A mining watchdog says calls for less robust assessments and quicker permitting in Canada’s new critical minerals strategy will undo protections for environmental and Indigenous rights, which are being threatened across the globe in the rush for critical minerals.
“Unfortunately, the new federal critical minerals’ strategy does not do enough to confront the multiple crises Canada—and all humankind—is up against: climate, biodiversity, water, pollution, inequality, migration, and more,” MiningWatch Canada says in a blog post. “It’s basically an adaptation of business as usual, and if anything, promises to accelerate the literal bulldozing of Indigenous rights.”
Critical minerals are important components for electric vehicle, computer chip and weapons manufacturing. Canada is home to almost half of the world’s publicly listed mining and mineral exploration companies, a statistic sometimes attributed to regulations that help companies avoid accountability for environmental and human rights abuses.
However, despite its prolific mining industry, the country has fallen behind in the global race to secure critical mineral access. The new national strategy presents itself as a response to looming climate and geopolitical crises, both of which demand secure access to those minerals to drive forward a clean energy transition.
The federal government says it “needs to act swiftly in capturing the generational opportunity presented by the growing global demand for critical minerals to support the green and digital economy.” To move things along, the national strategy calls for added investment in the sector and a “one project, one assessment” approach to streamline regulation and permitting.
MiningWatch co-manager Jamie Kneen told CBC this aspect of the strategy “sets off a lot of alarm bells”, adding that some projects are now exempt from federal assessments after years of regulations being watered down.
The MiningWatch blog post says the strategy does include a “welcome emphasis” on value-added manufacturing and high standards for environmental and human rights protection, Indigenous rights, and circular economies. But it doesn’t do enough to back that with proposals for meaningful implementation, the watchdog group states, and the laudable principles are “rendered almost meaningless” by the strategy’s overarching aim to accelerate and expand resource exploitation.
“The commitment to ‘Accelerating Responsible Project Development’ is deeply worrying, based as it is in a lack of understanding of the government’s own processes and a clearly implied marginalization of Indigenous rights,” MiningWatch says. And the strategy’s proclaimed “support for Indigenous governments seems to be solely focused on ‘economic reconciliation’, aside from a nod to Indigenous Guardians programs.”
The concerns raised by MiningWatch are reflected in wider research on mining for energy transition minerals and metals (ETMs). A new study in the journal Nature concludes that more than half of the global ETM resource base is located on lands owned by Indigenous and peasant peoples “whose rights to consultation and free, prior informed consent are embedded in United Nations declarations.”
The researchers warn that heightened demand for ETMs could cause a global rush of mining projects whose local impacts would be fundamentally incompatible with global sustainability objectives.
“Mineral resource extraction has impacts on the core elements” of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the researchers state. “The effects of mining are cumulative, cutting across multiple sustainability objectives and commodity types.”
As the rush to a clean energy transition pushes Canada and other countries to increase the number of critical mineral mining projects, it will be important to uphold protections for “the world’s ecosystems and universally agreed human rights of historically marginalized peoples,” the researchers add. “It is vital that the world’s policy-makers better recognize this tension and insist that conditions at the source of minerals supply are factored into decisions about climate mitigation strategies.”