Lessons learned from community-led visioning
A clear vision for the future can help communities create long term social value from mining activities. A community vision clearly outlines the community’s environmental, social, economic, and political aspirations for the long term. In communities where mining is a part of the local economy, a vision helps to define how the benefits of mining can support community priorities. It can also ensure that mining activity does not adversely impact community priorities.
From a common vision, communities can create clear action plans. This common starting point also acts as a road map for different stakeholders like Indigenous and local governments, mining companies, community groups, provincial and federal governments to work together in partnership.
The process of building a common vision is not easy. It takes time, commitment from a wide range of stakeholders, patience, and resources. In this article we’ve included practical examples from across Canada that highlight common challenges, lessons learned, and tips for success. Despite the effort and inevitable challenges, these case studies show that the long-term payoff is worth it. As societal expectations of mining continue to grow, this work becomes even more important.
- It’s never too late to start, but don’t wait until closure
Many communities begin a visioning and planning processes because they are facing looming changes to their economies. For example, Sudbury, Ont., was an early pioneer of the community planning approach when the price of nickel led to an industry decline in the 1970s. Facing a dwindling revenue base and a high dependency on one industry, the municipality embarked on a process of economic diversification. As part of this, in 1978, different stakeholders from government, business, academia, mining, and labour unions came together to define a vision for “Sudbury 2001.”
More recently, the closure of a smelter and refinery in Thompson, Man., another historic mining town, led to 500 lost jobs and sparked a participatory community planning process. The Thompson Economic Diversification Working Group was formed in 2010 to develop an economic diversification plan. The working group consisted of representatives from 10 stakeholder groups including the municipality, industry, provincial agencies, and Indigenous governments and associations.
In Sudbury and Thompson, the visioning and planning processes allowed stakeholder groups to manage the impact of changes in the local mining industry. However, some communities proactively launch a visioning and planning process before mining even starts. The Cree Nation of Nemaska (CNN) in Quebec has long been affected by hydro development and forestry activities. However, the development of the Whabouchi mine by Nemaska Lithium and growing mineral exploration nearby catalyzed the community to come together and plan for how mining would affect its future. By starting early, CNN is hoping to maximize the benefits from the mine and manage development in a way that is acceptable to the community.
Similarly, when the natural gas industry was in the exploration and planning phase near the city of Fort St. John, B.C., the municipality worked to understand the industry’s potential benefits and impacts and consult with the community. From there, a community plan was developed to set out a roadmap for the future and define needed programs. This provided a basis for discussions with companies to ensure that resource development activities and operations were in line with the community’s vision.
- Aim high
By definition, a visioning process should look at the community’s ideal future. From there, everyone involved works to make it a reality. In addition to being aspirational, a broader scope is usually better. Often a visioning process within a mining-dependent municipality is focused on economic development and diversification (such as with Sudbury and Thompson). But community visions often also include:
- Environmental priorities, such as for land use and management, restoration, climate change management;
- Social priorities for education, health, culture, spiritual and religious, and community wellness;
- Economic priorities; and
- Political and governance priorities, regarding things like community representation and transparency for example.
In the Cree Nation of Nemaska, the community is taking a holistic approach, considering a wide range of topics and issues in its community planning process (from housing to education to land use and the environment). Taking a regional approach has also proven to be successful. When both Sudbury and Thompson widened their lens and looked at regional connection and economic development, they were able to build greater support across industries and higher levels of governments and connect with other municipalities and Indigenous groups.
- Leverage support
Mining companies are typically well placed to support visioning and planning processes because they can leverage other resources and relationships. Nemaska Lithium has supported CNN’s planning process by making connections between CNN, the neutral facilitator (NetPositive, run by the authors), and provincial agencies, and participating whenever required. A clear vision and strategy can also set the foundation to connect with other regional priorities and funding opportunities.
- It will take time – so use that time to build relationships and trust
Stakeholders should never let the time requirement put them off from participating because relationship building and creating a more inclusive process pays off in the long-term. The working group in Thompson spent almost six months just to develop its terms of reference. While this was time consuming, it meant that the stakeholders involved were able to build relationships, share their concerns and interests, and develop trust. In the Cree Nation of Nemaska where mining is new, the community has put time into building the knowledge of the entire community, especially youth.
- Engagement and communication are critical
Throughout the process it is vitally important to let the community and other stakeholders know what’s happening. Not everyone can be involved in the detailed process – but consistent, ongoing and transparent communications (via social media, local news, notices, etc.) ensure that a broad set of people feel connected and informed.
To make sure final documents don’t gather dust on a shelf, they should be publicly available and used as a source document for annual plans. In the Thompson and Fort St. John examples, the community plan is positioned at the centre of the municipality’s work. Mining companies should champion the community vision whenever possible and ensure that mining activity (including all community investment programs) are aligned with the vision. The final documents should be referenced regularly by all stakeholders and reviewed on a regular basis.
- Learn from others
While every community is different, there are many examples to learn from and organizations that can help. For example, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has long supported community planning in Canadian communities and has also started sharing knowledge from mining communities in Canada, like Sudbury, Fort St. John, and Thompson, overseas through its CISAL project (www.fcmcisal.org/en).
CAROLYN BURNS is director of operations at NetPositive, a non-profit that works with diverse stakeholders to help local communities see sustained positive outcomes from mining.
JANE CHURCH is a co-founder and director of collaboration with NetPositive.