Enhancing Rigour in Socio-Economic Impact Assessment (SEIA) in B.C.

By Sarah Reid, Lindsay Galbraith and Trefor Smith

Firelight recently had the opportunity to attend the “Dialogue on Socio-Economic Impact Assessment (SEIA) in BC,” organized by the International Association of Impact Assessment for Western and Northern Canada (IAIA WNC) in Vancouver on February 28th. We are grateful to the IAIA WNC for convening such an important dialogue, on a topic that is often given a backseat, despite its importance to community health, wellbeing and meaningful reconciliation.

Socio-economic impact assessment is rife with challenges in BC and elsewhere (see, for example, chapters by Gibson et al. and Parkins and Mitchell in Environmental Impact Assessment: Practice and Participation[i]). SEIA is critiqued for lacking a solid framework, being too focused on jobs, overlooking positive and negative effects on local and vulnerable populations, and ignoring historical context and change over time.

One of the issues that stood out for us at the IAIA session, and one of the primary gaps we observe as practitioners of SEIA, is the fact that neither the BC Environmental Assessment Office (BC EAO), nor provincial Ministries that are supposed to provide expertise in assessing effects on specific human and biophysical valued components, have developed and published any guidance or standards for the conduct of SEIA.  This lack of guidance is of particular concern because in nearly every provincial environmental assessment conducted today, some form of socio-economic impact assessment is required. Beyond guidance documents, BC and many other jurisdictions also lack the legislative framework for proper SEIA at this point in time. The vacuum of clear methods, approaches and measures is not limited to SEIA in BC: it is a problem that troubles SEIA in environmental assessment regimes across the country.

Some guidance for SEIA does exist for the Yukon and for the Mackenzie Valley, which could be used as the basis upon which to approach SEIA in BC. While these jurisdictions have had bumps in their implementation of SEIA, they at least possess the legislative framework for properly assessing direct socio-economic impacts of a project on Indigenous communities. However, we have found in our experience that even in more favourable legislative contexts, clear guidelines that provide standards of assessment are still very much necessary to ensure consistent methods, measures and quality.

Firelight has supported communities in conducting community-led SEIAs since our inception in 2010, co-creating innovative methods that are rigorous and tailored to each community. We base our methods on existing best practices, sound social science, and community-based research principles. Some of the foundational ‘best-practices’ that guide our work in SEIA include:

  1. SEIA research is participatory, community‐led, and tied to community goals, laws, norms and values;

  2. Valued components, criteria, and indicators strongly reflect these goals;

  3. Baseline data are disaggregated to describe local and regional populations;

  4. Community is comfortable working with selected experts;

  5. Findings are vetted with community according to its protocols, prior to submission to an assessment body or other decision‐maker;

  6. Community agreement on proposed monitoring and adaptive management mechanisms;

  7. Economic benefits consider ability of subpopulations to equitably take advantage;

  8. SEIA itself is an avenue to capacity building in the affected community.

More detailed descriptions of the principles underlying effective SEIA are provided here. We present these principles to encourage other practitioners and communities to push proponents and government regulators to enhance the rigour and approach in their applications of SEIA. We cannot stress enough the importance of Indigenous communities conducting their own SEIA wherever possible, including baseline data collection and community conversations to predict potential project impacts and benefits, establish thresholds for acceptable change, and verify those thresholds with the broader community.

The lack of guidance by the BC EAO—and other jurisdictions in Canada—for socio-economic impact assessment demonstrates that we have a long way to go in establishing transparent and consistent standards of approach in this field. The standard practice of SEIA in BC is currently not treated or upheld in a rigorous fashion by the EAO. “There is little consistency in the methods, measures, approaches and overall quality of assessments being conducted in BC” (McGuigan 2015[ii]). Issues of intergenerational and impact equity and cultural context are largely ignored in most SEIA practice today. As such, the need for the EAO to provide guidance to practitioners and set “the floor” for standards and methodology is of utmost importance.

With the shift towards Indigenous communities increasingly asserting their inherent rights over traditional lands and resources, it is likely that the next few years will see more Nations developing their own socio-economic review requirements and/or setting the ‘minimum standards’ bar for what constitutes acceptable SEIA. We hope to engage in further dialogue on this subject in the near future, and work with our clients to promote rigorous and community-based SEIA practice in the BC context.

[i] Hanna, Kevin S, ed. Environmental Impact Assessment: Practice and Participation Third Edition. Oxford University Press, 2016.

[ii] McGuigan, Erin. “Social Impact Assessment in Rural and Small-town British Columbia/” PhD diss., University of British Columbia, 2015.