[Manitoba Mining] The Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act – (Thompson Citizen Editorial – July 20, 2011)

The Thompson Citizen, which was established in June 1960, covers the City of Thompson and Nickel Belt Region of Northern Manitoba. The city has a population of about 13,500 residents while the regional population is more than 40,000.  news@thompsoncitizen.net

The NDP provincial government, through Dave Chomiak, Manitoba’s innovation, energy and mining minister, relatively quietly introduced The Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act on June 2 during the fifth and final session of the 39th Manitoba legislature.

The bill received royal assent June 16 as the legislature rose for the summer awaiting the Oct. 4 provincial election. But the most important part of this very brief 1,200-words or so bill may yet be its last one-sentence section, Section 17, which reads: “This act comes into force on a day to be fixed by proclamation.” In other words, we have a law on the books, an act of the Manitoba government, with no force or effect at the moment.

The Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act is by no means the first piece of legislation provincially or federally across the country to be approved through three readings and receive royal assent only to languish in limbo for an indeterminate time awaiting proclamation (perhaps) in whole or in part into law, and it won’t be the last.

Whether that means The Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act is more about symbolism than substance is impossible to say with certainty yet. The devil is in the details, or the proof of the pudding is in the eating, choose your aphorism, depending on your perspective, should the law ever be proclaimed.

Compared to many government actions, which are loudly heralded with electronic news releases to trumpet their birth, notice of our introduction to The Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act made its way to us not by e-mail, but by a simple brief one-page fax announcing it was being introduced in the legislature. Again, that’s not unprecedented, but it’s an unusually low-key way for the province to deal with the Number 1 issue on Thompson residents’ minds since last Nov. 17 – the closure in 2015 of Vale’s smelting and refinery operations here.

On its face, Section 4 (a) of The Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act, with its reference to the Thompson Nickel Belt Economic Development Fund, specifying the “operation of the fund is to be supported by amounts appropriated by the legislature for the fund, which amounts are to be determined with reference to the taxes paid by Vale under The Mining Tax Act” looks particularly interesting.

The money Vale pay now under The Mining Tax Act goes into the province’s general revenues and is not segregated in a fund or otherwise separated out.

So is Section 4(a) referring to “new” Vale money, over and above what they pay now under The Mining Tax Act, or a case of all or some of the money the company is liable for currently under The Mining Tax Act being simply redirected to this Thompson Nickel Belt Economic Development Fund?

That seems like a pretty fundamental question or questions. We’ve been asking the province, Vale and even the USW for answers since virtually the day the act was introduced almost seven weeks ago and have yet to hear anything conclusive. For its part, Vale said it would like to know the answers to these [questions] as well.” Ryan Land, manager of corporate affairs for the company’s Manitoba Operations, told us in an e-mail response to a query June 9.

It’s hard to imagine the Brazilian mining giant being very happy with the current uncertainty in Manitoba as to exactly what the new law will mean, if anything. “Neither Vale nor the City require legislation to tell us how to do the things we’re already doing – and doing together,” said Land in another e-mail June 6.

In his 297-word “MLA Report” in the July 15 Nickel Belt News, Thompson NDP MLA and Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton finally got around to talking about The Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act and the Thompson Nickel Belt Economic Development Fund, although in generalities rather than specifics: “Further details of the fund will be announced in the upcoming weeks. The fund will have a board that will bring together a wide range of local, provincial and federal stakeholders,” Ashton wrote.

The legislation calls for the fund’s board to consist of at least five and not more than 11 directors appointed by the provincial cabinet for terms not to exceed three years. In making appointments to the board, the cabinet “must have regard to the desirability” of having a board that includes one or more representatives from the City of Thompson; Vale; organized labour; organizations that represent aboriginal peoples; the federal government and the general public.

What, if anything, The Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act, will really mean, if proclaimed, for Vale, the USW and Thompson in general, is not yet clear, but presumably Steve Ashton and Dave Chomiak will spell it all out in plainspeak and in detail in “upcoming weeks” — as in the weeks before USW Local 6166’s three-year collective agreement expires with Vale Sept. 15 and the provincial election less than three weeks later Oct. 4.