Podcast Episode #1: The BC Mining Law Reform network w/ Nikki Skuce & Jamie Kneen

April 9, 2024

You can listen to the episode audio here:

The episode transcript is below.


Umair Muhammad, Jamie Kneen, Nikki Skuce

Umair Muhammad 00:06

Welcome to the first episode of Beneath the Surface, a podcast by the BC Mining Law Reform network. Founded in 2019 BCMLR is a network that promotes changes to mineral development laws and mining practices. The network represents nearly 30 local, provincial, and national organizations, including citizen and community groups, First Nations, academics, as well as social justice and environmental organizations.

I’m your host, Umair Muhammad, I’ll be chatting with Nikki Skuce and Jamie Kneen. Nikki is the Director of the Northern Confluence Initiative and Jamie is the Outreach Coordinator and Canada Program Lead at MiningWatch Canada. And together, Nikki and Jamie are co-chairs of BCMLR.

In this episode, we’ll explore the driving forces behind the creation of BCMLR, critical gaps in current mining laws in BC, and the impact these laws have on both communities and the environment. We’ll also discuss BCMLR’s strategies and vision for the future, the role of public awareness and advocacy in shaping mining policy, as well as how listeners can get involved and support BCMLR’s mission. Without further ado, let’s get going. 

And to start with, I was wondering if you could both tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Jamie Kneen 01:32

Who wants to go first?

Nikki Skuce 01:34

Go for it, Jamie.

Jamie Kneen 01:36

Well, my background is actually in biology. And I started working on environmental monitoring and environmental assessment and planning with communities affected by mining activities and kept going from there because I could see what was happening as a result of mining. I was seeing the kind of anxiety and the effects of mining in the environment and on communities and, and in the watersheds, and the kind of policies and decision making that went into that. So it just kind of went on from there.

Nikki Skuce 02:11

I’m Nikki Skuce. I’m the Director of the Northern Confluence Initiative. And I’m based in a small town in northern British Columbia called Smithers on Wet’suwet’en territory. I did a lot of international work and then after the Mount Polly disaster happened in 2014, I realized there were not that many environmental organizations working on mining issues in the province—and so created this entity and started working on both conservation issues but also on mining reform.

Umair Muhammad 02:49

Right, that was going to be my next question: What was the driving force behind the creation of BCMLR? And I guess you mentioned Mount Polley—is that it? Or is there something else? Other incidents or realizations that prompted the creation of BCMLR?

Nikki Skuce 03:06

Yeah, the Mount Polley mine disaster was the largest environmental mining disaster in Canadian history. It saw over 24 million cubic meters of toxic sludge burst through and go down to Polley Lake and down through Hazeltine Creek and to Quesnel Lake, which is part of the Fraser watershed. The indigenous peoples from around there, and the community people from around there, were pretty upset and traumatized by it and vocal and spoke out. And there was a desire to get—with some leadership from Ugo LaPointe, who was with MiningWatch Canada—there was an idea to look towards what capacity was out there, and who else was working on mining issues. So we pulled together a meeting and then there seemed to be enough interest to form some kind of network. We got some funding to work with the Environmental Law Centre, and have them help create the foundation that we could build on to form a network. So they did. They had all their environmental law students, under the direction of Calvin Sandborn, look at the various mining laws and issues and poke around at what kind of gaps and best practices were missing and what were some recommendations. And so then we used that as the platform from which to solidify the network and we launched the BC Mining Law Reform network in May of 2019.

Umair Muhammad 04:50

Great Nikki, your answers are setting up my forthcoming questions perfectly so far. What are the gaps that you identified in the current state of mining laws in BC?

Nikki Skuce 05:02

Quite a few actually. BC likes to have this narrative that we have the strongest mining laws or environmental regulations. But that is a self declared statement. And they don’t. We discovered quite a few gaps and issues. 

In terms of just following up on Mount Polley, there’s definitely a lot of issues around tailings design not prioritizing safety. And also the need to use potentially some other technologies and methods so there’s not these massive tailings dams. And a big gap that was identified from that was also around the lack of monitoring, there had been quite a number of cuts to the public service that had happened. And so there were very few boots on the ground and people monitoring the situations and knowing what to look for. That’s an issue that has been slightly improved since then, although I think still could use some work, the tailings design piece still needs a lot more advocacy. 

There was a bunch of gaps around environmental assessment around the Mineral Tenure Act, which I’m sure we’ll discuss a little bit further—but that’s really a colonial law that sets out the ability to stake for $1.75/hectare in over 76% of the province. So on private lands, on indigenous lands, and some wildlife habitat areas, community watersheds and other places. The only things off limits are parks and under dwelling or near dwellings, as well as a small handful of no-staking reserves that have been created lately. 

