A significant paradigm shift in public activism

by Robb Rice

There has been a significant paradigm shift in public activism in Canada and a growing hostility toward mining and dogmatic opposition by environmentalists and social action groups toward virtually all mining and energy projects.  This new dynamic is fueled by the totally transparent society we live in with the Internet, social media, and a 24/7 news cycle.  Issues that concern residents are easily and immediately conveyed online or via social media and organizing locally based opposition is only a computer click away.

What’s behind this energized activism?

In June 2009, there was a monumental meeting in Virginia where powerful and extremely well-funded U.S. environmental groups met withtheir Canadian counterparts to discuss and plan how to defeat (or significantly delay) energy and mining projects they didn’t like. Reports indicated that U.S. environmental groups were willing to fund Canadian environmental groups on the condition that they would be able to dictate what projects to fight, and what projects would get funding.

This quietly arranged and historic meeting led to the exportation of the U.S. Environmental Movement’s grassroots and communication tactics to Canada.

The long and proud tradition of public consultation and Canadians calmly and politely working out disagreements established a cultural of civility.  But nowadays, with significant money supplied by U.S. organizations, Canadian environmental and social action groups are able to execute aggressive and effective communication programs and couple them with Internet and social media cost-efficient grassroots tactics.  One of environmentalists’ favorite mantras is that “a delay is as good as a denial.”  Tie up a project long enough and the project developer will give up and go away.  In the U.S., this tactic has been used successfully in all 50 states.  Companies facing long delays are going to look to where the approval process is not long, arduous, and stacked against them.

The Prime Minister Harper’s avid support for natural resource development and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s aggressive harangue about undermining Canada’s national security isn’t going to lessen a hardcore opponent’s resolve. Mining opponents are attempting to control the agenda of debate on the perils of a proposed mine.  Their primary tool is fear, and it is used to influence those who are open-minded but haven’t made up their mind on a mining issue.

With a long history of social consultation and cordial negotiations on projects of every size, shape, dimension, there is this recurring belief that differences will get resolved amicably.  Sure there have been some rowdy disagreements over hydropower and logging, (and now pipelines) but at the end of the day, they all got resolved.

But it is a new day for Canada and public awareness and outside influences are pushing the agenda of debate into unchartered territory where the mining projects find themselves.  There are increasing examples: in Kamloops, a proposed gold mine is facing significant and vocal opposition, and the Raven Underground Coal Mine in B.C., is under heavy attack.  Every day, the list of mines facing opposition is increasing.

If Canadian miners want to build active local and provincial support for their projects, they only need to look south.  Canadian-owned mining companies, with controversial mining projects in the U.S., are utilizing strategic communication and grassroots programs to shape public opinion and build public support for their project approvals.  They realized that they had to out think and out work opponents, and not let rabid opponents hijack the public consultation and government approval process.

A Canadian mining company conducted a sophisticated communication and grassroots program and organized more than 14,000 active supporters in a county near Tucson, Arizona when it realized that public opinion was 3 to 1 against its proposed open pit copper mine.  They held a pro-mine rally and an unheard of number (4,200) people showed up to voice and demonstrate their support.  And when they needed to put pressure on a federal regulatory agency that was purposely delaying the public release of an important environmental assessment study, they had supporters unleash a torrent of letters (4,000 total) to get the study released for public circulation.  The copper mine is now slated to win final federal approval in Q4, 2012.  Without the communication and grassroots program, the mine would still be languishing in regulatory uncertainity.

With the leveraging of social media and precise demographic targeting, online recruiting programs in the U.S. have had amazing success for a fraction of the cost of big dollar campaigns.  A few weeks ago, a push of a button to supporters of greater natural resource development resulted in a lightning quick email program that flooded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with thousands of emails protesting the agency’s anti-mining actions.

It’s time for Canadian mining companies to import the strategy and tactics their brethren are using so successfully in the U.S.  Simply telling a truthful, fact-based, and compelling story, and then reaching out asking for help.

Grassroots efforts would greatly assist mining projects by demonstrating public support, neutralizing opposition, and expediting the approval process.

Robb Rice is Executive Vice President at Davies Public Affairs, headquartered in California.  For 30-years, Davies has conducted strategic communication and grassroots programs for energy, mining, and real estate companies.  Many of Davies’ mining clients are Canadian owned.