Canada’s Mining Sector Losing the Public Relations Battle – by Stan Sudol

This article was originally published in Northern Life on April 18, 2007

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant, who writes extensively about mining issues.(stan.sudol@republicofmining.com)

Sector fails at communicating aboriginal and green initiatives

The mining sector is ignoring the green light at the end of the tunnel that is attached to a 100-ton locomotive driven by the environmental movement. The collision is going to be messy. It will impact the industry at a time when the voracious metal demands of China and India could bring enormous prosperity to Canada’s northern and aboriginal communities as well as impoverished countries around the world.

There is no doubt that environmental issues dominate society’s cultural and political agendas.

On the political front, the new found commitment to environmentally green initiatives by the McGuinty and Harper governments spell enormous challenges for an industry that most urbanized Canadians still feel is a major source of habitat destruction and pollution.

Mining Sins

The mining sins of the father are certainly coming back to haunt the sons. Past industry practices that were detrimental to the environment are still highlighted by the anti-mining crowd. Yet, the reality of mining in the 21st century is quite the opposite. Ontario and most other jurisdictions around the world have strict regulations. Mining companies must develop closure or decommissioning plans that require the restoration of all lands to their natural state when the operations are finished.

Over the past 20 years the industry has made tremendous strides at reducing the environmental footprint of their operations. With the advent of the Internet, mining companies that do not follow best practices, anywhere in the world, are quickly discovered and stopped. In the Sudbury Basin, Inco has spent close to $1 billion over the past 30 years to reduce the amount of sulphur pollution by 90 percent from their local smelter complex.

However, calls to freeze all resource development in Canada’s vast northern boreal forest are being met with favourable reactions in southern vote-rich urban ridings where the general population has very little understanding of the mineral industry.

Furthermore, the industry has also miserably failed to educate the general public, the media and the political decision makers about aboriginal mining success stories. Mining is the largest private sector employer of First Nations people in Canada. Voisey’s Bay, the uranium deposits in northern Saskatchewan and diamond operations in the Northwest Territories all employ significant numbers of aboriginals.

About 50 perent of the Voisey’s Bay operations workforce is aboriginal, many trained by the company and far exceeding initial expectations.

In many lesser developed countries, mining corporations almost become substitute governments in the isolated regions they operate in. The social initiatives that they often provide range from educational and medical services to helping build local capacity so small businesses can benefit from the mineral operations.

Barrick Gold Corporation is partnering with World Vision Canada to develop nutrition, education and employment skills programs that will benefit people in the Alto Chicama District of northern Peru, where the company’s Lagunas Norte mine is located.

Xstrata PLC has committed to set aside a minimum of one percent of annual group profit before tax for corporate social involvement initiatives. Xstrata’s HIV/AIDS voluntary testing, counselling and treatment (VCT) programs in South Africa were commended by the Global Business Coalition for HIV/AIDS at the 2005 business excellence awards. They are also implementing programs in other high-risk areas, such as the Dominican Republic, to limit the impact of the disease and prevent new infections.

In the African countries that De Beers operates, the company is at the forefront of providing badly needed HIV/AIDS medications, medical services and prevention counselling to staff and their families. These positive stories are not being told and the mining industry has only itself to blame.

De Beers Canada Inc. is currently building a $1 billion dollar diamond mine called the Victor project, near Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay Coast. The general public’s lack of understanding of the mining sector’s ability to alleviate aboriginal poverty enabled the Ontario government to arbitrarily impose a new 13 percent diamond royalty with no political ramifications.

This unfair ruling, after the company had invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the project and helped educate and train many Aboriginals for future employment – a responsibility that should have fallen on the government – will damage the province’s international reputation.

A 2005 study on employment in the mining sector by the Mining Industry Training and Adjustment Council (MITAC) found that the industry will need to hire up to 81,000 highly skilled new employees over the next
decade.

The number of students enrolled in postsecondary mining-related programs is well below the predicted demand. How is the minerals sector going to entice these kids to enter an industry with such a bad image created by the “greens” in the Internet, the chief source of this generation’s information?

For an industry that is almost “punch drunk” on the highest profits in decades, one has to ask why they are not spending more money on advertising and public relations initiatives when their social license to operate is routinely being questioned.

If the mining sector wishes to thrive and prosper over the next few decades, continue to have access to land and attract the next generation of skilled workers, then they have to do a much, much better job of communicating with urbanized Canadians, the media and the political decision makers.
Their activities of the past few years are simply not good enough.

Stan  Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant who writes extensively on the mining sector. www.republicofmining.com

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