By: Heather Fast, Jamie Kneen, Eric Reder and Warren Bernauer
Last week, the Government of Manitoba released the Critical Minerals Strategy: Driving Sustainable Growth. For years, Manitoba’s environmental community has been raising the alarm about the short and long-term implications of mining on the environment and the health of mining-adjacent communities.
There is a need for a more thoughtful and detailed strategy that meaningfully addresses the environmental concerns and interests of the public and Indigenous communities.
Unfortunately, this strategy reads more like a plan on how to subsidize foreign corporations and encourage them to exploit Manitoba’s environment.
For the sake of the planet, we must stop relying on fossil fuels, which means a lot of activities need to be electrified — and made more energy efficient. But both industry and government are using the climate crisis to justify an expansion in mining activities and the new strategy proves this point. “Critical minerals” (including copper, lithium, and nickel) have been identified as an important aspect of Canada’s energy transition due to their use in batteries, solar panels, and other components of industrial infrastructure focused on renewable energy.
The strategy states that one of Manitoba’s competitive advantages is “Leading Sustainable Development”. The title of the strategy also emphasizes “Sustainable Growth”. However, neither the strategy nor The Mines and Minerals Act provide any details about how the concept of sustainable development is or could be implemented in Manitoba’s mining sector.
In fact, none of the strategy’s priorities or strategic measures are directed at environmental protection, a core element of sustainable development.
Mining, by its nature of smashing open solid rock, is dirty and destructive. The strategy fails to address practices and technology needed to mitigate negative environmental impacts. The immediate environmental and social impacts of mining need to be managed to the highest standards, but they pale beside the liabilities associated with mine wastes and tailings. Catastrophic failures like the Mount Polley disaster as well as longer-term slow-motion disasters such as acid mine drainage, can only be prevented by enforcing best practices and higher standards. The Critical Minerals Strategy should include measures to prevent such mining disasters and better protect the health of local citizens and the environment.
This approach does not reflect modern best practices in mining and resource management. For example, the strategy could have committed resources for regional/strategic assessments, improved land use planning processes, and introduced other management tools that could help ensure “critical mineral” extraction proceeds safely. The strategy could have also committed to providing participant funding for Indigenous communities to meaningfully participate in the assessment of critical mineral projects.
Astonishingly, the new strategy was developed without any public engagement.
It is unheard of for a policy with such significant economic and environmental implications to be published without extensive opportunities for meaningful public consultation. This usually involves both online and in-person opportunities to participate, an approach used by the Government of Manitoba for other recently developed strategies, such as the Water Management Strategy.
In this case, there was no engagement with the public prior to the publication of the final document, no discussions with stakeholders in the environmental community, and there does not seem to be any meaningful opportunity to comment on and modify the strategy now that it has been published.
The strategy and press release also imply that Indigenous communities were meaningfully consulted. However, it remains unclear which communities and organizations were involved in the development of the strategy. The strategy does not appear to support the regulatory reforms needed to ensure Indigenous communities are able to provide or withhold their free, prior, and informed consent to mining activities.
“Critical minerals” policies in other jurisdictions, such as the Yukon, include a much broader range of considerations and priorities. This includes measures to encourage positive relationships with workers and affected communities, as well as reforms that better address cumulative impacts and future amendments so the full scope of potential impacts is considered before approval is granted. Financial sureties are also required from proponents to ensure the cleanup costs of mineral exploration and mining activities are not borne by the public.
Appearing with only a week to go before the election blackout period, this strategy seems to have been produced in a rush.
Political pressure is high due to the pending election, and there is increasing economic pressure to establish Manitoba as an important jurisdiction for mining.
But Manitoba’s new Critical Minerals Strategy outlines an approach to critical minerals that is strongly biased in favour of corporate profits.
Manitobans deserve better. We need to proceed in a way that amplifies local benefits, while minimizing the negative environmental and social impacts of large mineral developments.We need a strategy capable of supporting a socially and environmentally responsible mineral sector in Manitoba.
Heather Fast is the Policy Advocacy Director of the Manitoba Eco-Network, Jamie Kneen is the National Program Co-Lead for MiningWatch Canada, Eric Reder is the Wilderness and Water Campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, and Warren Bernauer is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Manitoba (Natural Resources Institute, Department of Environment and Geography).
This op-ed was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press.