May 2012

Difficult discussions

Mining development in Quebec fuels debate

By Alain Castonguay

A public consultation tour on the future of mining in Quebec stirred up debate in March as it made its way through the province. Questions about mining’s economic benefits, its public image, economic impact and even the motives behind those who hosted the forum were all fodder for discussion.

The tour was organized by the Institut du Nouveau Monde (INM), which has a mandate to encourage citizen participation in important public debates, according to its director Michel Venne. And though this consultation was ostensibly independent, some environmental groups have criticized the institute for accepting funding from Minalliance to organize the tour (see sidebar on p. 34: “Independence questioned”).

INM consulted a diverse set of stakeholders in the preparation of reference and background material, which was organized into six booklets: 1) Actors, participants, and viewpoints; 2) Existing documents and websites; 3) Quebec and mining; 4) Economic and regional development issues; 5) Social and governance issues; and 6) Environmental and land issues. “We conducted a review of the literature on the Quebec mining sector,” Venne explained.

Among the 50 or so people present at the Quebec city installment,  many of whom had evidently not read the booklets, were government officials and industry representatives. Those who could not attend the consultation in person were able to share their views on INM’s web platform.

When Venne asked participants what the word “mine” meant to them, responses included “masters of our own house,” “mine shafts and dril­ling,” “rocks of unknown value,” and “pride in Quebec engineering,” as well as destruction of the landscape, wealth, dispossession, job creation, mountains of waste, founding industry and resources worth promoting.

The first issue discussed was the fair and balanced redistribution to Quebecers of the economic benefits associated with mining development. One participant noted “the stagnation of investments” in this sector between 1987 and 2005 helps explain why companies are struggling to recruit workers, despite the current boom.

At the plenary session, it was proposed that half of the recent increase in mining royalties be allocated to the regional county municipalities or local governments for maintenance of the roads used by the industry. Some suggested that profits in excess of the eight per cent annual return on invested capital be divided equally with the state. It was said that the province “would be best to wait for the most favourable conditions before extracting mineral resources.”

Others added that governments should use the fiscal returns drawn from mining activity to plan the economic diversification of the regions in question, so as to reduce the impact when mining ceases. It was also mentioned that if Quebec society prefers to have minerals processed in Quebec, then it must be prepared to tolerate the environmental impact of those facilities.

Participants advised against pursuing an ad hoc approach to the construction of infrastructure providing access to northern regions. There were also recommendations for improved documentation of the consequences of the fly-in/fly-out mining model, as well as the consequences of developing the necessary infrastructure when the host community is located close to a mining deposit.

The second key issue concerned citizens’ and communities’ acceptance of mining development on their land.

If communities must accept mining projects before mining begins, what are a company’s responsibilities? What is a good corporate citizen? No consensus was reached on these issues. One participant observed that elected officials are poorly equipped to negotiate with mine developers. Because mineral extraction results in increased housing costs in the surrounding area, they said, inflation is problematic for residents who have jobs that are essential but less well paid, such as retail or restaurant work.

The demands of Aboriginal communities were also on the agenda. The Cree are actively involved in the Plan Nord because they were consulted before the process began, in accordance with their agreement with both levels of government. Because of this and other reasons, it seems advantageous for mining companies looking to train and hire workers to give priority to people living near the deposits.

One participant cited the example of the Niobec mine, owned by Iamgold, in Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean. The community of Saint-Honoré has been closely associated with the project at every stage of development since mining began in 1976. “Companies’ consultation efforts are real, but unrecognized,” one participant claimed. And amidst all that effort, the cost of obtaining community acceptance is difficult to tally in a financial plan. Venne apologized for not having found the time to tackle the environmental component. Many participants nonetheless expressed their concerns about the impact of mining on the environment.

According to Venne, the tour has been an overall success. “In addition to organized lobby groups and occasional citizen groups, we have included a third participant in this consultation: the average citizen,” he said. Venne claimed that more than 400 people participated in the regional consultations, and 100 more participated via the web.

Venne noted that in another session in Montreal on March 24, two focal points emerged from the series of consultations. Firstly, Quebec ought to “create mining development plans that take into account what will happen after mining projects end and that aim to reduce the backlash effect following closure.” Secondly, Venne continued, the province needs to establish an analytical framework for mining projects. “The BAPE consultation process is well-defined, demanding, and restrictive, but it is limited to environmental impacts. It is clear from the projects in which the Cree are involved; the best way to obtain people’s support is to involve them beforehand. But it is difficult to measure social acceptability and to determine who is entitled to express an opinion on a project.” Venne added that industrialists are prepared to live with even the most severe constraints, provided that these are clearly defined before any investment is made.

The last stage of the INM tour was in Sherbrooke, before returning to Abitibi for the concluding session in Val-d’Or. The INM report on the future of the mining sector will be made public by the end of June, and will be presented to the relevant ministerial, municipal, industrial and union authorities. The INM will then release a book summarizing the consultation process and the ideas submitted by participants.

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