The Macdonald-Laurier Institute has established itself as a leading voice on the concept of “social licence” and examining how the use of the term is undermining Canadian democracy.

A new meaning

MLI5thAnniversaryTwitter470x470newThe term “social licence” is nothing new. For years, companies hoping to develop Canada’s natural resources have used the term as a catch-all for winning public support for contentious major projects, such as natural resource development.

Over time, though, that’s changed. Rather than encouraging approval, opponents of specific projects began wielding social licence to claim that a project doesn’t have popular support. All of a sudden angry press releases and poster waving on the evening news took on a new level of importance.

The problem, as authors with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute have pointed out, is that it confers upon a minority the ability to undermine democracy and the rule of law.

Why, suddenly, is there a growing interest in “social licence”?

Where does one apply for a social licence?

The change in the term’s use went largely under the radar -- until a column from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Brian Lee Crowley appeared in the Globe and Mail in May 2014.

Since then, interest in the concept of “social licence” has exploded. Columns on the subject have appeared in national newspapers such as the Globe and Mail and the National Post, while the University of Calgary hosted a daylong event devoted to exploring its meaning.

Now the most vocal opponents no longer have carte blanche to oppose development projects under the guise of speaking for the majority. People are beginning to ask the question: What is social licence?

Brian Lee CrowleySocial licence: A history

A pair of commentaries in November 2015 – authored by Crowley and MLI Senior Fellow Dwight Newman – delved into the subject of social licence more deeply.

Newman’s commentary traces the history of the term in the history of Canadian development.

A Canadian mining executive first brought “social licence” into mainstream language in the late 1990s, he says.

It was designed to capture the notion that natural resource development companies can benefit from winning public approval for a project above and beyond the legally required licences and permits.

But that definition has now been expanded to a more nebulous notion that activists are abusing to undermine major projects, with the alleged consent of industry.

“If they can peddle successfully the idea that companies need a social licence in order to operate legally and legitimately, then they succeed in transforming the concept into a new source of power for activists like environmental extremists”, writes Newman.

The impact of social licence on Canadian democracy

Social licence claims are doing more than undermining individual companies’ projects, Crowley says in his commentary. On a greater scale, they are attempting to diminish the importance of institutions that reflect the will of a democratic majority.

Dwight Newman

Dwight Newman

Canada has all kinds of bodies in place to ensure that natural resource development projects meet the highest standards; outfits like the National Energy Board, or various environmental assessment agencies.

Crowley says activists are free to exercise their democratic right to publicly disagree with their decisions, and even to threaten politicians with a loss of support if particular projects go ahead.

“It is wholly undemocratic, however, to say that you simply disregard the decisions of duly constituted constitutional and democratic authority as without merit or foundation, as if your views are the only ones that deserve to be heard or taken account of”, Crowley writes.

MLI’s impact

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute has been a leading voice in the debate about social licence.

Crowley has written several items on the subject, including the column in 2014 that renewed discussion about the subject.

He has also spoken with several media outlets about social licence and took part in a conference at the University of Columbia devoted to exploring the topic in greater depth.

Vancouver Sun columnist Don Cayo also cited MLI’s work in a column on the issue.