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People attend the trade show and investors area at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) 2014 convention at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Sunday, March 2, 2014. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)
People attend the trade show and investors area at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) 2014 convention at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Sunday, March 2, 2014. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

Harper reassures miners after rejection of Taseko open-pit mine Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sought to reassure the mining industry that his government was on its side after spurning the development of a high-profile gold and copper project in British Columbia.

In a surprise visit to a mining conference in Toronto, Mr. Harper defended his Conservative government’s rejection of Taseko Mines Ltd.’s New Prosperity project in the region of Cariboo-Chilcotin but said that did not mean the door was closed forever.

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“The environmental assessment was extremely negative,” Mr. Harper told the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference.

But, he said, “We don’t like to see communities and regions deprived of what are obviously … significant opportunities for people in the region.

“They are always in a position to examine the environmental assessment and to propose a new project based on their attempts to address some of the issues.”

It was the second time New Prosperity was rejected and Taseko has vowed not to give up on developing the open-pit mine, which has deeply divided the region.

Mr. Harper’s attendance at the mining conference was the first time a sitting prime minister has participated, speaking to the event’s growing popularity and influence as the world’s largest mining gathering.

The four-day conference is expected to draw nearly 30,000 delegates from more than 125 countries, including China, the United States and Mexico.

Mr. Harper also announced the renewal of a tax credit to help mineral exploration. The tax incentive comes at a particularly painful time for the mining industry, which has lost billions of dollars in value and had to shelve projects because of the downturn in commodity prices.

The Conservative government has put an increased focus in recent years on efforts to improve the reputation of Canadian mining companies abroad, but continues to face criticism for not taking a tougher stand on companies facing allegations of human rights and environmental abuses. Ottawa has also moved to tie international development efforts more closely to the mining sector, with a series of pilot projects involving Canadian mining companies and non-governmental organizations and the creation of a new mining policy institute.

During a 45-minute question-and-answer session with the incoming president of PDAC, Rodney Thomas, Mr. Harper said he believes Canadian mining companies have a “pretty good” brand internationally. “It’s not to say the story is perfect, but there’s very few places where the Canadian story isn’t the best story,” he said.

Earlier on Monday, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told the mining conference that Ottawa would bring in federal legislation to compel mandatory reporting if the provinces and territories don’t set up their own systems by April of next year.

The move was first announced last year but has been met with some resistance at the provincial level. The aim is to track significant payments that mining, oil and gas companies make to governments in Canada and internationally to make it easier for people to hold their governments to account for how the money is spent.

But even as he announced the effort to strengthen reporting mechanisms, which was widely applauded by non-governmental groups, Mr. Oliver was careful to assure the industry that the planned system would be as unobtrusive as possible, and advocacy groups noted that the announcement stayed away from creating a central database and requiring reports from junior mining companies.

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