Mining executives may sometimes feel they face insurmountable problems in British Columbia, where the courts have reaffirmed aboriginal title over land and where environmental regulations seem myriad.
But participants at a major mining conference in Vancouver were told Tuesday that if the industry can come up with a new way of incorporating social and environmental issues into its planning, the province could emerge as a global leader.
"This community has everything in the world going for it – just don't screw it up," said Rick Rule, chairman of Sprott US Holdings and an expert on international resource investment.
The development landscape in B.C. has become more complicated since the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed last year that aboriginal title exists and that both government and industry have an obligation to consult First Nations over proposed projects.
But Mr. Rule and other speakers on a panel about aboriginal engagement said the ruling has clarified the legal ground rules and it is now up to industry and First Nation leaders to rise to the challenge of finding ways to move ahead.
Mr. Rule told participants at the Association for Mineral Exploration B.C. conference that when it comes to attracting international investment, mining companies that have the social component of their project worked out have a definite edge.
"Address us with an opportunity," he said. "The global investor would like to be approached with a joint venture [involving industry and First Nations]."
Mr. Rule said resource companies globally are struggling with the need to demonstrate they have local support on projects, and B.C. needs to get out in front in that regard.
"You have to be world leaders [on social engagement]," he said, adding that B.C. already has a highly advanced industry with technical expertise and a good environmental track record.
Mr. Rule also challenged First Nations to provide leadership, saying they need to do more to work with industry or they risk losing out on opportunities to create wealth in their communities.
Don Lindsay, CEO and president of Teck Resources Ltd., said mining companies and aboriginal communities naturally have common ground because "we are all in it together – we are united in wanting the same things for our families."
He said Teck has already had success in working with First Nations.
He referred to the Red Dog zinc-lead mine in Alaska, which was developed in partnership with a native corporation owned by the Inupiat people, and five coal mines in southeast B.C., where Teck is working with conservation groups and First Nations to reduce the selenium load in the Elk River watershed.
"We need to listen and really hear what is important to people," Mr. Lindsay said.
Chief Derek Orr of the McLeod Lake Indian Band said native communities want to get involved with resource developments – but not at the cost of the environment.
And he said a big part of the problem is that First Nations don't have faith the government will protect the environment for them.
"We want certainty as a First Nation … that our ability to hunt, fish and trap, and our ability to drink from a stream … doesn't go away," he said.
Mark Podlasly, CEO of North Pacific Energy Ltd., a Canadian wood biomass energy company and a member of the N'laka'pamux First Nation, challenged mining executives to try a different approach in B.C.
He suggested a new model for mining, with a collaborative approach in which industry and local communities have a "shared purpose" that values both flourishing ecosystems and company competitiveness.
"If you look at that model, can you imagine a different approach in B.C.?" he asked.