Mineral mining versus local peoples’ rights in British Columbia, Canada

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This conservation resource was created by Nela Djordjevic; Charles White; Jiaxin Li. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

British Columbia encompasses the greatest section of the Canadian Cordillera mountain range, which is the Pacific section of the North American Cordillera. This mountain range is extremely rich in minerals, which attracts many mining companies to establish extraction projects in the western province. The most common materials extracted, produced, and exported are coal, copper, gold, zinc, silver, molybdenum, lead, and industrial minerals[1]. Mining in Canada is an industry generating billions of dollars in cash flow from operations and gross revenue, employing over 373,000 people and accounting for 3.3% of the total GDP[2]. The mining industry in British Columbia lies among the top mining regions in Canada and is a key player in the provincial and national economies and provides a number of jobs, supporting people from many communities. However, there is growing concern about the operation of mining projects throughout the province. There are disputes over land rights of established and potential sites, and pollution coming from the sites, as there have been a number of mining accidents. Such accidents harm not only nearby ecosystems but also villages and communities that further away. With such a large and profitable industry, there are going to be many issues faced, but also efforts to resolve any problems since the termination of these projects is not an option. Mining companies are working with Indigenous people to reach consensus over operations, and an increased effort to operate sustainably.

As resources and commodities increase in value and in demand all over the world, the need for extracting these materials is increasing as well. This means that there is significant growth of mining projects in British Columbia, which is rich in minerals due to its geological location, making the province an ideal mining hub. However, mining companies tend to prioritize their economic interests and disregard the ownership of the land they wish to use. There is often disagreement and dispute about the ownership of the land being exploited for minerals, or land where the effects of mining are impacting the livelihood of surrounding communities and ecosystems.

Mining industry

The sudden global rise in prices of resources and commodities had led to over 400 mining projects to be established in British Columbia since 2010, where a quarter of these projects cost more than $1 million each[3]. As it can be seen here, the mining industry is a very large economic factor not only for British Columbia and Canada’s economy, but for the global economy as well. Parallel to the growth of resource extraction and exploitation is the push for sustainable living, which creates barriers for mining companies to reach their goals that involve the creation of waste. This waste gets dumped, mostly into bodies of water, polluting the nearby ecosystems, and even reaching further ones downstream. Good examples of such accidents include The Mount Polley mine disaster. The mining industry is faced with challenges to do with the environmental assessment process and conflicts to do with land use planning related to Aboriginal land claims[3], especially since there often no formal treaty existing that sets out land parameters[4].

Indigenous People’s Concerns

Polluting ecosystems also pollutes and harms local communities established nearby. Since mining projects are located further from urban areas, their damage often affects rural communities, specifically indigenous communities in the central and northern parts of the province. The current promotion of mining as a strategy for economic growth and development is questioning Indigenous rights and titles, causing environmental disputes on contested territories throughout British Columbia[4]. Indigenous people need to consult the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to have their rights, values, and traditions considered in conflicts with mining companies with the objective of regulating the development of mining projects. According to one study, there are three main issues Indigenous people are facing. First, they are not satisfied and do not trust these consultation processes with the EIA due to the tendency for their requests to not go through or be disregarded. Next, they deal with the perception that their environmental values and constructions of risk are not well understood or properly addressed in EIA consultations. Last, they conclude that the first two issues have in fact harmful and damaging impacts on the health and well-being of local populations[4] . In cases where there are official treaties and land being recognized as belonging to a certain Indigenous group or community, the people can still be harmed by a mining project who sits outside of their territory but whose negative impacts are able to reach the territory.

Collaborative Management

In order for both parties to reach a consensus for a process that will both economically benefit the project operators and not harm Indigenous communities, they need to practice collaborative management and consult each other. This may take the form of a third party in the middle that serves the purpose of a mediator through which the two parties in question can communicate by, such as the EIA consultations. There may even be cases where mining project operations will benefit Indigenous people, such as the case of the Mt. Milligan mining project in north-central British Columbia, studied by Nelsen, Scoble, and Ostry. Indigenous communities seemed to be in socio-economic trouble due to factors such as the collapse of the forest industry, the pine beetle infestation destroying large portions of forests, and the decline in the United States housing market. Because of this, many people were unable to find homes, but as mining projects appeared, they provided jobs, thus improving the socio-economic state of communities at risk. Most of the time, collaborative management practices simply result in procedures where the projects will leave communities and territories unaffected, so they can continue living the same way as before, without interference. Collaborative management with Indigenous people can occur with the government, federal, municipal, or provincial, but as described in some of the cases mentioned, they can occur with the mining companies or operators as well. Collaboration must occur in order to have a successful project with little issues encountered.

