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Opinion: B.C.’s land use and resource agenda puts economy on shaky ground

Sweeping changes leave industry in the lurch
Land-based industries such as forestry and mining play an outsized role in B.C.'s economy, according to economists Jock Finlayson and Ken Peacock.

British Columbia is an unusual place for several reasons. One is the outsized role land-based industries play in our economy. The energy, mining, forestry and agri-food sectors, together with land-based tourism, collectively account directly for 12 per cent of the province’s GDP. These industries underpin regional economies outside of Vancouver and Victoria and supply more than half of the province’s total international exports of goods and services combined. 

A second differentiating characteristic is that the government owns and controls more than 90 per cent of all land in the province, although the Crown’s jurisdiction is limited by the legal rights and historic claims of First Nations.

Against this backdrop, over the past several months the David Eby government has unveiled a host of initiatives affecting land use and the management of natural resources. The extent of the proposed changes to laws, policies and regulatory frameworks, if enacted, will be highly consequential for industry, workers and resource-dependent communities, and will dampen real income growth.

Some of the most far-reaching proposals are being hammered out at secretive “government-to-government” tables involving provincial officials and First Nations representatives. In this setting, there is little scope for the voices of other stakeholders, such as industry and the public, to be heard. In the government’s rush to advance its reconciliation agenda, it is fair to ask who is looking after the interests of the 96 per cent of British Columbians who aren’t Indigenous.    

While often well-intentioned, the province’s actions risk creating widespread uncertainty about the investment and operating environment for all land-based industries. And this comes at an inopportune time as B.C.’s economy is visibly sputtering, and the government’s fiscal position is deteriorating at a breathtaking pace. 

To say the policy and legal frameworks affecting land use and access to natural resources in B.C. are in flux is an understatement. Consider a few of the initiatives being advanced in Victoria so far in 2024.

Following strong public backlash, the provincial government paused work on a sweeping overhaul of the Land Act. The act is the most important statute governing the use of public lands in British Columbia. To our knowledge, the province never released any consultative or background documents to inform legislators, industry and other stakeholders of the planned changes; nor did it provide substantive guidance on what a revised Land Act would look like. 

There have been policy announcements pausing claim staking and mining within the traditional territories of the Gitxaala and Ehattesaht Frist Nations under the Environment and Land Use Act. In the mineral exploration sector, there is fear that this decision could herald broader policy changes that will curtail claim-staking in large parts of the province.

Some well-respected legal commentators have noted that the model that informs the recent Haida Title Agreement—which recognizes Aboriginal Title on Haida Gwaii—is inconsistent with Aboriginal title as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada and raises questions about private property rights once the interim phase of the agreement has passed.

Several other significant policy changes under consideration in Victoria also have implications for B.C.’s land-based industries, including: a new watershed security strategy and fund; an updated coastal marine strategy; an ambitious biodiversity and health ecosystem framework that may lead to a new layer of regulatory decision-making covering Crown land; and modernized land-use planning processes.

Fundamentally, land-based industries need to know the rules of the game and have confidence the rules will not be subject to arbitrary change or short-term, politically inspired meddling. That confidence is eroding. 

To maintain investor confidence and a vibrant natural resource economy, the provincial government should call a time out on its policy agenda that affects public lands and natural resources. A commitment to greater openness and transparency, coupled with more careful and deliberative decision-making, would bring stakeholders together and tamp down the uncertainty that now plagues all resource industries. Indigenous communities, industry, workers and the public all have a stake in the future of B.C.’s land-based economy and deserve to be heard.

Jock Finlayson is chief economist of the ICBA. Ken Peacock is BCBC’s senior vice-president and chief economist.