Course:CONS370/Projects/Reflections on the Historical Relationships Between the Coal Mining Industry and Indigenous Communities in British Columbia and on Possible Impacts From the Transition From Coal-Generated to Renewable Energy Sources

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Coal mining has historically performed a critical role in both the energy sector and economy of British Columbia (BC), continuing to be a province-wide economic driver[1]. $8.8 billion of products, predominantly coal, were extracted from BC mines in 2017 alone, leading the BC coal mining industry to have a global economic impact[2]. With 10 coal mines present in BC, Indigenous communities throughout the province are critically impacted by mining industry operations and government actions[3]. As mining processes typically occur in remote locations, there have been efforts to involve neighbouring Indigenous peoples in mining activities though employment, planning, or gaining consent; however, there are many negative externalities imposed on the surrounding land and communities, including runoff into water sources, harming the critical habitat of species, and possible First Nations displacement[4]. As BC has committed to adopting renewable energy sources in place of coal or gas, we explore how this clean energy paradigm shift will continue to impact coal mining operations[5]. We discuss the historic relationship between the mining industry and First Nations communities in BC, utilizing this information to suggest possible future projections of coal mining in response to renewable energy technologies and the ramifications of this on Indigenous peoples.


Coal is a primary commodity resource, contributing to the economic gains of the BC mining industry[6]. Being among the earliest forms of large-scale energy generation, many national economies remain dependent on harnessing coal for electricity[7]. Coal reserves in BC have allowed the province to build a strong mining industry, with coal then being exported under the jurisdiction of the federal government to other countries. Growing global populations continue to increase the demand of electricity. With many countries still dependent on coal for thermal applications, Canada has continued to export coal produced by the BC mining industry to many countries. As coal-fired electricity is a main contributor to global warming, Canada has committed to phasing-out coal-fired electricity domestically [8]. To continue to meet Canada’s high energy demands, renewable energy sources will be increasingly utilized across all provinces. This project investigates the impact that the vanishing coal mining industry will have on First Nations communities in rural BC, as powerful stakeholder groups continue to suppress Indigenous values.

Tenure arrangements

Regarding both mining and forest industry developments, unsustainable harvesting natural resources can cause long-lasting environmental degradation. therefore, it has proven necessary to take an environmental precautionary approach before proceeding with industrial projects. There are no forest tenure arrangements specific to mining in BC [ clarify your meaning here]; however, it is required that a tenure is applied for and received to permit sub-surface mining[9]. Specific to mining on Indigenous territory in BC, there are various types of mining titles and guidelines that are listed in the Mineral Tenure Act[10] and the Coal Act[11] .

Administrative arrangements

Coal mining in BC has strict regulations, with any proposed mine needing to get various permits. There are several official bodies that issue permits; all permits for coal mining in BC are coordinated by the Major Mine Permitting Office[9].

Mines Act

Before a mine is established, the applicant corporation must get a permit[9]. This is part of the permitting process and allows for the later enforcing of regulations within the mining industry. Under the Mines Act there is one person who is the statutory decision maker regarding mining permits[9]. That person is referred to as the Chief Inspector of Mines or the delegated inspector of mines[9]. Once the permit application has been submitted to this person, as well as the Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources, only then is it referred to the Indigenous community whose territory the development is located on[9]. The community then gets to provide their concerns to the Chief Inspector of Mines, allowing their perspective to be acknowledged when the decision is being considered in their absence[9].

Environmental Management Act

The Environmental Management Act (EMA) office is responsible for issuing waste discharge permits to mines for their emissions, as well as their liquid and solid wastes[9]. Due to coal’s major impact on water quality, enforcing correct disposal of coal mining waste is critical. This permit can be applied for together with the Mines Act permit [9].

Environmental Assessment Act

The Environmental Assessment Act is concerned with Environmental Assessment certificates[9]. This process oversees the potential “environmental, economic, social, heritage and health impacts of proposed projects, as well as potential impacts to First Nations interests”[9]. There is then a decision based on these factors to determine whether a project should pass its environmental assessment[9]. The provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy can designate that a project must be reviewed, the size of the project can automatically trigger an assessment, or a project can choose to opt into having an assessment done[9].

Major Projects Management Office

The Major Projects Management office is responsible for overseeing and holding accountable all of the mining projects that are in the “federal regulatory review process”[12].

