B.C. needs to regulate the gold rush, at home and abroad

Effects of the Mount Polley mine disaster in 2014. | Photo by Jeremy Board

Effects of the Mount Polley mine disaster in 2014. | Photo by Jeremy Board

Considering this province was basically founded because of 19th century gold rushes, there’s remarkably little public discussion about the mining industry in British Columbia.

Back in the 1850s and ’60s, the discovery of gold transformed local politics and economics, as an influx of settlers came to pan for mineral riches, first in the Fraser Canyon and later in the Cariboo. These rushes spurred authorities in London to formally incorporate the mainland as a colony, which later absorbed the colonies of Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands to form British Columbia.

These days, politicians often tout Vancouver’s “green city” image or its status as an emerging hub for the tech industry. But it’s rare that anyone in power talks too much about the fact our city is a significant global headquarters for multinational mining corporations and that the industry generated $7.7 billion in revenue last year.

B.C.’s gold rush economy never really ended. Up in the Cariboo, in August 2014, Imperial Metals’ gold and copper operation at Mount Polley led to arguably the worst mining disaster in provincial history, with millions of cubic metres of slurry flooding from a tailings pond into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake.

Given the major influence this industry has over our domestic politics and in shaping Canada’s role abroad, more scrutiny is in order. That’s why a recent court decision is such a welcome development. As the CBC reported last week, “The B.C. Supreme Court has given the go-ahead to three refugees to proceed with a civil lawsuit against a Vancouver-based company they accuse of using forced labour in the construction of an East African mine. The lawsuit filed by three former Eritrean conscripts in B.C.’s Supreme Court accuse Nevsun Resources of being ‘an accomplice to the use of forced labour, crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses at the Bisha mine.’” (These allegations, of course, have not yet been tested in court.)

The court’s decision to allow the case to proceed is a big deal because one reason Canada is such a powerhouse of global mining capital is that government does not sufficiently regulate and monitor the industry’s operations abroad. Numerous attempts to rectify this situation have been met and defeated by a well organized mining lobby.

Several years ago, for example, a private member’s bill in Parliament was defeated by a narrow vote. Bill C-300 was brought forward by Liberal John McKay, and aimed “to promote environmental best practices and to ensure the protection and promotion of international human rights standards in respect of the mining, oil or gas activities of Canadian corporations in developing countries.” The bill was defeated by a vote of 140 to 134.

This past failure to pass legislation is partly why attempts to use the courts to hold Canadian mining companies accountable are so important. It’s also why many in Canada, and in the countries where Canadian mining companies operate, are hoping that the new Liberal federal government will step up and rectify the defeat of C-300.

A recent op-ed published in the Spanish edition of the New York Times noted that Canadian-based mining companies account for 50 to 75 per cent of the industry’s activity in Latin America. The piece’s author, Jaime Porras Ferreyra, urged the Trudeau government to live up to its lofty rhetoric about Canada’s global role by new passing new laws like the narrowly-defeated C-300. With their solid majority, there’s no excuse for that kind of legislation to fail this time around.

From B.C.’s beginnings, the colony’s political authorities looked after mining interests first, often against the objections and resistance of the Indigenous nations and peoples who happened to live on top of the gold.

In many ways, B.C.’s political powers-that-be haven’t really evolved since the 1850s. Just follow the money. The governing B.C. Liberals have received huge donations from big mining interests in B.C. throughout their 15 years in power.

Nevsun Resources, the company being sued for complicity in forced labour conditions for workers at their gold mining operations in Eritrea, is no exception. The company’s chairman, R. Stuart Angus, donated in 2006, 2009, and 2013, for a total contribution of $3,000 to the B.C. Liberals.

Imperial Metals, for its part, has poured more than $230,000 into the B.C. Liberals in recent years, according to an investigation reported on by The Tyee shortly after the Mount Polley disaster in 2014.

Both federal and provincial politicians in B.C. have a responsibility to avoid the temptations and corruptions of soft money, and to join all those in civil society who are calling for a long overdue toughening of regulation of the Canadian mining industry. For the health of people and our planet, we can no longer afford to let B.C. be governed like it’s the 19th century.