Red Chris Mine Tailings Pond

It’s time to update B.C.’s gold-rush era mining laws

First Nations’ experience of mining in B.C. has been negative from the outset
By Jacinda Mack, co-founder of Stand for Water Loretta Williams, chair of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining.

We are told that B.C.’s natural resources can play a key role in the global transition to a low-carbon future. From clean-energy cars and wind turbines that require copper, steelmaking coal and molybdenum, to silver and selenium for solar cells; it is said that the province has the potential to be a leader in clean-energy mining.

But supplying the essential ingredients for green energy is at risk, unless B.C. mining laws can enforce practices that uphold First Nations rights and the environment. Sadly, that’s not the case, and hasn’t been, since the first B.C. gold rush nearly 170 years ago.

First Nations’ experience of mining in B.C. has been negative from the outset. The Mount Polley tailings-dam disaster in 2014 was simply the latest in a history of destruction and misery caused by generations of badly regulated mining operations, an outdated Mines Act and the province’s failure to live up to its commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Canada has more mine-tailings spills than any other country in the world except China. Without significant changes to current mining practices, B.C. alone can expect two tailings-dam failures every 10 years.

As we witnessed after the Mount Polley disaster, damaged lakes and rivers threaten wild salmon and the way of life of First Nations communities that depend on them.

Without urgent action, another disaster is inevitable because current mining regulations are simply too weak, and enforcement is deficient — a view shared by B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer, who issued a scathing report in 2016 following an audit of compliance and enforcement of the B.C. mining sector.

Bellringer said the environmental risks of mining are increasing, but compliance and enforcement are decreasing. Mount Polley is evidence of the risk, and to avoid such failures in future, we can’t continue business as usual.

We agree and believe it’s time for communities across the province to stand together and demand a new approach to mining in line with UNDRIP. Organizations like First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining are making a difference, but we need more communities to make their voices heard.

We also remind the mining industry that bad practices are a threat to its own interests. An increasing number of organizations are signing on to the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance’s (IRMA) Standard for Responsible Mining, which seeks to emulate for industrial-scale mine sites what has been done with certification programs in organic agriculture, responsible forestry and sustainable fisheries.

Supporters of the responsible mining initiative range from steelmakers, trade unions and jewelry manufacturers to high-tech firms such as Microsoft. Owners of mines that fail to meet the standard, which includes social and environmental responsibility and third-party verification, risk being bypassed as suppliers in much the same way that B.C. forestry companies were shunned until they improved their logging practices. That’s bad news for those B.C. mines whose practices fall short of the standard and may not improve unless compelled by law to do so.

Mining is a fact of life in B.C., but that doesn’t mean we have to accept mining practices that ride roughshod over community rights and threaten clean water necessary for sustaining life. Destroyed lakes, polluted lands and rivers, and the destruction of important fish and wildlife ecosystems, are too high a price to pay for short-term economic gain and pose a real threat to B.C.’s hopes of becoming a global, clean-mining leader.

Immediate actions must be taken. We all need proper enforcement of rules. We also need both the provincial and federal governments to honour their UNDRIP obligations that embrace reconciliation with the land and Indigenous peoples.

Jacinda Mack is co-founder of Stand for Water, a project of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM). Loretta Williams is chair of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining.

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