On August 4, 2014 a breach in the holding structure for the Mt. Polley Mine's tailing pond lead to British Columbia’s biggest mining accident in history. The Mt. Polley Mining Corporation open pit copper and gold mine is located approximately 9.2 km and 200 m up stream from Quesnel lake . After the failure of the damming structure that contained the mines tailing pond 25 million m3 of contaminated water mine tailing and construction materials where released [5]. Then the water and debris flowed down into Polley lake, Hazelton creek and later into Quesnel lake [5]. The initial influx of materials caused the lake to rise 1.5 m and two days later on August 6, 2014 the Cariboo district declared a state of emergency for near by communities [6]. Their primary concern was the quality of drinking water for the down stream communities [6].

Settlings in the tailing pond was an variety toxic metals such as arsenic and lead [6] . This brought about significant ecological concerns for the aquatic ecosystem of Polley lake, Quesnel lake and rest of the water shed which is home to resident trout and migrating salmon [5]. With an increase of toxic metals present in the lake there is now possibility of bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxin up the food web [5]. Shortly after tissue testing in resident fish in Polley and Quesnel lake showed elevated levels of arsenic, selenium and other toxic elements [7]. These species are not only important to the aquatic ecosystem but also support an aboriginal and recreation fishery within the province [5].

In immediate response to the disaster the Ministry of Environment issued a Pollution Abatement Order to the mining company [8]. The order entailed action to stop the flow of mine tailings into the watershed while initiating clean-up plan and submitting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to the ministry [8]. Shortly after the Mt. Polley Mining Corporation submitted an (EIA) to the ministry and implemented their plan for the clean-up [8]. The Mt. Polley Mine ceased operation for the initial clean up but resumed full productions a year later [9]. The clean-up has been estimated to cost 67.4 million dollars in which 40 million will be picked up by the B.C. tax payers [9]. The Ministry launched an investigation into the root cause of the accident [8]. To this day no charges or fines have been laid against The Mt. Polley Mining Corp [10].

Mount Polley Mine site in British Columbia. By Jesse Allen via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Case Study

The Mt. Polley Mining accident is an unfortunate example of the inherent environmental risks associated with large scale mining in a complex and culturally relied upon landscape. The accident has brought to the surface the underlining conflict between First Nations people and the resource development industries in regards to land title, adequate compensation and consent to mine in their traditional territory. Using the Mt. Polley accident as a case study we can examine how presence and land degradation from resource extraction industry puts First Nations people in a precarious position due to their physical, cultural and spiritual necessities provided by the land. The Mt. Polley Mine is located on the traditional territory of the Xat’sull and T’exelcemc First Nations up stream from Polley lake and Hazelton creak[11] . The location of the Mining site is important because it lies high in the Quesnel water basin which is a major tributary to the Fraser river which is one of British Columbia’s largest salmon bearing waterways. After the dam breach the traditional territories of the Xat’sull, T’exelcemc and the Lhtako Dene were directly effected as the breach eroded large areas of the landscape while flooding and deposited toxic mine tailings into the water shed below[11]. Members of these communities were not contacted by the Mt. Polley Mining Corporation in regards to the dam breach instead most were informed by various forms of media [11]. The lack of concrete information about the severity and scope of the incident raised concern within these and many other communities through out the area [11]. In fear of the worst many First Nations communities in the Fraser river water shed ceased salmon fishing until further scientific information in regards to the quality and safety of the water and salmon where investigated [11]. This in turn amplified community stress as many First Nations people along the Fraser river rely on salmon harvesting as a key component of their diet [11]. In the subsequent days the Mining company and the Ministry of Environment held public meeting in the near by community of Likely to address the post event impacts to the environment [11]. Although many First Nations attended the meetings in was reported that many found the information in regards to the incident confusing and inadequate in answering their concerns [11]. The culmination of mistrust in the information being provided from the Mt. Polley Mining Corp. and the decrease in tradition land use practices has lead to increase in emotional stress among many of the First Nations people effected by the accident [11]. From this chain of events we can see how the disaster having a devastating environmental effect then amplified, into to having profound socio-cultural effect as it put in jeopardy these First Nations communities’ rights to rely on the land.

