The role of social licence and the increasing opposition to resource development was the topic of a Chamber of Commerce luncheon featuring Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) managing director Brian Lee Crowley.
During the lunch, Crowley opined on the developing natural resource economy that Canada enjoys and dived into two topics that have extreme relevance on the North Coast: ‘social licence’ and the power and authority that aboriginal people hold over the decision-making process of natural resource projects.
Crowley began by defining the Canadian climate of investment in its natural resource economy, namely its strength in certainty and reliability for businesses to invest in natural resource projects – almost all of which require an extraordinary amount of money up front at the outset of the project.
“The natural resource economy requires you to invest vast sums of money up front and to recover your investment over a long payback period,” Crowley said.
“What makes it possible for people to be confident they can recover their investment over the next 25 – 30 years? … We have created a bunch of institutions in Canada that have helped create certainty for proponents and give them confidence they can … get a reasonable return,” Crowley continued, citing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), National Energy Board (NEB) and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission as examples of these institutions.
Next, Crowley delved into ‘social licence’.
“Social licence, I think, covers two completely different things. One of them is quite innocuous and indeed desirable and the other is completely contrary to this idea of set institutions that gives certainty that unlocks natural resources,” he said.
One definition of social licence includes businesses and governments undertaking ‘rational management’ efforts to have a good reputation with the local population, business leaders and authorities. The second definition of social licence fits what Crowley calls a ‘radical social licence movement’.
“There are certain groups in society that are actually opposed in principle to natural resource development. They think it’s wrong for Canada to be developing its natural resource endowment and they have latched on to social licence and turned it into a kind of right of veto for opponents of natural resource development,” said Crowley.
“We created all these institutions … with the purpose of creating a calm, reasoned institutional framework in which we can … make decisions even in the face of opposition. This is part of having a democratic society. The radical social licence movement doesn’t accept that idea. Their view is that as long as there remains any opposition, especially opposition by themselves to natural resource development, they are not only entitled to protest, they are entitled to stop natural resource development. And my view is that we cannot, as a democratic society, allow organized minorities to oppose democratically-created institutions that are designed to allow us to make these kinds of decisions.”
Crowley’s second point relates to the growth of agency that aboriginal people have gained over the past few years.
“The Supreme Court has said, among other things, that the Crown has a duty to consult First Nations that affect their interests. This has created all kinds of confusion about who really owns natural resources, what lands do we control and so on but simultaneously, with this successful campaign, there has been an evolution in First Nations communities themselves. What I have seen emerge is an incredibly important generational divide within many aboriginal communities,” Crowley explained.
He went on to say that the older generation, the ones who led the campaign for political constitution and other rights for First Nations continue to see the development of their communities lying in further political and traditional activism like demonstrations and court cases to gain more power.
Crowley sees the younger generation of First Nations, a vital part of the ‘Idle No More’ movement, wanting to turn their new powers and rights into genuine opportunities for themselves.
“I think that dialogue within First Nations communities is going to be incredibly powerful in developing a whole new relationship between the business community, governments and aboriginal people … The job we have ahead of us is to not give in to the social licence movement which has simply become a cloak for opponents of natural resource development undermining, in my view, the rule of law and certainty of all the institutions that I talked about. We have to strike a new relationship with First Nations. We will not always get it right. There are minorities within First Nations also using the social licence movement in an obstructive way that I talked about. Not only are we going to have to defend the institutions that we’ve created like the regulatory bodies, but we also have to look to First Nations within their own communities to speak up and defend natural resource developments that are unlocking opportunities for these people as well as the rest of Canadians,” he said.