Current Problems


The true cost of critical minerals

May 2, 2024

By Emilie CameronRosemary Collard & Jessica Dempsey | Opinion |

Canada’s National Observer: OPINION – Canada is positioning itself as a global destination for critical mineral extraction. Are we willing to destroy caribou herds and trample on Indigenous rights to do it? Barnabas Davoti/Pexels Listen to article

The 2024 federal budget bolsters Canada’s ambitions to be a global supplier of critical minerals. Corporate tax incentives and shorter environmental review periods have been added to an earlier commitment of $4 billion in support of mining copper, lithium and other minerals essential to green technologies like e-vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines.

Amid a global scramble to secure critical minerals supply chains, Canada is highlighting its environmentally sustainable approach to extraction, anchored in “respect for Indigenous and treaty rights.”

What does all this look like on the ground?

Kudz Ze Kayah (KZK) mine in southeast Yukon is a test case: one of the first critical mineral mines to be approved since Canada released its Critical Minerals Strategy in 2022. After a highly contentious environmental review and multiple legal challenges, the Yukon and federal governments approved the open-pit copper/lead/zinc project last month. Kudz ze kayah means “caribou country” in the Kaska Dena language — an ironic name for a mine that is opposed by Kaska First Nations and could drive the Finlayson caribou herd to extinction

As experts in environmental assessment and caribou, we are outraged by the mine’s approval but not shocked. Caribou are a kind of indicator species for the health of our regulatory systems: Indigenous rights to harvest caribou are affirmed in the Constitution and the most vulnerable herds are protected by species-at-risk legislation.

This should make it impossible to propose mines in critical caribou habitat. But it doesn’t. In studies we have conducted of every mine assessed by the B.C., Nunavut, and federal environmental assessment agencies since the mid-1990s, 71 of 73 projects with potential impacts to caribou were approved, even with overwhelming evidence of irreparable harm. For all the industry rhetoric about environmental “red tape” hindering development, in practice, environmental assessment in Canada is an approval machine, and it’s about to become even more “streamlined.”

Even with this dismal track record, the approval of KZK is alarming. If built, the mine will operate for only nine years, but will destroy the calving grounds of an already struggling herd and poison a sacred place Kaska regard as their “breadbasket.” KZK is strongly opposed by the two Kaska First Nations on whose unceded territory it is to be built; its approval violates their rights to decision-making about their lands and undermines their well-being, which is directly tied to the health of the land.

If ever there was a mine that our regulatory systems should reject, it’s this one. The federal government nearly did reject it, in fact, citing concerns about caribou and Kaska rights. But construction is expected to begin this spring.

We are told this is the unfortunate but necessary cost of a robust economy. It’s not. 

Most Canadians want to honour Indigenous rights and protect endangered species; 80 per cent support limits to industrial activity for this purpose. They want jobs and economic security, but also want thriving ecosystems and dignified lives for everyone. We can have both.

To get there, though, we need to confront what is actually going on in Canada’s extractive sector. The mines we approve are built and operated almost entirely in the interests of investors and shareholders, they open and close at the whims of commodity markets, rarely meet local and Indigenous hiring targetsoverstate and underdeliver their economic benefitsrefuse to implement environmental protections, and regularly declare bankruptcy, leaving taxpayers with the cleanup costs. Our system doesn’t serve the public interest; it funnels collective wealth to the few and leaves us with the scraps (and the mess). 

You don’t need to be a political radical to see the value of doing things differently. In Norway, the government collects a whopping 78 per cent corporate tax on oil and gas revenues and uses it to fund its world-class social safety net. In the Yukon, mining companies pay a paltry three per cent royalty rate on reported profits up to a maximum 12 per cent, but most mines pay nothing, either because they write off expenses, refuse to pay or are abandoned. 

As global interest in critical minerals heats up, it’s time we had a serious conversation about how to harness Canada’s resource wealth. An extractive sector that actually protects precious lands and species, provides good and lasting jobs, honours Indigenous jurisdiction and rights, and uses the profits to fund things we all value — health care, education, affordable housing — is absolutely within our reach.

It’s time we start building an extractive economy that works for everyone.

Emilie Cameron, associate professor, Carleton University.

Rosemary Collard, associate professor, Simon Fraser University.

Jessica Dempsey, associate professor, University of British Columbia.