May 2012

Fresh air

Peter Robinson, the CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, on mining, the environment and sound management

By Peter Braul

Vancouver has been cooler and wetter than usual, according to Peter Robinson. He blames El Niño. It’s a common enough topic of conversation, but with Robinson, the CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), matters like climate are a business and a passion. As well as the head of Canada’s most prominent environmental organization, he is also a scholar of the environmental movement and the culture that shapes it. Robinson, who is currently completing research for a PhD on the sociology of environmentalism, spoke to CIM Magazine about the changing dynamic of mining and environmentalism.

CIM: How would you rate the sustainability efforts of the mining industry?

ROBINSON: The first step is to admit you have a problem. And the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining program, amongst others, has acknowledged that the challenge is there. Once you’ve acknowledged the challenges, then you begin to measure them, and put in place programs to address them. There’s a long way to go, but there is progress.

Some of it is not on the environmental file – the impact of a mine and its roads and infrastructure is still a big impact. We know this is going on, and that would seem to argue against the progress I mentioned, but the mining industry is now paying much greater attention to the social dimensions of its activities. We see greater outreach to First Nations communities, and to me the social dimension and the environmental dimension are inseparable.

However, not all resource extraction is the same. I compare MAC’s activities against some of the other sectors with which we’ve had ongoing discussions, and I don’t see that same acknowledgement. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, for example, appears to spend more to defend an image than it does to look at what’s underneath that we can actually work on resolving. I see this as a distinguishing element of MAC.

CIM: Both the Mining Association of Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation work to lobby our government – how do you see the relationship between these very different organizations?

ROBINSON: I have had the pleasure of dealing with Pierre Gratton when he was with the Mining Association of British Columbia. Mining in BC has quite a history, but as a result there’s a lot of interaction between the mining association, mining companies, environmental groups, local constituencies and in that tension there was room for Pierre and I to work together. He is very good at trying to find solutions that all parties can work with. I like that because when you’re dealing with these very intractable issues, the answer isn’t always ‘yes or no’ on some projects. Sometimes you need to look at how you can best accommodate the various interests.

CIM: So these relationships can be friendly, but is that a benefit to the DSF and your message?

ROBINSON: I would say that you only have two basic ways we can work: one is that we can set the DSF up as adversaries and critics. And what that does is create a strong voice back that is always oppositional in nature, and that seeks to push companies to make the most radical changes they can, and if not they’ll be held up in the court of public opinion as having done wrong.

Yes we can do that, and that’s the traditional way, but on the other hand we can maintain a stance of disagreement and try to push each other and try to educate and try to advocate for change – and have a professional relationship with the individuals involved, and I prefer that. At the end of the day, we still require a cooperative means of solving these problems. I’d much rather find where the points of tension are and see which ones we can deal with collaboratively. You have to be able to do that from the position of at least respecting what the other party is trying to do.

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