The following piece, written by ICBA Chief Economist Jock Finlayson and Business Council of British Columbia Senior VP Ken Peacock, first ran in Business in Vancouver on June 20, 2024.

British Columbia is an unusual place for a couple of reasons.  One is the outsized role of land-based industries in our economy.  The energy, mining, forestry, and agri-food sectors, together with land-based tourism, collectively account directly for 12 per cent of the province’s GDP, or the total income generated in the economy. These industries underpin regional economies outside of Vancouver and Victoria and supply more than half of the province’s total international exports of goods and services combined.

A second differentiating B.C. characteristic is that the government – the “Crown” – owns and controls more than 90 per cent of all land in the province, although the Crown’s jurisdiction is limited by the legal rights and historic claims of First Nations.

Against this backdrop, over the past several months the Eby government has unveiled a host of initiatives affecting land use and the management of natural resources. The extent of the proposed changes to laws, policies and regulatory frameworks, if enacted, will be highly consequential for industry, workers and resource-dependent communities and dampen real income growth in the province.

Some of the most far-reaching proposals are being hammered out at secretive “government-government” tables involving provincial officials and First Nations representatives.  In this setting, there is little scope for the voices of other stakeholders, such as industry and the public, to be heard. In the government’s rush to advance its reconciliation agenda, it is fair to ask who is looking after the interests of the 96 per cent of British Columbians who aren’t Indigenous.

While often well-intentioned, the province’s actions risk creating widespread uncertainty about the investment and operating environment for all land-based industries. And this comes at an inopportune time as B.C.’s economy is visibly sputtering, and the government’s fiscal position is deteriorating at a breathtaking pace.

To say the policy and legal frameworks affecting land use and access to natural resources in B.C. are in flux is an understatement. Consider a few of the initiatives being advanced in Victoria so far in 2024:

  • A sweeping overhaul of the Land Act. The provincial government paused this work in the winter, following a strong public backlash. The Land Act is the most important statute governing the use of public lands in British Columbia. To our knowledge, the province never released any consultative or background documents to inform legislators, industry, and other stakeholders of the planned changes; nor did it provide substantive guidance on what a revised Land Act would look like.
  • Policy announcements pausing claim staking and mining within the traditional territories of the Gitxaala and Ehattesaht Frist Nations under the Environment and Land Use Act. In the mineral exploration sector, there is fear that this decision could herald broader policy changes that will curtail claim-staking in large parts of the province.
  • The recent “Haida Title Agreement” recognizes Aboriginal Title on Haida Gwaii. Some well-respected legal commentators have noted the model informing the Agreement is inconsistent with Aboriginal title as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada and raises questions about private property rights once the interim phase of the Agreement has passed.
  • A new Dock Management Plan in Pender Harbor sparked the ire of local citizens whose long-standing tenures were seemingly being put at risk.

Beyond the above, several other significant policy changes under consideration in Victoria also have implications for B.C.’s land-based industries:

  • A new Watershed Security Strategy and Fund.
  • An updated Coastal Marine Strategy.
  • An ambitious Biodiversity and Health Ecosystem Framework that may lead to the introduction of a new layer of regulatory decision-making covering Crown land.
  • Modernized Land Use Planning processes.

Fundamentally, land-based industries need to know the rules of the game and have confidence the rules will not be subject to arbitrary change or short-term, politically inspired meddling. That confidence is eroding in B.C.

To maintain investor confidence and a vibrant natural resource economy, the provincial government should call a time out on its policy agenda affecting public lands and natural resources. A commitment to greater openness and transparency, coupled with more careful and deliberative decision-making, would bring stakeholders together and tamp down the uncertainty that now plagues all of our resource industries. Indigenous communities, industry, workers, and the public all have a stake in the future of the land-based economy and deserve to be heard.