Is This What Responsible Resource Development Looks Like? Some thoughts on PM Harper's northern tour

Prime Minister Harper's annual trip north has again put the northern territories in a spotlight on the national agenda (at least for this week). Consistent with other  rhetoric and legislative changes from the Conservatives, the tour put a heavy emphases on resource extraction and mining as a potential solution to northern economic and social challenges. Along with other now familiar pledges to improve northern sovereignty, military and search and rescue capabilities this year’s tour also re-featured  a commitment to developing Canada's northern scientific capacity through the development of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station.

Throwing some cold water on the hype, media coverage of this year’s tour has pointed to the fact that many promises from past northern tours have been left unfulfilled and even the National Post titled an article (Northern) White Lies. (See also Elizabeth Payne in the Ottawa Citizen.) So taking the whole thing with a few grains of salt - here are some reactions to this year's northern tour...

Yukon as an example of responsible resource development?

This year’s mining stop was in the Yukon, an interesting choice from my perspective as a mining activist. While historically much of the territory’s population and its politicians have been supportive and relatively uncritical of mining the latest expansion of mining activities has many Yukoners questioning the influence and rights enjoyed by the industry.

There is no better place in the Yukon to see the downsides of streamlined approvals for mining projects than the small town of Keno City. What started out as a project to clean up an abandoned mine area funded by the federal government has turned the small town into the hub of a substantial district mining operation  run by Alexco Resources. Local residents and business owners have been expressing their concern that mining activities threaten the quality of life and economic investments people have made in the tourism sector. Despite the fact that the full scope of mining activities and the running of a district mill have not been evaluated, a further expansion of mining activity in Keno recently got a recommendation for approval from the Yukon Environmental Assessment Board, albeit with a long list of conditions attached. The final approval from the territorial government then removed some of the Board's more rigorous conditions – including a requirement to study the groundwater of the area BEFORE mining permits were issued.

The city of Whitehorse has had to try to find ways to curtail claim staking and exploration activities within city limits and residents in the southwestern corner of the territory fear mineral exploration and claim staking on private property and within the Kluane Game Sanctuary reserve will compromise  environmental conditions, property values and ecological integrity of near-by Kluane National Park. The Yukon government has also rejected the recommendations from an extensive land use planning exercise for the Peel Watershed that recommended excluding mineral developments from most of the watershed. The recommendations took five years to develop and were supported by First Nations and conservation groups.

Canadian High Arctic Research Station and the government's commitment to science

Highlighting the already-planned Canadian High Arctic Research Station on the PM's tour may have been an effort to counter the recent campaign by members of the Canadian scientific community that raised the issue of the anti-science and anti-evidence agenda of the government including cuts to important research and monitoring programs. The cuts have included eliminating the sources of funding for an existing Arctic environmental research station and reductions in the environmental effects monitoring program for mining.  The federal government has also appealed a recent court decision that would require it to implement a commitment in the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement to establish a territory-wide environmental monitoring program. Were it available, data from such a program could help Nunavummiut to better understand and the potential and actual impacts of resource developments in the territory.

Not surprisingly “resource development” topped the list of the areas of work that the new research station would be tackling but without a serious effort to establish environmental baselines and trends – how effective can any efforts at finding solutions to environmental problems in the north really be?

A new park conveniently avoids mineral claims

Mining interests also seemed to have influenced the main environmental plank of this year’s tour – the announcement of a new national park in the Nahanni River watershed. The final park’s size is much reduced over the original proposal backed by Parks Canada, the Sahtu Dene and Metis communities of Tulita and Norman Wells. According to CTV the reduced park size is to accommodate mineral interests in the area.

Are more mines even likely to get built?

While the federal government is doing its best to remove perceived barriers to mining development in the north and elsewhere, whether or not mining developments occur is primarily driven by global market forces and the particular characteristics of a given mineral deposit – factors entirely outside the control of the federal government. For the near term, development of mineral deposits in northern Canada things don’t look so good on either front. Demand and price for many commodities is softening, while costs for mine construction and operation are escalating – putting projects in more remote and costly regions of the world into questionable economic territory.

The Meadowbank experience

The recent experience at the Meadowbank Mine in Nunavut, where the PM stopped last year, is a case in point for the economic challenges of mining in the north. The mine is now set to close earlier than projected due to low profitability caused by the high costs of operating in the north – this at a time when gold prices continue to be at historic highs. The early closure will be a shock to the local community of Baker Lake and points to just one of the hazards of pinning a regional and national development strategy on resource extraction and exports – the inevitable bust that follows every boom.

Baker Lake has also had to grapple with challenging social issues exacerbated by the mine and a work force that was under-prepared for its arrival. Such issues should be addressed through rigorous and participatory assessment processes – something that the current government sees as unnecessary. Important research into the social impacts of mining in the north was being conducted by the National Aboriginal Health Organization – until their funding was eliminated in the 2012 federal budget.