The Northern Miner, first published in 1915, during the Cobalt Silver Rush, is considered Canada’s leading authority on the mining industry.
To survive half a century as an independent firm, Watts, Griffis and McOuat (WGM) has had to be the James Bond of the consulting world, willing to embrace extremes and extricate itself from some dicey situations: bush planes sinking under the ice, locals wielding AK-47s, and revolutions, to name just a few.
“We all had a sense of adventure, so we didn’t mind doing the foreign work,” says Jack McOuat, the only surviving member of the original trio.
McOuat reckons the firm has made its mark in at least 130 countries since its inception in 1962. That wealth of international experience should serve Toronto-headquartered WGM well as it struggles to break into the geological-consulting market in China, a country with the potential to develop a thriving junior mining sector, but a means of financing exploration that runs counter to the Canadian system.
“The regulations and guidelines governing mining and exploration in China are completely different from the ones in North America,” says Joe Hinzer, WGM’s president. “In China, there is no value to mineral resources, so you can’t raise money on resources alone. The money has to come out of your pocket.”
Even in Canada, the exploration game has changed compared to the swashbuckling post-Second World War era, when the seeds of WGM’s international success were being sown in the Arctic.
The story began in the late 1950s when Oceanic Iron Ore hired McOuat, a recent geological engineering graduate from the University of Toronto, to work on a project on Ungava Bay in northernmost Quebec. His boss happened to be Tom Griffis, who had already made his name by playing a key role in discovering five iron ore deposits in Quebec and Labrador.
Soon after the two started working together, Rio Tinto acquired Oceanic and sent McOuat to conduct due diligence on the nearby Raglan nickel property the company had optioned from Murray Watts.
But try as he might, McOuat could not reconcile the results from his drill holes with the geology and mineralization Watts had recorded. Rio demanded its money back, washed its hands of the project and prepared to deploy McOuat to another location.
But recognizing a bright geological mind, Watts — a born entrepreneur with a hunger and aptitude for discovery — convinced McOuat to continue helping him explore Raglan and a nearby project called Asbestos Hill. Probably much to Rio Tinto’s surprise, both projects eventually became mines and Raglan is still operating under the ownership of Xstrata. It was a risky but ultimately rewarding career move for McOuat.
“I remember my boss at Rio saying ‘Jack, you’ll make a fool of yourself if you [work for Watts], because you’ll lose your pension,’” he says. “And I thought, ‘Pension — what’s a pension?’”
When both Raglan and Asbestos Hill were acquired by major mining companies, McOuat approached Watts with the idea of starting a consulting company based on their expertise in northern exploration, including a trained arctic crew, experience bulk sampling with a dog team — McOuat once had 400 dogs pulling samples to the coast for him — and the pioneering use of 12-inch diameter drill rods in permafrost.
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