And then we have water pollution issues. There’s a lot of selenium pollution from Teck’s coal mines in the southeast. There’s the Tulsequah Chief Mine that’s been leaching acid mine drainage for almost 70 years in the Taku watershed, which is an important salmon habitat. Those are some of the critical gaps in issues.

Jamie Kneen 07:16

Yeah, and I would just say that they kind of cover the whole mining cycle. So right from staking an exploration, through to mine development and operation—right through to mine closure and eventual abandonment. So we’ve got abandoned mines across the province that are in many cases, unsafe. They’re leaching contaminants into the environment. There are tailings dams that are at risk of collapse, and we need to know how dangerous they are and how to make them safer. 

We’ve got operating mines that are dumping effluent into the environment and contamination, in many cases illegally, without adequate enforcement. And at the front end, we’ve got all of these issues around staking and the fact that you can place a mining stake pretty much anywhere, as Nikki said—and that really impedes both conservation and planning. you know, for protected areas or parks or other land uses. But also especially for First Nations, because mineral claims are being staked in their territories without their permission. And it creates a legal impediment to them. It’s an infringement on their rights, and it’s an obstacle to their work and their development.

Umair Muhammad 08:46

Maybe let’s dig a little bit deeper into that. So what does staking entail? What does that allow someone to do—drill core samples or…?

Jamie Kneen 08:55

Well, when you stake a claim basically all you have to do is register yourself as a “free miner” and you get a little certificate saying that you’re a free miner. Then you can go online and you can make a mining claim pretty much anywhere in the province. What that allows you to do is go on the land, basically with hand tools. You can do some trenching, digging, sampling and so on. You can’t do full-on drilling and so on, but it does allow you to make access wayes and so on. And it can be disruptive and destructive just on its own. But mostly it’s just creating an interest in the land that then opens the way for mining and, as I say, without so much as asking permission.

Umair Muhammad 09:51

Okay, so what are some ways that BCMLR has been working to address the things that you’re talking about?

Nikki Skuce 09:59

We’re building the kind of technical knowledge base, bringing together the knowledge and experience from communities. And then taking that and building public awareness around it, building public support, and then being able to use both of those, both the technical content and the political pressure to make change.

Umair Muhammad 15:38

Okay, looking at the broad picture, what key changes would we like to see in the coming years?

Nikki Skuce 15:46

Well, I’ll start, first of all, with the changes to the mineral staking regime. So this is something that we’re looking forward to seeing changed by 2025, at the very latest, because of a court challenge. What we’d like to see is just that there’s some definite no-go zones for mining, and that there’s a need to ask permission before you’re able to proceed to get the legal rights to your claim. And so there’s a lot of hard work to do in the next year and a bit to see those changes made—then I’m punting it to you, Jamie, for something on tailings and water.

Jamie Kneen 16:31

Sure, I think overall, what we’re looking to do is put mining in its place, because mining will continue, but it can’t continue to set the agenda. And, you know, the climate crisis, as well as the pressure on biodiversity, freshwater, and the problems with other land uses across the province, like logging and the impact on salmon populations, for example. So we’ve got a lot of focus to bring forward around it, just the combination of these things. 

And in the context of the climate crisis—and the increased extreme weather and flooding and landslides and so on—both posing a risk to mining activity and being exacerbated by the mining installations themselves. So, you know, we’re looking at trying to “de-risk”—is the technical term. Make the tailings dams safer, the existing ones, and to make sure that whatever is being introduced and approved, going forward, is actually safer for the long run and not creating risks and liabilities for future generations that are just going to get more and more severe as time goes by.

Nikki Skuce 17:52

Yeah, and I think also we will try to keep pushing for that disaster fund or public interest fund and see if we can make a bit of progress on that. But there’s a lot of pressure happening with the so-called “critical minerals” push. And so there’s a real need to push to broaden the conversation so that it’s not just used to greenwash and get a bunch of new mines opened, but we really need to have the conversation—yes, we need to get off fossil fuels and yes, some of that will be through needing more mined materials for things like solar power, solar panels, and electric vehicles. 

But, you know, we don’t have enough resources globally to swap out every fossil fuel vehicle for an EV one, and we need to definitely look to public transit and active transportation and recycling and reusing and just reducing our footprint overall. So British Columbia should be releasing a Critical Mineral Strategy. And we’ll just continue to try to amplify that conversation and ensure that, you know, a gold mine isn’t using this notion of “critical minerals” to greenwash its operation—because gold is not a “critical” mineral for any reason.

