The Importance of Public Participation

Photo credits to Jennifer Lee

Photo credits to Jennifer Lee

Canada has established itself as a powerhouse in diamond production over the last few decades, and is currently the world’s third-largest producer of diamonds. The first economic diamond deposit was discovered in 1991, and three diamond mines are currently operating in the country: Ekati and Diavik in the Northwest Territories, and the Victor open-pit mine in Ontario. In addition, several more diamond mines are proposed across Canada.

Canada has enacted various laws to regulate both the mining industry and environmental protection generally. An important component of environmental protection is the opportunity for public participation. Public participation plays a key role in the diamond mining industry’s ability to develop resources sustainably, and it has been incorporated in several ways.

What is my research focus?

As part of the EJS clinical program this year I wrote a research paper that critically analyzes the current legal avenues for public participation in diamond mining in Canada. I focus on three main avenues the public has to participate: environmental protection laws (i.e. Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights and Northwest Territories Environmental Rights Act), the duty to consult Aboriginal Peoples, and alternative regimes such as co-management schemes or environmental contracts. In my research, I examine their strengths and weaknesses, the challenges faced by the industry, and suggest improvements where possible.

Why is this research important?

Public participation is an integral part of environmental protection, and research into its strengths and weaknesses serves as a useful checkpoint to analyze how Canada is doing on this front. It is important to step back and look at the history of successes or failures of each avenue of public participation.

Why is public participation needed?

Public participation has been an important element in environmental decision-making for several decades. It has been enshrined in international environmental law via such instruments as the 1992 Rio Declaration and the 1998 Aarhus Convention. Public participation has three components: the right to participate in environmental decision-making processes, the right to information concerning the environment and activities affecting it, and the right of access to justice. Participation is beneficial in environmental decision making for a number of reasons:

  • It can enhance the democratic legitimacy of environmental decisions and thus facilitate smoother implementation and enforcement;
  • It can manage social conflict by minimizing the conflicts that arise during a project, and lead to greater accountability and effectiveness in decision making;
  • It is an effective means (or sometimes the only means) through which local concerns, values, and traditional knowledge are raised; and
  • It helps to produce more accurate results that better suit the needs of the community and economy, and that better manage the environment and natural resources.

In addition, within the environmental assessment context specifically, public participation has had a positive impact on the outcome of environmental assessment review panels. This has been shown where public concerns and ideas are discussed in panel deliberations and recommendations, and thus have an indirect effect on federal decision-making.

Why is it crucial to have a well-designed public participation process?

It has been said that “opportunities for participation must challenge the interests of decision-making and environmental elites who have traditionally not included the more excluded communities or individuals.” Often marginalized communities such as Aboriginal groups or local residents are without the financial or legal means to participate meaningfully. However, it is especially important that decision makers hear from these groups, as they are often the most affected by resource development and have valuable knowledge to share. There must be a well-designed system of different opportunities to participate in order to empower every relevant actor, from the concerned citizen to the corporate proponent.

A poorly designed or implemented system of public participation can have unintended or harmful consequences. For example, it can lead to resentment, discourage participation, and lead to animosity or ambivalence among decision makers in hearing from the public.


Overall, public participation in diamond mining in Canada serves an essential purpose in managing the societal, economic, and environmental needs of the local community and the country at large. Research into different avenues for public participation is useful in analyzing how well the industry performs in this area, and how it can improve. In the future, this kind of critique could also be used to compare Canada with other countries’ models.