Affected Stakeholders

Affected stakeholders, primarily local Indigenous communities, are significantly impacted by the BC mining industry. While mining industry developments cause environmental degradation and loss of land access for Indigenous communities, these affected stakeholders are also dependent on coal mining for economic gains. These affected communities can be identified through a comparison between a map of traditional territory of First Nations in British Columbia[13] and a map of the coal mines in BC[6]. These nations include the Dunne-Za, the Sekani, the Ktunaxa, the Kwakwaka’wakw and the Tahltan peoples,[13] with their territory being the location of most BC coal mines[6]. Only members of these nations who still rely on their land for resources and subsistence, not just employment opportunities, would be considered affected stakeholders. An example of an Indigenous person categorized as an 'interested' stakeholder is an Indigenous person employed by a mining corporation, causing them to not be categorized as an affected stakeholder. Community members who are affected stakeholders often have insignificant power within the BC mining industry. Organizations such as the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council (BCFNEMC)[14] and the First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM)[15] have been established to increase Indigenous communities' power within BC. Both of these organizations' mandates state their efforts are focused towards allowing Indigenous communities' values to be represented and enforced[14][15].

Interested Stakeholders

Exports and imports are under the jurisdiction of the federal Government of Canada; however, the Government of BC controls provincial energy production and coal reserves. Being a large-scale producer within the global supply chain, exporting coal provides significant economic gains for BC. Many provincial coal corporations, environmental groups, government ministries, transport facilities, and taxpaying citizens are involved as interested stakeholders. These groups are concerned with mining developments and coal exports. All having various power levels, some interested stakeholders have more influence within the industry than others. For this reason, not all stakeholder values are adequately recognized or considered.

The BC mining industry directly influences Canada’s involvement in the global coal trade. Coal firing is commonly utilized for thermal applications, such as electricity, and metallurgical applications, such as steel making; therefore, the BC mining industry is connected to many importing countries active as coal buyers or substitute producers within the global market[16]. While the scope of interested stakeholders is boundless, this section will discuss the direct involvement of ten particular groups. Those with high power include the Government of Canada, the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, and BC’s coal mining corporations [in each case, specify 'federal' or 'provincial']. Coal workers, the province’s forest industry, coal transport facilities, provincial taxpayers, and countries that buy coal have less of a direct relationship with the coal mining industry; however, these groups can circumstantially lead to a significant change for BC’s coal production and export

The Federal Government of Canada

Having committed to phasing out coal-fired electricity by 2030, the Government of Canada is increasing action towards reducing emissions and mitigating climate change[8]. While the shift to a low carbon economy is increasingly necessary, the Government of Canada is aware of the impacts this will cause affected communities and mining industry workers[8]. It has been recognized that coal workers should not bear the cost of a transition to a low carbon economy[8]. The Government of Canada has created the Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities to support mining industry workers and communities as Canada moves away from coal use[8]. While the transition is mainly directed towards coal utilized for electricity in Canada, not specifically referencing coal exports, the phasing out of coal-fired electricity will impact all aspects of the country’s coal mining industry. As the BC government controls its coal reserves and energy production, the import and export of coal is under federal jurisdiction. BC’s mining industry’s production rate will decrease, slowing coal exports from Canada.

BC Coal Workers

Coal workers will be impacted by the country’s transition towards a low carbon economy, as decreasing the demand for coal will stifle the industry. Decreased production and export of coal will continually cause job loss amongst coal workers. While coal workers have low power within the mining industry, unions and civil society are involved with their representation. The Government of Canada is aware of the ramifications of a transition to a low carbon economy, aiming to mitigate any socio-economic losses incurred by coal workers[8]. This includes providing affected workers and communities with financial assistance, education and skill building opportunities, re-employment opportunities, and travel compensation for new jobs[8].

The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources

While the export of coal is under federal jurisdiction, the Government of BC controls provincial coal reserves and energy production. The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources controls “[BC’s] electricity, alternative energy, mining and petroleum resource sectors,” while regulating various crown corporations including BC Hydro[17]. The Ministry has a large influence over BC’s budget, as well as having significant control over BC’s coal corporations and renewable energy companies. Its objectives with regard to BC coal mining are seemingly to maintain a strong output of the resource in order to maintain economic efficiency. This ensures that BC remains a large presence within the global coal market. Along with extracting and exporting coal, the Ministry governs energy sources used in BC. While BC is a large producer of coal, a very small percentage is utilized by the province for electricity. The Ministry is responsible for enforcing this transition away from coal firing, with the Government of Canada eliminating coal electricity entirely by 2030[16]. A main objective of the Ministry seems to be shifting BC towards a low carbon economy, as renewable energy sources, primarily hydropower, are currently contributing 95% of the province’s electricity[18].

