The RMSI GEMM 20/20 dialogue was held at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at SFU’s downtown Vancouver campus.

The fourth RMSI GEMM dialogue brought participants from across the globe to Vancouver to discuss responsibility and sustainability in the global mining sector.

As Canadian miners explore and operate in 4,300 projects around the world, sustainability and responsibility are increasingly the credentials required.

By Glenn Sigurdson, Chair of the Responsible Minerals Sector Initiative at the Beedie School of Business.

Based on GDP, Canada has the 11th-largest economy in the world. The oil and gas sector gets the most ink as the driver of our resource-based economy, but few people know Canada has one of the largest mining sectors on the planet, operating in more than 100 countries (according to Natural Resources Canada). The same source indicates that in 2012, the total value of Canadian mineral exports was $92.4 billion, or more than 20% of Canada’s total exports.

Mining in Canada is big business and important business: the Mining Association of British Columbia says the sector is the leading customer in Canada’s ports, it supplies one in every 54 jobs, and it’s the highest paying industrial sector and the largest employer of indigenous people. In 2011, mining companies invested $17 billion in capital investment and paid $7.1 billion in corporate taxes and royalties.

Vancouver is a world centre for mining exploration, the home of 1,200 exploration companies alone, as well as numerous operating companies.

It is only fitting therefore that Vancouver is also home to another global mining initiative, the Responsible Minerals Sector Initiative (RMSI), housed at SFU’s Beedie School of Business, which already has a 15-year track record in the minerals sector. The RMSI is exploring different ground: the means by which the mining sector can develop and demonstrate sustainability and responsibility over the coming decade.

These are not just empty words. As Canadian miners explore and operate in 4,300 projects around the world, sustainability and responsibility are increasingly the credentials required, as important as identifying the place to dig and the ore to extract.

Canadian mining companies cannot act with impunity, and have been taken to task for everything from human rights abuses to degradation of the lands and waters in the vicinity of their activities in countries such as Eritrea, Greece, Papua New Guinea and the Congo. At the same time, Canada itself is increasingly the target of new mining activity where it faces challenges from neighbouring indigenous communities.

This past April, 140 participants from around the world gathered at the Morris Wosk Centre for Dialogue in downtown Vancouver to participate in the fourth in the series of Global Exploration, Mining and Minerals (GEMM) dialogues: Building from the Ground Up: Implementing Responsibility and Sustainability in the Global Mining Sector.

This was not a mining industry conference; this was collaboration between companies, communities, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and governments, beginning the conversation to tackle together a critical question being asked around the globe: “Mining for whom and to what end?”

This is a key moment in the process. RMSI has grown out of the movement to create awareness about the need for sustainable development within the sector. The past decade has been about identifying and setting standards. Implementation is the challenge for the next decade. Work inspired by the past GEMM dialogues is now building to the 2014 dialogue next April; in particular, how to turn the proliferation of standards into action with on-the-ground practices that are relevant to site-specific dynamics where the real changes must happen.

The discussion must go beyond economic questions, as important as they are, and become more inclusive. Everyone involved in the process, from environmentalists to miners, local governments to community groups, must understand that each has a vital self interest in understanding what is going to work for the other side. For the miners, it’s an opportunity to tackle some of the toughest challenges facing the industry.

Clearly, as the numbers demonstrate, the mining industry is important to the economic well-being of Canadians. But just as clearly, there is more at stake than can be calculated by the traditional indicators.

The mining industry can only move forward by understanding what is going to work for the many other communities of interest that have a stake in what happens on the ground. Whether there is a “community case” for mining has become an increasingly important question.

Answering that question is becoming as fundamental as the presence of an ore body in making the “business case” for a mine. RMSI is creating the space for the players to explore together.