Mining Still Glitters in Northern Ontario – Stan Sudol

This article was originally published in the Sudbury Star on October 8, 2004

In July, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein proudly announced that his province’s massive debt has been slain. However, he could not have accomplished that historic feat without the development of northern Alberta’s booming oilsands economy and ensuing resource royalties. Sadly, Ontario, struggling with a $142-billion debt and a $100-billion infrastructure deficit, is largely ignoring the mineral rich potential of its north.

According to the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, over the next 50 years the world will use five times all the mineral supplies that have ever been mined up to the year 2000.

China, India, Brazil and other emerging countries are rapidly industrializing their economies, which require a wide variety of base metals, many of which could be found in one of the world’s richest geological regions — northern Ontario. We are entering a commodity boom that could last for decades.

Historically, northern Ontario’s mineral wealth has provided high paying jobs, supplied significant tax revenues to Queen’s Park and helped settle much of the region. The mining sector still generates enormous wealth and industrial activity.

Sudbury, North America’s leading mineral district, is exporting its high-tech mining expertise around the globe. The community’s growing cluster of mining supply companies has established this city as Canada’s centre of mining excellence – a fact the provincial government refuses to acknowledge for fear of offending other mining communities.

Continuous restructuring and automation since the late 1970s have established the Sudbury miners as some of the world’s most productive. Falconbridge’s spring announcement of a half billion dollar development of its Nickel Rim south property and a major mineral discovery by Inco at Kelly Lake – richer than any other mined in the company’s Ontario division – confirm the Sudbury Basin’s untapped potential.

Many geologists feel the Sudbury Basin will still be producing major quantities of metal for another century.

Tony Naldret, one of the world’s leading geological experts on the Sudbury Basin, estimates that Sudbury’s total contribution, historical and reserves still in the ground is about $370 billion U.S. (Based on a price of $5.00 U.S. per pound for nickel, $1.00 per pound for copper and $18.00 per pound for cobalt)

How many metal-rich mining camps exist in the vast northern territory above the French and Mattawa Rivers that encompass 85 per cent of the province’s geography?

Outside of the Sudbury Basin and the Red Lake district, very little major new mining capacity has been developed in the past 15 years. An aggressive environmental movement steadfastly opposes any mining development even though Ontario has strict environmental regulations.

All mining companies must develop closure or decommissioning plans that require the restoration of all lands to their natural state when the operations close.

To northerners, the constant negative rhetoric about mine development and ensuing loss of wilderness would be akin to protesting the establishment of southern auto factories and the disappearance of irreplaceable farmland.

Given supportive policy changes, the mining sector could reinvigorate the depressed Northern economy and also become a key employer of the region’s growing aboriginal populations.

Placer Dome’s Musselwhite gold mine, located 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, is an excellent example of native participation in the mining industry.

A precedent-setting agreement between the company and four surrounding First Nations communities ensures that qualified aboriginals are given priority in the hiring process and native businesses are strongly encouraged to supply the mine site with services, ranging from construction and nursing to catering and air travel. First Nation employees were also provided with apprenticeship training programs in various trades.

However, Ontario must work out an equitable revenue-sharing agreement to ensure First Nation communities benefit from any resource development on their traditional lands. Municipalities automatically receive tax revenue from resource operations within their vicinity.

First Nations do not. Both the mining sector and First Nations want the province to establish clear revenue sharing rules. This has been one of the most contentious issues holding up increased mineral exploration and development.

As with all sectors of the economy, a new generation of geologists and mining engineers must be trained. Currently there are three small mining engineering and eight geology programs scattered across the province. This is a horrific waste of taxpayer’s money.

Bob Rae, who is currently leading a review of Ontario’s post-secondary education system, should centralize the programs at Sudbury’s Laurentian University, encourage aboriginal participation and create a “Harvard of the Mining Sector.”

Since many new mines will be adjacent to First Nation communities, it is imperative that the next generation of aboriginal students participate in their development.

The “Harvard of the Mining Sector” could be a lasting legacy for the North’s aboriginal and mining communities. The Provincial Liberals do not include any of this as part of the Northern vision.

Another critical factor for a healthy and growing mining industry is public funding of geo-science information. These surveys are critical to the discovery of new mineral deposits.

Every public dollar spent on geo-science activities generates $5 worth of private sector  exploration activities. When a mine is found, that single dollar will generate hundreds of dollars of investment and provide jobs.

The Ontario Geological Survey, a provincial agency that makes geo-scientific information available to the mineral sector, has not seen its budget increase since the late 1980s.

In a recent speech at Ford Motor Company’s 100th anniversary celebration, in reference to provincial aid packages for the auto sector, Premier Dalton McGuinty said, “In Ontario, our leading goal scorer is the automobile sector. So I’m going to help our leading goal scorer score more goals, create more high quality, high paying jobs.”

In northern Ontario, the leading “goal scorer” is the mining sector. There are billions of dollars worth of untapped mineral deposits waiting to be developed.

These geological riches could provide employment for aboriginal communities and tax revenues for the health care and education services all Ontarians value.

Queen’s Park has forgotten the devastating impact of the “free trade recession” that hit the province’s manufacturing sector in the early 1990s. In a globalized world, the transfer of manufacturing jobs to low-wage economies like China and India can negatively impact Ontario’s economic engine.

But you cannot relocate a rich ore body.

It’s time for the provincial government to start paying serious attention to the mining industry.