Mining Reputations and Blogger Refutations – by Jack Caldwell (I Think – December 1, 2011)

Vancouver-based Jack Caldwell is a mining engineer/consultant with Robertson GeoConsultants. His blog was the only other Canadian mining blog to be included in the Top Ten Mining Blog list by the Australian company Mining IQ. This posting was in response to my recent blog essay titled “The Horrible Reputation of Canada’s Mining Sector.”

Jack Caldwell

Republic of Mining is another great Canadian blog about mining. Stan Sudol is the fellow behind the blog.  I met him once in Toronto.  He is younger than me, although most people are, more energetic than me, and he is more passionate than I am.

His latest major piece on the Republic of Mining is called The Horrible Reputation of Canada’s Mining Sector.  He is stirring up a hornet’s nest with this posting.  I must admire him for his courage.  While I am cynical, and not afraid to call a spade a spade, I am not sure I would have the courage to hit as hard as he hits in this piece.  Here are selected strikes from his piece:

“How things change and how they stay the same! The mining sector has done a terrible job of clearly and transparently explaining the economic benefits and environmental sustainability of their current projects. This increases their costs of doing business through increased red tape, litigation, project slowdowns and potentially bad and unexpected government policies like the Ontario Diamond royalty on DeBeers Canada and the revisions to the province’s mining act.

The 2009-10 year-long Vale strike in Sudbury, with its extensive national media coverage that was largely sympathetic to the union, was one of the most high-profile mining conflicts in the country. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many high-school guidance councilors in the Sudbury region are steering students away from the mining sector. Aside from guidance councilors, many Sudburians who may not even be employed by the industry could not help but notice the personal suffering and anguish local mining families went through during that bitter year. Long-term labour turmoil is certainly an incentive for youth to stay away from an industry.

If I were to assign an animal to the mining industry, it would be an ostrich or a slow moving brontosaurus. A barracuda or keen predator like those fast raptors we saw on the Hollywood movie Jurassic park would symbolize the environmental movement.

Mining Watch gets a lot of media air time because they are ready to respond to reporter requests quickly. On the other hand, the mining sector often does not make their key executives or most knowledgeable people available in the timelines needed in a 24/7 news environment.

For a organization that was founded in 1932 to fight an Ontario regulation that was detrimental to the province’s prospectors, at that time, and played a major role in mobilizing its membership to look for strategic metals during the Second World War, the PDAC has become very complacent in defending the industry it represents. There needs to be a significant reassessment on how the PDAC engages the general population, the media and the political elite.

Until the mineral industry puts the financial resources into telling its success stories and improving its media image, the many needless delays and conflicts that regularly occur – and dominate the front pages of the country’s newspapers and lead stories of the nightly television newscasts – will continue to negatively affect company share prices, increase construction costs as well as postpone badly needed tax revenue for government from potential economic development and jobs.”

That’s it folks.  Stan is saying, in short, that people will not come forward to work in mining, unless the mining industry wins a public relations fight with itself and government-funded media.

I must, however, take issue with some of Stan’s conclusions.  I am a blogger afterall and my delight is to debate.  I do not believe people are staying away from mining because of publicity inaction.  I submit that people are happier staying in the places where they were raised and live than in going to some cold, far-north Canadian mine for two-weeks-on and two-weeks-off.  As long as the economy is good enough to provide people with work in towns and cities, living close to loved-ones & family, there will be a shortage of miners on any mine not close to the town.

And that is good.  For people are social animals and want to live in houses surrounded by other houses and their families.  Yet some kind of madness prevails and the mining industry, the politicians, and the environmentalists insist on making us travel miles and miles to get to remote mines, or spend days in sterile camps where alcohol is banned.

In the old days in South Africa, they simply built another housing complex around the new shaft.  My father rode his decrepid bike to and from work.  Now you must fly hours to get to a prison-like camp to work on a mine.

I submit that only very bad economic times will send a flood of workers to Canadian mines.  People will have to be desperate for jobs before the many needed will flock to the sterile camps, dry canteens, and long flights that are the norm in the misty-eyed idealism of live-in-one-place, work-in-another that is now the way things are.

The oil sands folk are trying another way:  send as many as possible to Calgary where they may live and work in a viable city along with family, friends, and neighbors.  Then if they need to be on the mine for a meeting, let them fly to Fort McMurray, or better still use Go-To-Meeting.  Such an approach is not possible for most smaller mines, but it does act as a magnet that pulls the qualified away from other mines.

I cannot really comment re PDAC.  I have never been to one of their meetings, as the thought of the thousands they attract kind of scares me.  But I must ask are they the right body to represent the image and interests of the entire Canadian mining industry?  Stan’s piece is so eastern and Toronto-focussed that his piece proves the need for more regional and Provincial advocacy groups active in telling the good news of mining.

A democracy, perforce, involves a clash of ideas and advocacy groups.  In the absence of a free and often bitter clash of ideas, we see the dead hand of the military take over–witness Pakistan, Iran, and Egypt.  Or contemplate the suppression of bloggers as in China.  Which raises the question: where are the other bloggers on mining?  It is hard to believe that Stan and I are the only people in the whole Canadian mining industry writing daily blogs on mining matters. 

One cannot expect the CBC or any other government funded entity to blog pro mining.  Maybe some mining companies should engage the services of good writers and pay them to blog about mining matters.  It is scary to think that old men like me blogging for pleasure are the backbone of pro-mining ideas on Google.

Maybe the issue is that today news is entertainment and not information.  This places a premium on the bizarre, the sensational, and the immediate.  Best if the news is of sex, death, exploitation, and blood & gore.  Couch potatoes revile in pictures of the exotic, the brutal, the gladiators in the arena battling to death.  Far more fun than considered, in-depth discussions of poverty and rights to the land.

Thus I must support Stan in his ideas, but warn that his solutions are not sufficient.  Let us get away from sterile platitudes on the need for sustainable mining, calls for PDAC to be more media-savvy, attacks on ill-educated teachers, and random voluntary blogging.  Let us debate the need for funded, focussed, sustained communication in the market-place of ideas and the business of informing in an entertaining way.