Mining industry can play a large part to boost a country’s or a province’s economic by making profits, contributing to work labor and public improvements, etc. It provides a lot of revenue and tax income for the province, and a lot of work and jobs can be created, also it gives prosperity to the community with new opportunities of city expansion.

Facts of Canadian Mining Industry

Canada has approximate half of the world’s mineral and metal resources[12], and Canadian mining industry play an important role in domestic and global mining market. The Canadian mining industry contributed $115.3 billion, or nearly 7.3%, to Canada’s GDP in 2014[13]. Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $57.6 billion dollars in 2016 is attributed to its mining industry[14]. Canadian mining assets was estimated $254.4 billion in 2016.[15] 19% Canadian goods exports in 2016 comes from mining.[14] Canadian Mining companies pay over $70 billion in taxes and royalties over the last decade.[14] Canada ranks within the top five countries in the global production of 13 major minerals and metals:

  • First in potash
  • Second in uranium and niobium
  • Third in nickel, gemstones, cobalt, aluminum, and platinum group metals
  • Fourth in indium and sulphur
  • Fifth in diamonds, titanium and gold.[14]

Also Canada is considered a global leader in safety and sustainability. In 2004, Canada is the first in the world to develop an externally-verified performance system for sustainable mining practices, MAC’s Towards Sustainable Mining initiative.[14]

Mining Industry of British Columbia

Mining industry becomes a fundamental contributor to Canada’s GDP and the economy of British Columbia since there is a lot of explored and untapped resource in Canada and British Columbia in the natural resource part. British Columbia is the top three provinces with most metal mines of Canada, where has 9 explored metal mines. And as an important mining cluster, Vancouver of British Columbia is a global centre of expertise in mineral exploration, which has about 1200 exploration companies[13]. The mining industry of BC province shows a significant growth and great potential in the future. For instance, from the results of BC mining companies surveyed, 2016 is a strong year for coal operations and the mining industry of BC[15]. The gross mining revenues of BC are reported about $8.7 billions, and the net incomes are approximate $1.4 billion. Both of them continued to recover from the downturn in recent years as the lower mining commodity prices[15] Even though the decreased prices of some commodities affected some mining markets but there is a significant increase in the positive cash flow from operations ($2,575 million[15] and a large growth of the total payments to government ($650 million[15]. And as a result of the mining industry recovery, the number of people working in mining industry is increased to 9329 in the year 2016[15], and more money people earned from the mining operations.

Mutual Benefits for Aboriginal-Industry

Impact and Benefit Agreements in the last decade have been implemented to bring together the Aboriginal-industry relationships and partnerships. Each containing provisions for employment and training, business opportunities through set-aside contracts and joint ventures, social and cultural considerations, environmental monitoring, funding arrangements, and other provisions. These Agreements has proven to be successful in securing the benefits for many Aboriginal communities[16].

Aboriginal Employment

As the work force in the mining industry is diminishing due to an aging work force, the quickly growing Aboriginal youth population presents to us an untapped local labour force that can remedy this growing concern. Stay-in-school programs, scholarships, apprenticeships, and workplace literacy programs are set in place to help promote the education of the Aboriginal youth in local communities. This helps the youth in the communities to develop readily skills for when they are ready to be employ right after their education without being not able to find a job for most other employments in other fields[16]

Canadian mining industry are major employers

Listed as the largest private sector employer of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.[17] 418,000+ people work in Canada for the mining and mineral processing industries. [17] Working in the mining industry provides the highest wages and salaries of all industrial sectors in Canada, annual pay averaging $102,000.[17] Canada is one of the global leaders in terms of size of mining supply sectors with more than 3,200 companies supplying engineering, geotechnical, environmental, financial, and other services to mining operations.[17] In 2014, Canada’s 1250+ mining establishments consisting of 75+ metal mines and 1175+ non-metal mines. Most of the metal mines are in provinces like Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia.[17]

