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Money doesn’t flow uphill

Recurring theme at BC Natural Resources Forum is lack of investor certainty
Logging in B.C. is one resource industry in B.C. facing major political and social obstacles. | Submitted

With an abundance of forests, minerals, metallurgical coal, natural gas and clean hydro electricity, B.C. has an embarrassment of natural resource riches.

And a global energy transition and decarbonisation presents more opportunities than it does challenges for forestry, mining and energy sectors. Natural resource industries also present some of the best opportunities for economic reconciliation with First Nations.

“I think, really, our competitive advantage is what has always been our competitive advantage here in B.C. and that is the sheer wealth of the natural resources of this province has,” Kendra Johnston, president of the Association for Mineral Exploration, said Tuesday at the first day of the three-day BC Natural Resources Forum.

But investors, foreign or domestic, need only read the headlines to have second thoughts about sinking money into B.C. Whether it is the phasing out of fish farms, protests over pipelines and logging, or radical changes to forestry policies, it’s clear that B.C. has a bit of an attitude problem, when it comes to natural resource industries.

“You wouldn't buy a house if somebody could take it back without compensating you for it,” Susan Yurkovich, president of the Council of Forest Industries (COFI) said during a session on resource industries working together.

“So we really need to create some certainty so that people can make further investments in British Columbia.”

She was referring to the NDP government’s new tenure reforms and old growth logging moratoria being implemented in B.C. that could see forestry majors lose timber tenure. There is a fear they will not be adequately compensated for loss of cutting rights.

And in other sectors, like mineral exploration and mining, there are ongoing concerns about regulatory inertia and uncertainty over land use.

“We have so much potential here,” said Michael Goehring, president of the Mining Association of BC. “We have very strong environmental, social and governance, performance, and it's only getting better. But one of the things that we really need to focus on is our permitting.

“It's become very challenging to get permitting. It's not predictable. It's not timely, it's very complex, and it just takes too much effort. International investors have an eye on British Columbia, and one of their key concerns is permitting risk.”

While First Nations are becoming increasingly important to resource industries as partners, there are still uncertainties over land use in B.C., Johnston said.

“There's a lot of conversation still to be had specifically around land use planning -- an understanding of which pieces of land are sacred, which pieces of land are high potential for development,” she said.

But it’s not just the regulatory environment in B.C. that poses barriers for B.C.’s resource businesses. As former senior bureaucrat Don Wright pointed out last week at a Truck Loggers Association forum, urban British Columbians have become disconnected from these industries and are under the illusion they are no longer important to B.C.’s economy and standard of living. There is either indifference or full support among many urbanites for shutting down resource industries like logging and salmon farms.

“We need to chart the course, and stand together against those who would like nothing more than to shutter our industry, close the doors on our opportunity,” said Todd Doherty MP for Cariboo-Prince George.

B.C.’s forestry majors have been slammed for profiting off of a public resource for decades, only to start investing elsewhere. Some of these majors now own as many sawmills in the U.S., Europe and other parts of Canada than they do in B.C. now. Yurkovich suggested investment simply goes where the opportunities are.

“Between 2009 and 2019, the B.C. industry invested $14 billion in the province of British Columbia,” she said. “They have also made investments outside, and that’s not unusual, as you’re looking to supply your global customers around the world and you’re looking for places where you have more fibre.”

She cited RBC Capital Markets analyst Paul Quinn who last week bluntly stated B.C. is becoming “uninvestable.”

“The quote from Paul Quinn that B.C. for the forestry industry has become uninvestable is really important, and I think we need to change that,” Yurkovich said.

Chris Sankey, a First Nations businessman and president of Blackfish Enterprises, which helps bring industry and First Nations together in partnerships, echoed concerns about investor confidence.

“Investors internationally want to see stability,” Sankey said. “When investors see stability, you are going to see money come to the community.”

One positive signal for investors is the growing involvement in resource industries by First Nations. Whether it is a mine or an LNG project, those projects that have First Nation support tend to succeed in B.C. where others fail.

While some First Nations in B.C. may oppose some projects, others have become important partners, and are becoming increasingly important players in industries from forestry to mining and natural gas.

The Williams Lake First Nation, for example, is heavily involved in forestry, supports two copper mines in the area (Gibralter and Mount Polley) and has started a number of its own businesses, including a cannabis company called Unity Cannabis.

“We harvest around 150,000 cubic metres of timber for year, so we are always fighting for more tenure,” said Willie Sellars, chief of the Williams Lake First Nation.

“We have benefits agreements with both major mines in the region. We understand the importance of what those revenue streams can do for the future of our people and the potential careers and opportunities.

“Our economic department started with two individuals six, seven, eight years ago,” Sellars said. “We had probably 20 employees back then. Now we have over 80 employees. We have a payroll of over $300,000 per month. We’re a massive machine and people want to come and work with us.”

Sankey said there needs to be more collaboration, not just between First Nations and industry, but between First Nations themselves, and noted that can be a problem when there are issues of territorial overlap. First Nations that manage to address these issues can benefit from major project investments.

“Reconciliation isn’t just about us reconciling with government,” Sankey said. “It’s also about reconciling with ourselves and our neighbours.

“I’m seeing more and more indigenous communities, such as Chief Sellers and the Williams Lake Band, that are demonstrating to Big Money that we’re more than capable of …being able to go to the banks with confidence --  that we’re more than capable of taking on major projects.

“So long as we can demonstrate we have good governance, and we have strong financial policy, I really believe that we can show the investment community…that we can attract big investment, but it’s got to be more of a collaborative approach.”

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