Is bureaucratic mediocrity holding the NWT’s economic future hostage?

On EDGE: Opinion

The announcement from the GNWT regarding its “draft” protected areas strategy apparently caught the resource industry by surprise. Predictably, industry representatives complained and we were treated to the spectacle of the industry crying “we were outnumbered!” No surprises there – the North isn’t a safe place for resource companies.

With a few notable exceptions, the resource industry fails to consistently engage the hearts and minds of citizens. Senior resource-industry leaders are conspicuously absent in the public discourse, allowing opponents to create all the noise.

The industry in the North is reduced to being perpetually in complaint mode. It has become the whipping post for all that’s wrong in the natural environment. It’s an easy target. Far easier a target than those with whom at least some of the responsibility for environmental degradation and species loss should be shared.

The industry can do better at understanding the connection of Northern people to the land, and acknowledging their concerns about water in particular, with their associated misgivings about the benefits of mining.

A few months ago, I met the head of a London-based private equity firm. He told me he had over $2 billion of his investors’ funds to invest in the resource industry, with single deals of up to $300 million. I asked him what the climate was like for investing.

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He said his team had looked at 254 opportunities across the world, in the last 12 months. They picked just one to invest in. ONE!

It’s tough out there. Investors, even investors with money burning a hole in their pockets, are choosy about where they invest.

So what does this mean for the North? Simply, noone’s coming here any time soon.

Resource companies find it increasingly challenging to do business in the North. The bureaucracy is wilful and slow. The regulatory framework is cumbersome and inconsistent. Companies still struggle to consult effectively with citizens and communities, which are increasingly aggressively disconnected from an industry that arguably helped them become more prosperous than they would otherwise have been.

Sober evaluation, critical thinking and data-based decision making are on life support. Politics wins. Vested interest groups who have the ear of the bureaucrats and whose stance suits those playing land-control power politics, use resource industry “fear-speak” to advance their cause.

The GNWT struggles to be a vocal supporter of the resource industry. It won’t even publicly correct mistruths being perpetrated about Northern employment numbers at the diamond mines. Instead it colludes with industry critics through its silence.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources is apparently dedicated to eliminating the resource industry altogether by continually undermining the efforts of the Department of Industry, Trade and Investment, whose role is to generate the conditions where industry can thrive. So much for a shared vision of “responsibly and sustainably realizing the full potential of our rich mineral resources and using it to ensure lasting prosperity for NWT residents and communities,” so breathlessly articulated in the GNWT Mineral Development Strategy.

Community leaders appear incapable of interrupting the poisonous narrative about the resource industry perpetrated by the many activists, advisers and lawyers whose apparent goal is to continue the gravy train of repeat business fed by the dysfunction they foster.

Communities and miners alike are hostages to the relentless and embedded mediocrity of a bureaucracy which largely exists for its own sake.

Is the North in fact a club, run by the political elites and activists, for the benefit of their friends? If so, the resource industry is not a member of the club and doesn’t know how to become one.

The reality nobody wants to acknowledge is where the GNWT economy is concerned, capital counts, and most of it will come from mining. Capital is what will build the businesses, the roads, the schools, the hospitals, the power stations, the infrastructure and the economy of the North…whether everyone likes it or not. If resource industry capital is not welcome, where will that money come from? Home businesses? Market gardens? Two million tourists a year?

The GNWT, community leaders, resource industry leaders and community members must immediately agree on what it will take to be truly open for business. No more studies. No more meaningless talking points. Instead, a sober, respectful dialogue of equals, characterised by generosity of spirit and a sense of urgency from all parties to create an environment where the resource industry will create benefits for all.

It’s time to put out the welcome mat before it’s too late.



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