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy impacts the mining industry’s land use, while providing data and budgeting information regarding the province’s emissions[17]. The Ministry has high power over coal mining companies, as it is involved with the BC Assessment Act. This requires environmental assessment prior to the development of mining projects[19]. The Ministry is also responsible for emissions data, which stresses the importance of globally phasing out coal-generated electricity and transitioning to alternative energy. Similar to the Ministry of Energy, Mining and Petroleum Resources, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy influences the coal and renewable energy markets; however, it focuses on mitigating the amount of coal production by placing environmental restrictions on mining projects. Other environmental regulations, such as the Species at Risk Act (SARA), are under Federal jurisdiction.

The Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation

The Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation is concerned with the First Nations and Indigenous peoples in BC, enforcing the framework for their consultation and involvement in projects, the economic development of their communities, and their employment opportunities[20]. The Ministry has significant power with the mining industry in BC, being able to restrict coal companies' access to land use or inhibit further development of mines. Mining projects impact local communities through reducing their land use, limiting their access to forest areas or resources, and altering species habitat and population sizes that were/are valued for food, cultural or spiritual associations. The Ministry focuses on demanding that coal companies consult and involve local Indigenous communities in their mining projects. This is done through requiring permits, licenses, or other authorizations[20]. The Ministry is also concerned with Indigenous communities' mining practices, as well as Indigenous people being employed by large mining companies.

BC’s Coal Mining Corporations

As of 2008, there are 4 major corporations that control the largest coal mines in BC[21]. Being a main component of the mining industry in BC, these companies, including Teck, Western Coal, Peace River Coal Ltd Partnership, and Vito’s Anker International B. V., influence a majority of the province’s coal production and export[21]. Their objectives include expanding mining developments and continuing to supply the resource for exporting, leading them to gain revenue and continue to grow the market[21]. Alberta and BC currently produce 85% of Canada’s coal, with Canada exporting around half of the total amount produced country-wide[16]. These companies, while owning a combined 10 mines throughout the province, continually push to gain access to more coal mines[21]. These applications are often paused for assessment or not approved. This could be due to various reasons, including improper or insufficient consultations with local Indigenous communities.

BC’s Coal Transport and Export Facilities

Exporting coal from BC primarily incorporates transportation by railways and ships[21]. The two main rail lines in BC, the CP rail and the CN rail, are responsible for transporting coal from mines to export terminals[21]. These terminals, including the Roberts Bank Terminal, the Neptune Terminal, the Ridley Coal Terminal, and the Middle Point Barge Facility, are critical within the mining industry regarding the transport of materials[21]. These transportation companies allow BC to have a presence in the global coal market, as well as contribute to the growth of the mining industry in BC. While they have less authority over industry decisions, including mining projects and land use, the companies that control the railways and port facilities influence how much coal is exported and where it can be sold to. For as long as the coal mining industry remains strong in BC, these facilities will continue to transport the resource.

BC Forest Industry

The forest industry in BC contributes to the growth of the coal mining industry through economic influences. While the forest industry indirectly affects mining in BC, these two industries are closely connected through market structure. Being two of BC’s most successful industries, altering one will often impact the other. When there is a downturn in the demand for lumber, there will often be an effort to grow the mining industry at the same time to offset the socio-economic losses[19].

BC Taxpayers

There is a lack of transparency between the BC government and taxpayers, causing taxpayers to unknowingly support a government that is contributing to massive amounts of coal exports. This coal, being burned in other jurisdictions, contributes to environmental externalities, such as climate change and global warming[21]. BC residents pay significant amounts of money for electricity, being from renewable hydropower, as well as high gasoline prices, due to the carbon tax. With the provincial government charging taxpayers increased amounts of money to offset environmental damage, knowing that the government is supporting the export of coal to be cheaply used in other jurisdictions could alter taxpayer actions. In specific circumstances, large numbers of taxpayers working towards a common goal of ending coal exports could significantly impact the mining industry and the export of coal.

