VANCOUVER - The British Columbia and federal governments should settle outstanding aboriginal land claims in the westernmost province to eliminate the uncertainty that prevents industry from investing, says a new report from the Fraser Institute.
The unsettled claims are a barrier to the mining industry in particular, said the report released Thursday by the right-wing think tank based in Vancouver.
It recommends an expedited treaty process to resolve the hundreds of overlapping claims, and a mechanism to resolve asserted rights and title for bands that are not participating in the existing treaty process.
"Mining companies often find themselves on the front lines of tensions between asserted aboriginal rights and title and the interpretation of such rights by the courts, as miners rely on having access to Crown land," said the report, which points out that B.C. — with more than 200 of the 600 first nations in Canada — has very few treaties in place.
In surveys conducted by the institute, mining company executives identified the uncertainty due to aboriginal land claims as the primary deterrent to investing in B.C.
Just one-third of the provincial land base is covered by treaties, and little more than half of aboriginal bands are engaged in a treaty process that largely ground to a halt more than a decade ago, with no federal mandate to settle.
The treaty process in B.C. "is not working as well as expected," the report said, and the court system is being used to shape and define rights on a case-by-case basis in its stead.
"The result of so few treaties in British Columbia is uncertainty in land and resource ownership, use, and management that not only discourages investment but also limits the ability of First Nations to achieve self-reliance," the report said.
The surveys found other factors that dissuaded mining investment in B.C., including uncertainty over protected areas, parks and archeological sites for conservation, and uncertainty over environmental regulations.
The fourth key barrier identified by mining companies was regulatory duplication and inconsistency, including overlap of federal and provincial oversight.
Among the recommendations, the report suggested the province streamline the mine permitting process to make it more predictable and timely, "while protecting health, safety, and the environment," and reconsider the ban now in place on uranium and thorium mining.
It also recommended the gradual elimination of "distortionary" tax incentives in favour of a single, lower corporate income tax rate, and the re-examination of a harmonized sales tax with the federal government — a tax reversed by the Liberal government under Premier Christy Clark after its implementation forced her predecessor out of office.
Exploration in the province hit a 30-year low in the early 2000s, due to a combination of government policy, low commodity prices, and recession, the report said.
But driven by strong global demand, high mineral prices, and record investment, the industry has been on the rise in B.C. for the past decade.
The mining industry in B.C. had an estimated production value of $8.3 billion in 2012, and contributed more than $400 million in tax revenues to provincial coffers, the report said.