The human resource challenge

The Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR), indicates Canada’s mining industry will need at least 106,000 new workers throughout the years until 2025. [17] Over the next decade, MiHR predicts that roughly 51,000 workers will resign from the industry. If training and sills programs are developed and maintained, as Canada’s largest private sector employer of Aboriginal people, the industry will be in good shape to expand Aboriginal employment in the future. Most Aboriginal communities are situated within 200 kilometers of a mine or a development property, this allows reduced travel for work. For the human resources challenge to work, it will take an expansive exertion by the industry, educational institutions, and the government in the coming years.[17] If done properly this will be an extensive common ground participation of both BC residents and Aboriginal people, bringing them closer to each other.

  1. Mining in BC. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from http://www.trcr.bc.ca/mining-in-bc/
  2. Foreign Affairs Trade and Development Canada, International Trade, & International Business Development and Innovation. (2018, April 09). Mining Industries - Invest in Canada. Retrieved April 13, 2018, from http://www.international.gc.ca/investors-investisseurs/sector-secteurs/mining-minieres.aspx?lang=eng
  3. 3.03.1 Nelsen, J. L., M. Scoble, A. Ostry. 2010. Sustainable socio-economic development in mining communities: north-central British Columbia perspectives. International Journal of Mining Reclamation and Environment 24: 163 – 179
  4. 4.04.14.2 Place, J. And N. Hanlon. 2011. Kill the lake? Kill the proposal: accommodating First Nations’ environmental values as a first step on the road to Wellness. GeoJournal 76: 163 – 175.
  5. 5.05.15.25.35.4 Ellen L. Petticrew, S. J. (n.d.). The impact of the catastrophic mine tailing impoundment spill into one of North America's largest fjord lakes: Quesnel Lake, British Columbia, Canada. Retrieved from https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2015GL063345
  6. 6.06.16.2 CBC News (6 August 2014), "Mount Polley mine tailings spill: Imperial Metals could face $1M fine", http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mount-polley-mine-tailings-spill-imperial-metals-could-face-1m-fine-1.2728832
  7. https://news.gov.bc.ca/stories/mount-polley-fish-testing-and-water-quality-results
  8. 8.08.18.28.3 https://news.gov.bc.ca/stories/friday-aug-8---mount-polley-tailings-pond-situation-update
  9. 9.09.1 Judith Lavoie, https://www.desmog.ca/2017/03/28/british-columbians-saddled-40-million-clean-bill-imperial-metals-escapes-criminal-charges
  10. Camille Bains, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mount-polley-investigation-ndp-1.4233234
  11. 11.011.111.211.311.411.511.611.711.8 Shandro, J., M. Winkler, L. Jokinen, and A. Stockwell. Health impact assessment for the 2014 Mount Polley Mine tailings dam breach: Screening and scoping phase report. January, 2016. http://www.fnha.ca/Documents/FNHA-Mount-Polley-Mine-HIA-SSP-Report.pdf
  12. Canadian Mining Assets. (2018, February 21). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/mining-materials/publications/19323#fn4
  13. 13.013.1 Competence Centre for Mining and Mineral Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from http://www.canadian-german-mining.com/market.php?canada
  14. 14.014.114.214.314.4 Mining Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from http://mining.ca/resources/mining-facts
  15. 15.015.115.215.315.415.5 The Mining Industry in British Columbia. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://www.pwc.com/ca/en/industries/mining/publications/mining-industry-british-columbia.html
  16. 16.016.1 Indigenous Participation in Mining Information Products. (2018, March 26). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/mining-materials/aboriginal/bulletin/7817
  17. 17.017.117.217.317.417.517.6 Competence Centre for Mining and Mineral Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from http://www.canadian-german-mining.com/market.php?canada
source: http://wiki.ubc.ca/Course:CONS200/Mineral_mining_versus_local_peoples’_rights_in_British_Columbia,_Canada

Post image:  By Jesse Allen via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.