Global Buyers of Coal

While its exports are under federal jurisdiction, BC is a major global distributor of coal. Countries buy coal for thermal and metallurgical application[17]. Since not all countries have access to alternative energy sources like BC, they rely on coal-firing for electricity production. With these countries contributing to the demand for coal, the coal mining industry in BC is expanding exponentially. As a global shift towards renewable energy is increasingly necessary, fewer countries are expected to rely on coal for electricity production over the coming decades. The 2015 Paris Agreement is an example of countries, including Canada, beginning to replace coal-firing with renewable energy sources[8]. Global environmental commitments and federal policy changes will decrease the demand for coal, slowing BC exports of the resource. The Government of Canada in “A Just and Fair Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities” acknowledges that “other countries will be looking to Canada’s leadership on just transition actions”[8]. This could possibly lead other countries to shift their electricity generation away from coal, as the Government of Canada has proposed a strategy to do this while avoiding economic collapse. Moving away from traditional industries creates room for new economic opportunities for these countries also[8].


Mining industry expansions are impacting First Nations communities through land use and environmental externalities, such as resource depletion and animal population losses. This has been happening since industrial mining began in Canada around 1750[8]. There are many instances of BC’s coal mining industry displacing Indigenous communities or reducing their access to resources. Muir and Booth in “An Environmental Justice Analysis of Caribou Recovery Planning, Protection of an Indigenous Culture, and Coal Mining Development in Northeast British Columbia, Canada” discuss the loss of critical habitat for caribou due to the mining industry[4]. This significantly decreased the population of caribou, leaving local Indigenous communities to take part in recovery efforts for the species[4]. Moriarty et al. in “Speciation and Toxicity of Arsenic in Mining-Affected Lake Sediments in the Quinsam Watershed, British Columbia” explains the relationship between mining projects and increased lake arsenic levels[22]. This is due to run-off and groundwater seepage[22]. Another example involves plans to develop coal bed methane gas fields near the Sacred Headwaters of the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine rivers[23]. This sparked controversy as the company did not gain consent from the Tahltan and Iskut people[23]. Indigenous communities rely on these areas for spiritual, cultural, and educational value, as well as being the habitat for many sacred species. The mining industry often leaves lasting adverse impacts on the surrounding land, water, and wildlife, causing negative externalities for various Indigenous communities province-wide.

There are 9 large coal mines currently active in BC, with many more thought to be on hold for government approval or environmental assessment[3]. The coal mining industry is continuing to grow despite renewable electricity use in BC, as small communities in rural BC are often economically reliant on coal production. The BC Government’s actions of funding increased coal mining projects are often justified through developing small communities' economies, creating jobs, or raising salaries[19]. Despite these benefits, the coal mining industry continues to negatively impact Indigenous communities. By failing to consult Indigenous people, this goes directly against First Nations and Indigenous communities' right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). Government ministries and coal companies have continuously ignored the negative externalities caused by these industrial processes. Prioritizing coal as a global commodity over Indigenous communities' well-being proves the BC government values economic gains over Indigenous rights and interests. As Nelsen et al. in “Sustainable socio-economic development in mining communities: north-central British Columbia perspectives” suggest, “Recent issues over new BC mining projects and their impacts on surrounding communities prompt consideration of an approach to project planning that goes beyond simply aiming to mitigate environmental and social impacts”[19]. Significant changes must be made regarding Indigenous communities' involvement in the mining industry, currently being limited to small, low-end employment positions.

There has been discussion of phasing out coal-firing for electricity across Canada, transitioning away from the coal mining industry and towards a low carbon economy[8]. Due to the threats of climate change, taking action sooner rather than later will save future costs. While small communities are often economically dependent on coal mining, shifting away from coal use will negatively impact the industry. If this continues as a global trend outside of Canada, which proves to be necessary with increasing climate change, small communities will no longer be able to rely on the coal mining industry for economic gains. The Government of Canada has expressed their concern regarding local communities, including the large numbers of Indigenous workers employed by the coal mining industry. The Government of Canada has stressed that the transition to a low carbon economy will not impact the income or employment of the small community residents, as they will be provided financial compensation and job opportunities[8]. As this is a relatively recent proposal by the Government of Canada, there is insufficient evidence to analyze the results from their just transitioning project; however, with a low carbon economy being inevitable, this seems as though it could benefit Indigenous communities and their surrounding environments.


