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At the 2013 Prospector’s and Developer’s Association Conference the “Ring of Fire” was a hot topic.  It refers to a belt of rocks in northern Ontario, 5,000 sq km in area, that has the potential to host several chromite (used in steel production), nickel and copper mines resulting in billions of dollars in revenues.

At PDAC Honourable Tony Clement gave a speech representing the Government of Canada as the President of the Treasury Board and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario.  Even though he represents all Canadians, his brief speech was intended to be pervasive with the assumption that we are all linear thinkers and share the same clear goal of maximizing profitable development.  There was the assumption that the land is here for our use, albeit responsible use.

I wonder how this would be received by First Nations who come from a traditional perspective that they are the caretakers of the land.  They believe in transparent exchange of information resulting in a small movement derived from the wisdom of the group (consensus) and is reviewed and reset frequently.  The ultimate intention is finding balance of social, economic and environmental considerations.  This perspective is in high contrast to the western view of maximum growth.

At the same time, First Nations are not frozen in time.  They have members that were born in a time when traditional values dominated their life and have some members who are firmly planted in the modern economy.  They find ways on a daily basis to unify this diverse range of views.  The ideal of speaking with one voice, expressed in Clement’s address to the PDAC, may be a foundation for failure.

The linear approach is to identify a goal (economic prosperity) and identify  every impediment to this goal as an obstacle to be overcome.  Anyone who is working against the goal is identified as the problem.  A linear perspective requires a commonality of purpose all pulling in the same direction.  It is assumed in every step of the process,  that the value of development and profit is good and paramount.  Notice how many times in this exerp from Clement’s speech that the assumption is made that the expedient and large scale development of resources is a shared and positive goal:

“This is a generational opportunity to materially improve the economic prospects and quality of life for thousands.

The sheer size of the Ring of Fire means the ripple effect from the wealth it generates will be felt far beyond the Ring itself and even Ontario.

But before we can move forward and realize that potential, there is something we cannot forget.

Every geologist and miner worth his salt knows that you have to get a proper lay of the land if you are going to strike that elusive vein.

But that goes just as much for the people living on the land as the geology below it.

Like every region where mines have been developed across Canada and around the world, this part of Northern Ontario is unique.

Its marshy wetlands have been home to First Nations for thousands of years. And their communities and their experience are unique to them.  And it is incumbent upon the mining industry to understand those circumstances, engage those communities and be able to appreciate their perspective.

And the mining industry can also share its own story. A story that has brought jobs, growth and prosperity to many regions of Canada and the world.  Much of Canada’s wealth is founded on mining, from Sudbury and Kirkland Lake here in Ontario, to Flin Flon Manitoba, gold mines in Quebec, Newfoundland iron ore, and potash in Saskatchewan.  The mining industry has a great story to tell. It has an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy of economic benefit to a remote region first visited by fur traders centuries ago.

That’s not to say this will be easy.  This is a complex undertaking; there is no doubt about it.

In addition to our First Nation partners, there are many stakeholders and many challenges to overcome, including infrastructure and environmental considerations.

Our Government understands that. And I am here today to say that we will do our part to help move this development forward.

That is why the Prime Minister recently asked me to coordinate and lead the federal Government’s engagement on this file.

From our Government’s perspective, I believe it is incumbent upon us to bring a whole-of-government approach to this process.

And that will be part of my job as Federal Lead. I will work in coordination with my colleagues at Aboriginal Affairs, at Industry, at Natural Resources and at 12 other federal departments, to ensure we speak with a single voice when we dialogue.

This collaborative approach will ensure we maximize investments, avoid duplication and work efficiently with stakeholders and partners, including the Government of Ontario, in addressing development challenges.

There is a lot at stake and we cannot afford to allow this development to stall and become mired in paralysis and uncertainty.”

This speech reveals a very linear perspective.  What if there are options other than maximizing development potential that are best for the people living in the north?  Will there be room for discussing concepts like no-go zones based on consideration of other values, or staged development to accommodate the capacity of local residents to fill the jobs, or their desire to have jobs over a longer period of time.  Would smaller scale projects give more time to assess cumulative effects and adjust the course of action?

A circular approach to a project doesn’t know where it will land but instead trusts that in a discussion that includes a diverse group with transparent information, and opportunity for interactivity between all members, a resolution will develop that is creative and balanced.  I’m curious as to what would happen if our government lead with this kind of an attitude.  Perhaps a new definition of the collaborative approach.

There is no question prosperity is a good thing.  It builds capacity for comfort and safety.  I’m not suggesting we discontinue a very successful process or abandon a strong national value.  However, prosperity is only half the picture for well-being.  Recent psychology findings by researchers such as Martin Seligman, and Brene Brown have shown that the other half of well-being is happiness and it comes from a sense of enough as found in an attitude of gratitude for what we have and a sense of connection.

Maybe the role of government is to hold the space for communities and developers to find a place of balance between generating wealth (linear thinking) and understanding what is enough (circular thinking).  This would take a radically different approach.