Mining matters to North Bay, but perhaps not to McGuinty – by John R. Hunt (North Bay Nugget – 2010)

The North Bay Nugget, established in 1907, is the daily newspaper for the northeastern Ontario community of North Bay. This column was originally published in 2010.

On the Rocks Column

Timmins is facing an economic disaster. Sudbury is still in a strike-bound mess. There is a tiny spark of good mining news not too far from North Bay but I am saving it until the end. The Timmins mess and Sudbury strike must be costing money in North Bay.

About 30 years ago I had an argument with some North Bay business types who challenged my contention that mining was important to the North Bay economy. I checked around and discovered about 800 people in the city were employed selling goods and services to the mining industry. A couple of years ago I read that it was then about 1,800.

Mining matters to North Bay. This explains why I blew my top last Thursday when I read and heard reports from Queen’s Park. A bunch of hopeful — and probably desperate — Timmins folk had gone to the big city to meet with Ontario’s beloved leader and assorted officials. McGuinty was their last hope. The Xstrata metallurgical plant is slated to close on or about May 1 and 670 jobs will go down the tube.

The average citizen might assume the leader of most of the people would be interested or even alarmed.

He has not exactly solved his province’s unemployment problem. Perhaps he does not want to hear more bad news from the North. The forest industries have taken a beating and so have the pulp and paper towns.

Mayor Tom Laughren of Timmins sounded understandably depressed in the interview I heard just after the meeting. He may have thought that if his delegation had represented an automaker the premier would have stuffed their pockets with bailout money. He kept on mentioning China which I gathered is of great concern or interest to Swiss-based Xstrata. It seems they have complained about Ontario’s environmental rules and the high cost of electricity.

Put another way, Ontario Hydro was so badly run for so many years this debt-bloated monster, now split into three smaller horrors, cannot compete and is driving Xstrata out. Ordinary folk cannot run away and our electricity bills are expected to increase shortly. Just in time for consumers to be whacked harder by the latest tax gouge to be known as HST. The acronym may stand for Hell Sent Taxes.

Xstrata’s beef about hydro is probably legitimate but what else do they want? Freedom to pollute? Something is terribly wrong and illogical. One simple question must be asked.

Why did this foreign company buy the Kidd Creek mine and refinery? Its accountants and experts must have done a careful cost analysis. Or have the Swiss become so affluent they buy very large operations without careful examination?

Did they tell the federal government they intended to gut the plant and move it to Quebec? Was there a secret deal made at Ottawa so nasty taxpayers must not be told?

To be fair, Xstrata has plans to deepen and expand the mine at Timmins. I have the uneasy suspicion that the long term objective is to ship everything to China where presumably wage rates and environmental rules will meet Xstrata’s full approval.

McGuinty has one card he could play if he has the courage. He may have forgotten the province owns the ONR which is supposed to haul Xstrata’s ore concentrates to Noranda.

McGuinty could ban the movement of any Xstrata ore over the ONR’s rail lines thus blocking CN. Not the least problem is that Canadians are too nice and too polite. And once again we are letting a bunch of foreigners trample on us.

In the Liberals’ view Timmins may not matter much as it is solid NDP country but they are not winning many hearts and minds at Sudbury.

I did not expect it and do not want to rub salt in any wounds. The strikers have suffered too much for too long. The Brazilian mine owners are hiring replacement workers for two smaller operations. If this strike drags on for many more months the company may be getting something close to full production while strikers are still on the picket line.

It is all very gloomy. I have watched the steelworkers union since it launched its first great raid against the Mine Mill union at Noranda in 1949. The Sudbury situation seems to strengthen what I have stated here before —unions fighting multi-national corporations must find new and better tactics.

For the rest of this column, please go to the North Bay Nugget website: