The mining industry is growing in British Columbia. B.C. mines and smelters that have been operating for many years are making major investments in modernization, four new mines are in construction, several more are in advanced permitting and mineral exploration spending is rising. Billions of new investment dollars are flowing into B.C., all creating wealth for the province and thousands of jobs and business opportunities for British Columbians and their families; clearly, we can say with confidence the mining renaissance is upon us.
As the mining sector embarks on a period of growth not seen in a generation, it is more important than ever to find new and better ways to extract the minerals that are critical to a clean and green economy. Over the last couple of decades, the mining industry in B.C. has undergone dramatic changes in the way it approaches sustainability, environmental obligations and relationships with its communitiesof-interest.
Today, the sector is the safest heavy industry in the province, a major investor in research and development, a leading employer and contractor of first nations and, through B.C.'s internationally recognized Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mining, is continuously improving environmental management and reclamation practices.
But there is more we can and should do.
It is for this reason that the Mining Association of B.C. is implementing the Towards Sustainable Mining initiative (TSM) -the first provincial mining association to do so. Developed by the Mining Association of Canada, TSM encourages industry to implement best practices and demonstrate continuous improvement in a number of critical fields of sustainable management including: Tailings management, aboriginal and community relations, safety and health, energy and greenhouse gas management and biodiversity.
Particularly relevant for B.C.'s mining sector is the approach TSM articulates for relations with first nations. TSM commits mining companies to respect aboriginal and treaty rights, to seek to understand those rights and to acknowledge and respect social, economic and cultural interests of aboriginal peoples. The strong aboriginal focus of TSM indicates how far the industry has come in embracing first nations partnerships. Fifteen years ago, there were fewer than 20 agreements between mining companies and aboriginal communities in Canada. Today, there are almost 200, and many more are being negotiated.
Reaching agreements and forming partnerships with first nations is not always easy, and it sometimes feels like it's getting harder. Industry is trying to navigate the changing landscape of aboriginal law, including the recent adoption by the federal government of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples. The question of veto power on land use decisions creates a difficult situation, if not an impasse, for some negotiations, as companies navigate the grey area of pursuing greater levels of certainty for their land interest with the need, in a market economy, to provide a reasonable return to shareholders.
There are no clear rules or standards to apply to negotiations, only precedent, which is often unclear because agreements are private and confidential. Add to these challenges the B.C. reality of overlapping, unsettled land claims, and there emerges the reason why the Fraser Institute continues to rank B.C. near the bottom on the indicator of first nations issues.
But there is much we -first nations, industry and governments – can do to make it easier. Industry embracing and implementing TSM is one part of the answer.
The province can accelerate the negotiation and conclusion of resource revenue sharing agreements with first nations in relation to mining projects. We can continue and enhance our investments in the Aboriginal Mine Training Association, to provide the skills and opportunities for first nations workers in the mining sector. And, last but not least, we can recommit to the hard, time-consuming but important work of treaty negotiations.
While not perfect, treaties are one of the best ways of providing a level of certainty on the land base and a vehicle for reconciliation with first nations. The federal government's commitment to the B.C. treaty-making process has waned in recent years and MABC joins its voice to that of first nations calling for a recommitment to this effort.
In the past few years, mining has emerged as a sector on which the province and many B.C. communities have pinned their hopes, and this is why our efforts to improve must never waiver. It is why our board made the decision to adopt TSM, why we continue our efforts to engage first nations and why we're encouraging the federal government to renew its commitment to the treaty process. If we are able to accomplish these things, B.C.'s mining renaissance will continue.
Pierre Gratton is the president and CEO of the Mining Association of British Columbia.
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