Access to land and new investments in exploration require both government and public support. As noted earlier, at one time the industry could count on both. Just as it was challenged on the international competitive front, the industry has also found itself facing barriers on the home front. As was the case with the Windy Craggy deposit, non-governmental environmental organizations and others were drawing public attention to the impact resource development was having on the biophysical environment, important watersheds and valued wilderness areas.
Economies and societies rely on natural resources (sometimes referred to as natural capital) for water, energy, primary materials and habitable environments. The biophysical environment needs to be protected; of that point there is little debate. How that should happen, however, is a different question. Many members of industry, for example, have applied technological approaches to solve environmental concerns believing that sustainability can be readily achieved within a global liberal-capitalist economy. Modernizing operating practices through environmental management systems, continual self-improvement, retrofitting, maximizing the ore body, minimizing waste and taking life-cycle approaches have been adopted to various degrees throughout the Canadian mineral industry. As discussed in the following sections, however, others argue that technological fixes are not enough; they call instead for major institutional, industrial, and social restructuring that recognize the socio-ecological limits of the planet. For its part, the mineral industry has continued to attempt to solve its problems in the tradition fashion through the application of technological improvements to increase its efficiency and deal with its environmental effects. The sector, however, has been less sophisticated at dealing with the political and social challenges that affect its long-term viability. Scientific advances in such areas as geophysics, robotics, or pollution abatement initiatives can only take the industry so far. As noted above, companies need access to land and a supportive regulatory and investment environment to undertake exploration activities and to mine deposits. This will not occur without government support. As Anthony Hodge, an environmental consultant notes, the mineral industry’s “continued defensive posture that has characterized the industry for most of the second half of the 20th century will drive the industry into perfect storm conditions.” (Hodge, 2003: 14)
Critics watching the mineral industry are ready to offer numerous examples of how the industry has failed to comprehend and respond to the changing public agenda; examples range from the poor handling of international mining disasters, failure to live up to national commitments, inept negotiations with local communities or indigenous peoples, poorly handled industrial relations, to bad public relationships with local property owners. (Mining Watch Canada, 2003; Russell, 1999)
With advances in the Internet and the increasing globalization of communications, non-government organizations at the local and national levels have developed connections throughout the world spawning new organizations. The resources of the well-funded organizations have helped support the causes of smaller associations. In Canada, the establishment of the Environmental Mining Council of British Columbia, formed in 1992, to promote environmentally sound mining policy and practices. (Young, 1998)
was soon followed in 1999 by the national organization Mining Watch Canada. Mining Watch Canada focuses on the promotion of ecologically sound mineral practices and sustainable communities. The organization suggests that the mineral industry has acquired an unsustainable legacy in environmental costs in Canada and abroad:
The very real legacy of mining includes an estimated twenty-seven thousand abandoned mines across Canada, billions of dollars of remediation liability for acid mine drainage contamination, extensive disruption of critical habitat areas, profound social impacts in many mining communities, and the boom and bust upheaval of local economies. The cost of Canadian mining operations in other parts of the world has been no less dramatic. (MiningWatch Canada, 2003)
Although the figures may differ, governments acknowledge that these problems exist and must be addressed. For example, Natural Resources Canada notes that 10,000 abandoned mine sites have been identified (not to mention those that have not been uncovered) throughout Canada with liabilities associated with health, safety and environmental concerns. One of the most serious of these is the concern that old tailings ponds that contain mining wastes will fail resulting in the poisoning of watersheds. Today, modern mining operations, governed by numerous environmental regulations and operations, are much improved. That said, the environmental and public safety concerns posed by contemporary mineral activities—in addition to the cumulative historical problems—leaves the industry open to public criticism. Mining Watch Canada is affiliated with numerous other organizations including the Canadian Environmental Network, the Canadian Environmental Law Centre, as well as international organizations. Their ability to pool resources, ideas, and initiatives makes these groups an influential alternative voice to the mineral industry when setting public agendas.
Canada’s Aboriginal peoples have also become very influential members of the mineral policy community. This influence comes from the legal recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in variety of ways including outright ownership in many mineral-rich regions of the country. This influence is both national and international as indigenous organizations around the world develop strategies to protect their interests. One member of the Canadian Aboriginal Minerals Association, (CAMA), Jerry Asp, raises some important issues related the future of industry-Aboriginal peoples relations. If corporations wish to negotiate with First Nations people, he suggests that they would do well to handle their interactions differently. For example, Asp observes that abandoned mines have left an environmentally damaging legacy that continues to affect public perceptions of the mining industry today. Asp suggests that the industry is paying insufficient attention to this problem and need to claim responsibility collectively.
