt the mining industry.
The BC Liberal party is highlighting five new mines that have opened during its tenure since 2011 including the Red Chris and Mount Milligan mines. The Brucejack and Silvertip mines are expected to soon add to the tally.
Bill Bennett, former minister of energy and mines, said it’s been difficult to build up confidence since the lull of the 1990s in exploration and investment. Bennett makes regular mention of this period.
Bennett cited a 2001 Fraser Institute study that discussed the NDP’s impact on the industry during their time as the majority party. A reference to the study also appears in the Liberal platform. The 2001 study ranked British Columbia as the most antagonistic bureaucracy in the world and was based on a similar survey as the Fraser Institute’s report released in February. However, when asked about the long permit process Bennett dismissed the February survey results.
“I’m not too fussed about the most recent [Fraser Institute] survey because the perception lags the reality,” said Bennett. “I think if you measure performance and what we’ve accomplished, B.C. is in a pretty good place.”
The B.C. New Democratic Party is taking several steps to try and juggle the concerns of industry, unions and First Nations.
NDP MLA and Energy and Mines critic Doug Donaldson, said the party is focused on balancing public values and investor confidence.
Another major pillar of the party’s mining platform is to separate the ministry’s responsibility to oversee the mining industry from what Donaldson calls the “legitimate” promotional function.
Donaldson said public confidence in the provincial government’s ability to safeguard the environment has eroded in the wake of the Mount Polley mining disaster. The NDP, he said, hopes to restore public trust by improving mining inspection and enforcement.
While the party has faced widespread opposition in the industry dating back to its time in in power in the 1990s, Donaldson suggested too much has been made of the party’s supposed hostility to the sector two decades ago.
“I was on a panel with Minister Bennett and I had a bet on how long it would take him to [talk about] the ’90s and it took him about 30 seconds into his opening remarks,” said Donaldson.
BC Green Party
The BC Green Party’s main platform proposal on mining in B.C. is to build public trust in the environmental assessment process.
To foster that trust, the party wants to take the power of oversight away from the influence of the mining industry and put it at arm’s length. The party has a proposal for an industry-funded resource board that acts independently and is responsible for issuing professional reliance contracts.
“Collectively I would have thought that the industry would be all over this because it gives them certainty that there will be a process to develop public trust that isn’t there,” said BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver.
Weaver criticized the current process to get mines approved as top-down. Currently mining companies approach the government for approval before seeking understandings with First Nations and other communities. Weaver says mining companies will continue to have trouble getting approval from the public with this process. The Green Party is proposing what it calls a bottom-up approach in which communities are consulted earlier in the process. The Green Party also supports the UN Declaration as a part of this strategy.
“We need to build a process that allows companies to build a social license to actually move projects forward, recognizing that not every project is going to go through, but many will,” Weaver said.