Behind the numbers: Does everyone in the Northwest Territories love mining?

Do almost nine out of 10 residents really think mining is good for the Northwest Territories? CBC explores the numbers and methodology behind a new survey that claims the territory's residents are overwhelmingly pro-mining.

Even mining executives surprised by pro-industry views in survey results

The Gahcho Kue diamond project, co-owned by De Beers Canada and Mountain Province Diamonds, is located at Kennady Lake, about 280 km northeast of Yellowknife. It is slated to be the next mine to open in N.W.T. (Mountain Province Diamonds)

Do almost nine out of 10 residents really think mining is good for the Northwest Territories?

Do 87 per cent of people in the territory think mining deserves a good reputation, while the potentially indefinite cleanup of one of the world's most contaminated mine sites begins on Yellowknife's doorstep?

And do 82 per cent of residents want more mining projects to open here?

According to survey results published earlier this week, the answer is yes. That survey was conducted by Abacus Data, an established national research company, and commissioned by the N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines.

Its results are so overwhelmingly favourable toward mining that even industry executives at presentations this week could be heard expressing shock.

Answers: what the survey said

In short, the survey concluded N.W.T. residents are Canada's biggest mining fans.

Highlighting its key findings, Abacus said "roughly 80 per cent [of those surveyed] have positive feelings about mining and mineral exploration companies operating in the territory."

Eighty-six per cent of those surveyed thought mining was good for the territory; 83 per cent say mining regulation works well in their region; and almost half say their impression of mining companies in the territory is improving.

There is virtually no bad news for the industry, or poor view of its practices, contained in the survey's results.

Possibly faring worst is the field of mineral exploration. The survey finds that while 17 per cent of people hold "unfavourable" views toward mining companies operating in the N.W.T., that number jumps to 23 per cent for mineral exploration companies — who do the work of finding deposits before mining companies exploit them.

The Chamber of Mines, summing up the results, says residents "have made it clear that they overwhelmingly support mining."

A drilling production stope at the Cantung Mine near the N.W.T./Yukon border. Cantung's parent company, North American Tungsten, shut the mine down last October and laid off workers, saying it was a temporary measure. (North American Tungsten)

Methodology: how the survey worked

Abacus staff spoke to 510 Northwest Territories residents to produce this survey, mostly during March 2016. Reaching that figure sounds like it was a tough task. Bruce Anderson, chairman of Abacus, says "tens of thousands" of phone calls were needed, primarily because people hate phone surveys — response rates are dismal.

Consequently, not every community is represented in the results. Furthermore, the company had a hard time getting a suitable number of responses from Indigenous residents.

Of those 510 respondents, 107 identified as Indigenous. The proportion of Indigenous residents in the territory is considerably higher so, to compensate for this, the survey team weighted Indigenous responses. They count for around double in the end results.

Similarly, two-thirds of the replies came from Yellowknife so the survey team weighted those down to around 45 per cent of the finished product, which better matches the distribution of the N.W.T.'s population. However, those corrections mean the data endured a degree of manipulation.

The margin of error for this survey — in other words, how closely this random sample is believed to represent the views of all 40,000-plus residents — is set at plus or minus 4.4 per cent. This is not an especially strong margin of error, nor is it unusually high.

Giant Mine in Yellowknife is shown in this 2001 file photo. The mine is one of the most contaminated sites in Canada and taxpayers are on the hook to pay for its cleanup, estimated at $1 billion. (CP PHOTO/Chuck Stoody)

Are the numbers too good to be true?

We put that question directly to Anderson and Abacus.

He said: "It's an entirely legitimate question. There's no doubt in my mind that it's possible to have 'push polls' in the market that create a false sense of where public opinion is. I don't deny the potential for that to exist.

"But I've been in this business for 35 years. My business is only as good as my reputation and my reputation is inextricably linked to producing credible analysis."

Anderson said many organizations who commission surveys like these fear they have a public opinion problem, only to discover that is not the case.

"A lot of the work I do is actually saying, 'You don't have a problem in public opinion terms,'" said Anderson. 

"It's true of political issues. People will say: 'Elbowgate, didn't that change the political landscape?' And I'll say: 'No, it didn't.' The truth is, people don't always react the way that folks who are really close to something think they do. That's becoming more true, rather than less true, in the era of the internet.

"I'm not minimizing the risk here but I believe in this public opinion. I think it is coherent and consistent with what I might plausibly expect to find."

Anderson explained the results by suggesting people in communities "think this has been good for the economy, do not think the environment has been despoiled, think safety is better and they think there are jobs for young people."

That being said, it is noticeable that all 13 of the survey's questions about perceptions of mining are positively worded, rather than neutrally or negatively so.

Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as, "I think we need a stronger mining sector" or "Mining has a good reputation." Abacus could just as easily have used statements such as "I do not think we need a stronger mining sector" or "Mining has a bad reputation" but chose not to.

"I don't think that when we designed this, we were necessarily thinking it would be a for-publication piece," said Anderson when asked about this.

"I might have put in some negatives there, just to prove my basic point that these numbers are not an artifact of a survey that 'blew the wind' at people, but an accurate reflection of public opinion."

Anderson said a "yea-saying influence" — where people feel obliged to agree with the question — accounts for at most 10 per cent in any given question. That would still leave a vast majority in favour of mining, but might temper the eye-opening results published this week.

Dominion Diamond Corporation's expansion of the Ekati mine was recently approved by the N.W.T. government, but construction work at the Jay pipe has been set back to 2018. (Dominion Diamond Corporation )

How will the mining industry use this survey?

The Chamber of Mines admitted the survey's impressive results may not be immediately useful while more pressing matters remain unresolved. However, the industry hopes it adds impetus to government efforts at resolving land claims in the N.W.T.

"Companies are still leery about investing here and it's predominantly because of the land alienation issue," said chamber president Gary Vivian.

Gary Vivian, president of the N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines. (Claudiane Samson/RCI)

"In this poll, communities understand that the regulatory system works fairly well here. We have to fix land claims and interim withdrawals. People are afraid to come here and invest because of the large tracts of land that have been removed from free access."

If and when those claims are resolved, the territory's mining industry is likely to use this survey to claim that the N.W.T. is one of the best places in the world to start a mine.

"It's a way for the territory and the industry to present itself as a place where mining investors can overcome some obstacles to social licence that are experienced in other parts of the world sometimes," said Anderson.

"If you're a potential investor in a mining project and you're wondering whether or not you're going to run into problems of social licence — extended disputes before you can get a project going — there are some signals in these data that accommodation, engagement, spirit of compromise, getting things done… those are things that can happen here."


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