In the past few decades, the Canadian mineral policy arena has seen some significant changes. Mining, long a staple of the Canadian political economy, pillar of national policy, and a leading producer and exporter of minerals in the world, has been encountering new challenges. Political players have multiplied, economies diversified, and policy issues have grown in complexity. These developments may appear to be of seismic proportions to members of the mineral industry worried about an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable investment and operating environment. New competitors in an increasingly open world market, such as those in Latin America, presented a serious challenge; they offered rich, readily accessible deposits, an inexpensive labour force, and welcoming governments anxious for the investment dollar to build their developing economies. In the closing years of the 20th century, the industry was increasingly alert to the dangers of being labelled a “sunset industry”. The tertiary sector had begun to elbow its way onto government agendas, capturing attention and offering intriguing new possibilities associated with a post-staples economy.
Mineworkers, the backbone of the Canadian mineral industry, were becoming concerned about the growing use of automation and robotics which was replacing jobs or requiring workers with new skill sets in applied science and computer operations. Labour organizations had to develop strategies for dealing with a new phenomenon referred to as long-distance commuting (LDC) where workers were flown into remote mine operations for weekly or bimonthly work shifts. Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations, worried about the continuing and cumulative impact of mining, had very different preoccupations. They dismissed the industry’s competitive concerns, observing that if the mineral wealth is there, exploration dollars and investment will follow. Canada’s new diamond mines offered such evidence (see Chapter 12). Environmental and social organizations argued that the primary industry continued to be supported by governments, so much so that public commitments to sustainable development and local, democratic decision-making were often not realized in practice and represented very little in the way of meaningful change.
Yet change is happening. A historical review of the Canadian mineral economy, and the policy environment that has supported it, reveals that notable adaptive strategies have taken place in governing institutional regimes and industrial relations in recent decades. References to corporate social responsibility, community partnerships, total cost assessment, and sustainable ecosystems are now part of the popular lexicon in industry and government documents. As Russell has observed, advocates of post-Fordist, ‘new work relations’, emphasise what they see as trends towards worker empowerment and democratization (Russell, 1999: 167). Skeptics might acknowledge that significant global changes are happening but the results are anything but empowering for worker and communities. Moreover, they might note that despite measures put in place in various mines, such initiatives have done little to lessen the overall adverse and cumulative, global impact of mining on the environment. Global and domestic economic and political imperatives continue to overshadow ecological, community and other social considerations.
Unquestionably, the Canadian mineral industry is finding itself operating within, and reacting to, an environment consistent with that of a mature, advanced staples economy as discussed by Brownsey and Howlett in the first chapter of this text. Such an economy has been defined as one that is still primary resource- dependent, but more diffused and diversified than in the past (Howlett, 2003: 47). Nevertheless, the mineral industry remains an important element of Canadian economic activity with all the associated social, industrial, environmental and political implications.