British Columbia had a banner year for mining investment in 2012. But the $463-million poured into the ground represents just a handful of successful projects. Most junior mining companies were running up against skeptical investors who have watched one too many projects fall apart because of the endless battle over ownership of the land and the resources below ground.
The mining industry does not need to follow the Idle No More movement to know it has a problem. For decades, conflict with first nations over mining resources has been blamed for curtailing the industry's growth. When mining executives meet later this month for their annual conference in Vancouver, they'll do so in an aboriginal-themed pavilion, part of a growing recognition that successful ventures will hinge on the co-operation of affected first nations.
A Dec. 27 court ruling offers a new reason to try to build a better relationship. The decision directs the Yukon government to consult with first nations before allowing prospectors to stake a mining claim. In B.C.,where most of the Crown land is still subject to aboriginal land claims, the ruling can't be ignored.
The 16-page unanimous decision of the Yukon Court of Appeal – penned by three B.C. Appeal Court judges – gives the government there one year to introduce a consultation mechanism.
"The honour of the Crown demands that it take into account Aboriginal claims before divesting itself of control over land," the decision states. "What is required is that consultations be meaningful, and that the system allow for accommodation to take place, where required, before claimed Aboriginal title or rights are adversely affected."
Both B.C. and the Yukon freely hand out stakes for mining claims on Crown land – in British Columbia, you can even register a claim online.
To grow the industry, the province is looking at cutting red tape for some exploration and mining activities. That direction could simply exacerbate conflict, however.
Both the industry and first nations are looking to the provincial government to craft a framework that would allow more development to move ahead without blockades and litigation.
"We are looking for leadership," said Gavin Dirom, president of the Association for Mineral Exploration B.C., in an interview. "We're looking for more direction, more guidance, particularly in accommodation and consultation. That would be a government-to-government discussion and we encourage them to sit down and have some fruitful and meaningful dialogue."
The industry is also waiting to see whether the Yukon government will appeal the court ruling, or amend its laws as directed. "There are implications that need to be taken seriously," said Mr. Dirom, "not just for our industry, but any resource development on the land base here in British Columbia and across the country."
His association hasn't been idle. The coming Mineral Exploration Roundup conference will have the largest-ever contingent of aboriginal representation. One of the guest speakers is Dave Porter, CEO of the B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council, who predicts the Yukon ruling will have far-reaching consequences.
"We're going to see a ripple effect in B.C.," Mr. Porter said in an interview. "The fallout is going to be a chill with respect to mining investments and I anticipate as a result of this decision in the Yukon, it will result in litigation renewed in British Columbia with respect to the free-entry system."
Mr. Porter says there are many B.C. aboriginal communities prepared to move ahead with mining projects – provided they are included in the planning and profit-sharing. In two cases, the province has signed off on revenue-sharing agreements, but there is no clear framework.
That would require a broader conversation, one that Mines Minister Rich Coleman needs to take part in.