While it is often thought that Indigenous communities are consenting to land uses and are involved in the planning process, they are often disregarded when considering development of the mining industry in BC. The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources is only required to 'consult' with affected Indigenous communities. The Ministry has previously failed at gaining FPIC from Indigenous peoples, leading to unpaid, negative externalities imposed on local communities. By supporting economic development of the mining industry, without properly involving Indigenous peoples, it is evident that the Government of BC is choosing to value resource extraction over Indigenous communities. The Ministry of First Nations and Indigenous Relations is claiming that it enforces FPIC, as well as other rights regarding land holding, before mining activities commence. However, past history of BC’s mining industry has proven this to not be the case. It has been suggested that fundamental change regarding Indigenous communities' involvement in planning projects is necessary, especially within the mining industry[19].

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy claims that it requires environmental assessment prior to mining operations; however, it seemingly fails to incorporate all negative externalities imposed on local communities when considering their approval. Such externalities, including watershed toxicity, fragmentation or destruction of critical habitat for species, and decreasing land use access, could potentially negate the proposed economic benefits from employment opportunities in local communities. The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy also does not include in their data statistics any pollution that will be emitted in another jurisdiction from the coal exported from BC. By highlighting that BC’s electricity is from renewable sources, while lacking transparency regarding coal exports, this is arguably tricking taxpayers into thinking BC is more of an environmentally-friendly province than it proves to be the case.

While Indigenous communities tend to oppose industrial mining developments, coal mining does provide employment opportunities and economic stability to local communities in rural areas. Coal companies and transport facilities have substantial influence within the mining industry, producing and exporting large supplies of coal. By focusing on economic growth through the expansion of the mining industry in BC, they are contributing to harming Indigenous communities; although, coal companies provide employment opportunities to Indigenous people. While the Government of Canada has jurisdiction over the export of coal, it influences the expansion of the mining industry in BC. As the Government of Canada is aimed at cutting back on the coal mining industry, coal exports will begin to decrease as Canada is directed towards a low carbon economy[8]. Coal workers, including Indigenous coal workers, have low power when deciding on the direction of the industry. As the actions of the Government of Canada will impact the employment of Indigenous people within the mining industry, the government has said that everyone negatively impacted by the transition will be compensated[8].


Local communities often rely on coal production for economic stability. As coal developments are place dependent, employment tends to include residents of rural communities near the mining site. As Canada is phasing out the use of coal for electricity generation, this will impact the entire coal mining industry and cause a greater shift away from coal production. Just transition methods are necessary when transitioning away from coal production, as many jobs will be impacted during this process. There are thought to be two approaches to decreasing coal exports in Canada -- including a market shift or a policy change. Shifting the market away from the reliance on coal happens naturally through decreasing demand for coal-fired electricity. Over time, as technology increases globally, coal will be less critical for electricity generation. The issue with this method is that a technology is adopted at a slow rate in developing countries, being expensive for households. With climate change as an increasing threat, action needs to happen as fast as possible. A policy change, such as the just transition strategy suggested by the Canadian Government, is much more practical for a shorter time frame. This consists of the Government of Canada implementing a policy to stop the use of coal for electricity generation; however, this presents the problem of having the Government of Canada being responsible for alleviating the economic hardship of many small communities, including Indigenous people. To combat this, the Government of Canada has claimed they will assist those who will be impacted from the transition to a low carbon economy[8]. This will protect the rights of coal workers, while continuing economic growth within these communities through supplementary industries that prove to be preferable to coal[8].

It is crucial to remember that while BC has a provincial economy, local communities in rural BC have small-scale economies too. As mining is place dependent, occurring where the coal reserves are, this allows for small communities to partake in the mining industry despite high transport costs. Renewable energy technology is less place dependent to manufacturing, causing it to likely be done in areas closer to export facilities. Another strategy could be harvesting renewable electricity to export to other countries. While electricity itself cannot be transported for long distances, due to physical limitations, this would require large technology increases to be economically efficient. While other supplementary industries will need to take the place of the coal mining industry in small communities, renewable energy technology or electricity for export would not be possible options at this time. Additionally, BC Hydro, being a crown corporation, is supported by the BC Government. This has lead BC Hydro to gain a monopoly over the electricity supply for taxpayers. With the problematic occurrence of the Site C Dam, it is unlikely that hydropower in BC will increase substantially in the near future. Other renewable energy technology companies have been either prohibited by the BC Government or intentionally suppressed within the industry. For these reasons, it seems as though the possibility of expanding the renewable energy industry in BC is improbable.


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