Asp also reinforces Hodge’s observation about the mining industry’s defensive approach when he notes the historic tendency of the industry to proclaim that it has a relatively small impact on the land given that it does not occupy a large territory. Asp suggests that the industry should acknowledge its actual environmental impact. For example, it is quite common to hear members of the industry proclaim that a mine only takes up a small “footprint” when it is in operation. This undermines the credibility of the industry and erodes any trust that it might have gained in public consultations and discussions. Asp, speaking from the perspective of First Nations peoples, notes that when the industry claims it only takes a few acres of land to mine:
It reminds me of the story of the railroad crossing the Great Plains of America. They told the First Nations that it was only two tracks and a whistle. They forgot to tell them about the people that the train will carry. You are forgetting to tell us about the related infrastructure that goes with your project. The road, the power transmission lines, etc. This opens up our country to anyone who owns a snow machine, or a four-wheeler. This is a real disruption to us. It has a major impact on our life….then all trust is gone…. The mining company will have an uphill battle to get First Nations approval for their project. (Asp, 2004: 3)
Given the well-documented adverse cumulative impacts of resource development activities on First Nations peoples, trust will be very difficult to achieve, particularly if the industry continues to attempt to minimize the very real, potential disruption of their activities.
On a local level, the activities of exploration companies can also erode public faith in the industry. For example, old mining laws, devised at a time when mining exploration took place a long way from human settlement, continue to govern at a time when small property owners can be adversely affected by such pieces of legislation that continue to support the concept of “free entry” for exploration (even on privately owned property).
As Hutton noted, the decline of the resource communities is another hallmark of a post-staples economy. The problems facing the industry also affect rural Canada and vice-versa. At the end of the 20th century, a number of Canada’s 150 mining communities in Canada found themselves facing difficult economic times. No new mining communities had been built for almost twenty years. Improvements in technology has led to automation of mine operations, a decline in employment, and the development of ‘fly-in’ mining where companies build housing for their workers rather than permanent communities. Fly-in mining has its advantages, from both an ecological and economic point of view. Flying workers into a mine site eliminates all of the social, economic and environmental costs associated with establishing isolated mining communities. It also weakens the abilities of labour to form unions. A decline in the fortunes of resource-based towns and in levels of employment means that the mineral industry diminishes in importance in the government agendas. Urban demands and employment concerns lead decision-makers away from the staples-producers in search of answers to other pressing problems. Rural Canada and its industries are no longer able to command the large share of government attention that it once did.
Moreover, critics are increasingly questioning whether or not it is in the long-term interests of an economy and society to continue to support investment in a staples-based economy, particularly when it is considered from a community perspective. The life of a mine is finite so communities have to think about what they will do when the ore reserves are depleted. Attempts to diversify the economy into such areas as tourism (hunting and fishing lodges), other types of resource production, or even retirement centres can be undermined by harsh weather conditions, isolated locations and the residual effects of the mining activity: “Often, other resource-based economic activities such as farming, fishing and logging are damaged by the pollution from the mine and smelters, and these remote communities become dependent on power grids, chain shores and imported goods and services to supply their needs” (Kuyek and Coumans 2003: 13). Moreover, residents of the mining communities are accustomed to the high wages associated with mining and any economic that existing before the mine development has been replaced or are insufficient to replace the needs of a resource-dependent economy (Kuyek and Coumans 2003: 13).
With the exception of a few regions that have successfully diversified, Sudbury being the most notable case, sustaining a town over the long term requires the fortuitous confluence of many supportive variables. Unless, significant government support and private investment is directed towards clusters of regions that have demonstrated a potential for diversification and are located along major transportation routes, many isolated mining towns face economic decline or closure after the mine shuts down.
By the end of the 1990s, the mineral industry was entering into increasingly unfamiliar territory as it was confronted with a complex array of new challenges ranging in scope from the global to the local. Issues ranged from international competition to concerns about land access, the reality of a diversifying economy that competed with the traditional resource sector for government attention and resources, widespread public concerns about the environmental impact of mining, new influential actors questioning the role of the mineral industry in setting government agendas, and a decline in ore reserves and mining communities.