Umair Muhammad 19:13

But I need it [gold] to look nice… No, no, we don’t need it. 

Okay, so you already mentioned that these discussions can very quickly become wonkish. But I’m wondering, what do you think about the place of public awareness alongside advocacy in driving change? Like why should people really care and try to get past the wonkish-ness? Or how should we also think about speaking—in a way that’s accessible and not, you know, turning people away?

Jamie Kneen 19:48

Well, one thing is that the mining industry is so ensconced in politics in BC, and across Canada, that it exercises a lot of power politically. The only way that we can counter that—we can’t mount the same kind of lobbying effort that the mining industry does, we don’t have the money and resources and the lawyers and lobbyists to do that kind of thing. And we don’t have that kind of personal relationship with, you know, senior people in government. 

But we do have the public support, and we do have people who are able to go, like Nikki mentioned—you go to you talk to your MLA, you go to the constituency offices, you write letters, you engage with them, you make them answer questions, and, you know, people are able to educate ministers and ordinary MLAs, all on their own, if they have the backing and the support. So part of what we can do is give people information, make sure that they have enough of a feeling for the issues to be able to make those presentations and have those conversations and build that pressure. Then, you know, when the mining lobbyists come around, they’re not the only voice and they’re not the only source of information for decision makers. And that’s really our biggest hope in trying to mobilize public engagement, public involvement around these issues. 

And just like building awareness, so that people have an understanding of really both sides of the issue—what the industry says is true, you know, if it wasn’t grown, it must have been mined. We use these products in our daily lives quite a lot. We also waste a lot of them, and people are beginning to be aware of that, and beginning to be aware of the real costs of that industrial activity on the landscape and on communities. And what it means to have access to these materials. So bring that into conversations with politicians and decision makers, and we’re starting to get somewhere.

Nikki Skuce 22:06

There’s definitely mining affected communities and workers who would like to see some changes made. And, you know, I think we just need to share our stories and share those community voices and try to create that understanding. 

Like  how on earth did that was that mine even allowed? You know, how is it that that company was even able to propose building a mine on, like, key seven habitat. How did that even happen? And everything just always came down to the Mineral Tenure Act. And so you’re like, “Okay, the staking thing is the problem.” 

Then I think as soon as you share the stories, you know, of the Kamloops couple who were having a glass of wine on their porch when this guy came and started poking around and digging around in their yard. And they had no right to stop him, because he was able to stake the claim online. And you hear these stories, and they’re really egregious—like of course we need to modernize. And I think people get that—of course you should have to ask permission before you can go ahead and proceed with some kind of mineral exploration and activity. And so I think there’s just a need to share stories and get the facts out there.

Umair Muhammad 23:34

And so for listeners who want to get involved or support BCMLR’s mission, what are some ways they can do that?

Nikki Skuce 23:42

Yeah, great. Well, we have a website and social media channels. Reform…Am I gonna get this right…?

Jamie Kneen 23:53

Yeah, sign up on our website:

Nikki Skuce 23:57

Yeah. And follow us on social media channels, we’ve got a great newsletter, we only send something out once a month to provide updates and or opportunities for engagement or participation in government consultation processes. And you go to our website and read some of the reports that we have, and you think that we’re in the right direction, just reach out and if you want to become a member of the network.

Jamie Kneen 24:25

Yeah, we do have petitions and letter writing tools on the website. And you can join the network, share your experience and ideas, connect with others. Get out there.

Umair Muhammad 24:41

That’s our show everybody. 

Thanks to Nikki and Jamie for the insightful discussion. And to everyone listening: remember that the challenges we discussed today—from protecting our ecosystems to ensuring that mining companies are held accountable for the harmful impacts of their practices—these are not just issues for those who are directly affected. They’re concerns for all British Columbians and, indeed, for anyone who values social and environmental justice. 

As we move forward, let’s remember the key roles that public awareness, community involvement, and proactive policy-making will play in reshaping mining practices. For those inspired to contribute to this cause, remember that every voice counts, whether it’s through supporting BCMLR, engaging in discussions within your community, or staying informed about mining practices and laws. 

Your involvement can and does make a difference. Your engagement and support are crucial in driving meaningful conversations and actions towards a more sustainable and just world. 

Don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t done so yet. By subscribing you’ll stay updated with our upcoming episodes, each exploring different facets of mining and its impacts on BC and its inhabitants. 

Thanks for listening, and see you next time.