B.C. was recently labelled the “Wild West” in a New York Times article for our lack of financial rules or limits around political donations. While mining companies and their executives regularly fall within the top donors’ list to the B.C. Liberal Party, they have benefited from this notion of the Wild West for well over a century.
In fact, B.C.’s mining laws were created more than 150 years ago during the gold-rush era of the 1850s. These laws were largely created by miners themselves to help guarantee unfettered access to new lands by creating the right of “free entry,” and were part of the strategy to help settle the colony. Today, mining activity is still given priority over virtually all other land uses in B.C.
In fact, the process for staking a claim has only gotten easier. Are you 18 years old, have $25 and access to a computer? Click and you have a claim staked anywhere — on private property, First Nations hunting grounds, key tourism areas, important salmon habitat or wildlife management areas. Mining activities are off-limits only in parks, under buildings and at certain archeological sites. In other words, mining exploration can take place in over 82 per cent of the province.
This is the core of the problem. The right of free entry hasn’t evolved with environmental and societal norms. Mining gets a free pass from zoning bylaws and land-use plans that apply to other sectors. Until we change the free-entry system and stop giving privilege to the mining industry, we will see conflict.
A farming family learned the hard way when their property just outside of Kamloops was staked and they could do nothing to stop their property from turning into a strip-mine for kitty litter. Despite the family’s ownership of the land, they are indefinitely excluded from entering, using, occupying or enjoying their property while it’s being mined and received a mere $60,000 in compensation.
The municipal government, First Nations and several community groups in Kamloops have expressed concern about the proposed Ajax mine within the municipal boundaries. Community members are predominantly concerned about health and water-quality issues, but B.C.’s Mineral Tenure Act provides no power for local governments to prevent mineral claims from being staked, mining leases from being granted or to stop a mine from being developed within city limits.
Similarly, proponents aren’t required to engage with First Nations before staking a claim or entering the land. The B.C. government has taken the position that the staking of mineral claims doesn’t trigger a constitutional duty to consult. The result is a number of conflicts and multiple policies as First Nations push back and demand otherwise. Ironically, this has led the Association of Mineral Exploration for B.C. lobbying for tax credits at both the federal and provincial levels (of which they enjoy many) to now cover costs incurred from “engaging with aboriginal communities.”
In 2017, the rules and regulations stemming from the beginnings of the “Wild West” no longer work. We need to establish common-sense restrictions on where mineral claims and mining leases are allowed. Establishing certain areas, such as key salmon habitat, as no-go zones for mining will go a long way to avoid opposition from First Nations and local communities.
The Association of Mineral Exploration for B.C. is gathering in Vancouver this week and lobbying for more and easier access to public lands. But increasing limits and an end to free-entry legislation will be what substantially reduces risks to the industry. Ensuring First Nations, private landowners and the public have a more meaningful role in decisions about mineral tenure has the potential to bring more balance to land-use decisions and increase the likelihood that future mining projects are located in places, and carried out in a manner, that have the social licence to proceed. It’s time for B.C.’s outdated laws to go.
Nikki Skuce is director of Northern Confluence, an initiative based out of Smithers that aims to improve land-use decisions in B.C.’s salmon watersheds.
Image: Coal mining in B.C.'s Flathead Valley. Photo: Garth Lenz, used with permission
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