Opinion

#DisruptMining: The importance of Northern intervention in mining innovation

"Abestos mine in Thetford Mines in Quebec Canada. Shot with Tilt-shift lens focus is vertical and near the center of the image. If you zoom in, you'll see a huge bulldozer that gives an good idea of the size of the mine."

The marquee event of the annual Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference happening March 5-8 in Toronto will be a reality TV-style competition titled #DisruptMining.

Initiated by Goldcorp., #DisruptMining is described as a “shark-tank” style competition designed to showcase “disruptive and exponential technologies with the potential to revolutionize the future of mining, from exploration and discovery to production and automation to financing, marketing and sustainability.” [1]

The conference will feature the finale competition event showcasing the top five selections out of 153 applicants, in which finalists will pitch their “disruptive technology” to a panel of CEOs, presidents, and chairpersons of various Canadian mining companies in competition for a $1-million prize from Goldcorp. senior VP Todd White, or $100,000 from one of the remaining four judges. Each finalist will have five minutes to demonstrate how their idea or technology has the potential to “disrupt” the industry, and judges will then have two minutes to respond. According to organizers, the net proceeds from sponsorships and ticket sales will be donated to charity and scholarships designed to spur further innovation in mining.

While innovation has certainly been made within the mining industry — most notably on the technological side — with clear benefits to the environment and public safety, the bulk of these “disruptions” were not spurred by the private sector but rather by interventions from industry stakeholders, including Northerners themselves.

Canada’s North has a long history with the mining industry, which continues to contribute significantly to territorial and provincial economies. While declining metal and mineral prices have been limiting economic growth in Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories for the past several years, mining continues to be a keystone economic driver in the North. It is the main contributor to the NWT’s GDP, second only to public administration in Nunavut, and the third major sector in Yukon after government and real estate.[2]

Historically, mining has left lasting impacts on both communities and the environment. Early projects that operated during periods of lax or non-existent regulations have in many cases marred the landscape indelibly, with Yellowknife’s Giant Mine serving as a key example of what can happen when production is approved without plans for cleanup and reclamation; Canada and, indeed, the community must now deal with 237,000 tonnes of deadly arsenic trioxide, mechanically frozen underground, in perpetuity.[3]

Lessons have been learned from such catastrophic oversights, and in many ways mines in the North have since become examples of how to do good business when it comes to participatory and anticipatory environmental assessments, impact and benefit agreements (IBAs) for Indigenous governments, and joint ventures with Northern and Indigenous businesses. 

But while innovation has certainly been made within the mining industry — most notably on the technological side — with clear benefits to the environment and public safety, the bulk of these “disruptions” were not spurred by the private sector but rather by interventions from industry stakeholders, including Northerners themselves. Northerners, mainly Indigenous, have demonstrated an openness to collaboratively problem solve with companies in order to achieve mutual benefit from projects and mitigate the socioeconomic and environmental burdens left in the North by primarily southern companies. In cases where mitigation was not seen to be occurring or where communities doubted the social and economic gains of mining projects, companies have been forced back to the table to work for their approvals, modify their plans, and garner public trust before being able to move ahead with operations.

These interventions have largely been made possible through the relatively fulsome environmental review processes set up by Northerners through cooperative management regimes. Land use planning, environmental assessment, monitoring, and other regulatory bodies, like the ones established under comprehensive land claims agreements, are distinctly Northern, enabling community participation in processes that were formerly the exclusive domain of mining companies, governments, and the financial industry. Despite recent attempts by the federal government to unilaterally modify these systems, Indigenous governments have in some cases mounted successful defenses through the court system to protect their made-in-the-North ways of doing business.[4]

Considering the essential role that Northerners, particularly Indigenous Northerners, have played in motivating improvements and innovation within the mining sector, the #DisruptMining handle adopted by industry in preparation for its hallmark gathering next week seems to send the wrong message.

Such efforts illustrate the principle “disruption” to the mining industry, which continues to be Indigenous Peoples’ asserted right to have a say in what takes place on their lands. Though comprehensive claim agreements have been a key institutional mechanism driving many of the innovations we see in the Northern Canadian mining industry today, legal interventions, blockades, and standoffs have also been crucial in ensuring that Indigenous rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are honoured. Such interventions have led to the establishment of Indigenous-led, independent environmental monitoring programs and introduced important standards into Canadian environmental assessment processes for risk mitigation, including considerations of cumulative and socioeconomic impacts, as well as measures to promote community and regional sustainability beyond the life of projects. These disruptions have created precedents that continue to be built upon throughout Canada, and which serve as best practices in other jurisdictions.

Still, even with advancements in community relations, Northern mines continue to present shortfalls, both environmentally and socioeconomically, when it comes to issues of employment equity, revenue sharing, and impacts on traditional livelihoods, wildlife, and the land. A 2014 NWT Survey of Mining Employees conducted by the NWT Bureau of Statistics found that over half of employees at the territory’s diamond mines were not NWT residents; the majority had, in fact, never lived in the territory but were transient workers flown in and out. Conversely, approximately one quarter of employees were originally from the NWT, and about 30 percent of all those surveyed of were Indigenous.[5] Others have noted the growing income gap in the North despite the long legacy of mining [6], while research on the legacy of mine worker training initiatives in the North has been critical of the efficacy of such programs.[7]

The format of the #DisruptMining event itself also appears to be consistent with a problematic trend within the industry. The “shark tank” style competition in which high ranking industry panelists decide on the value of innovations seems at odds with the multi-stakeholder, consensus-based approach to policy development adopted by the Canadian mining industry in the early 1990s and more in line with what Fitzpatrick, Fonseca, and McAllister (2011) have described as a “focused, member-specific agenda that addresses a few performance issues.”[8] If this is indeed the trend, it will be problematic for an industry that continues to depend on multi-stakeholder relationships to foster the political legitimacy necessary to access the land.

Considering the essential role that Northerners, particularly Indigenous Northerners, have played in motivating improvements and innovation within the mining sector, the #DisruptMining handle adopted by industry in preparation for its hallmark gathering next week seems to send the wrong message. By presenting industry leaders as the sole arbiters of innovation, #DisruptMining conceals the role of Indigenous and Northern communities who are pushing for the next generation of legal and technological innovations needed to ensure their rights and interests are fully actualized in resource decision-making.

The North has been disrupted by mining for more than a century. Throughout that time, it has consistently been Northerners demanding change to an overwhelmingly southern-based industry. Such interventions have been instrumental in raising standards for environmental protection and community participation in mining, and should be credited as such. With the #DisruptMining event fast approaching, it is key for industry to understand that further innovations within mining in the North must originate in the needs and demands of Northerners first before they are sought out through a “shark tank” game in Toronto.


Photo credit: istockphoto/vtwinpixel

[1] http://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/goldcorp-and-integra-gold-to-host-disruptmining-during-pdac-2017-607067816.html

[2] http://www.cannor.gc.ca/eng/1388762115125/1388762170542

[3] https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100027364/1100100027365

[4] For example, see: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/nwt-superboard-appeal-paused-1.3361540

[5] http://www.iti.gov.nt.ca/sites/www.iti.gov.nt.ca/files/2014_nwt_survey_of_mining_employees_overall_report.pdf

[6] https://norj.ca/2013/12/income-gap-growing-in-nwt-despite-mining-report/

[7] https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/65502

[8] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.10.013

 

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  • David Neufeld

    Mahsi for your thoughtful reflection on “disruptions.” I wonder if any of the 153 submissions addressed the issues you raise or if they remained narrowly economic, ie focused only on shareholders value.