As Ring of Fire called off, Thunder Bay teeters between boom and bust – by Ashley Renders (National Post – November 22, 2013)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

When Cliffs Natural Resources suspended the Ring of Fire project that had promised to bring jobs and prosperity to the city of Thunder Bay, it proved what local authorities already know: Economic growth in the mining industry is hard to predict and even harder to plan for.

Once a bustling grain port, then an important forestry centre, the biggest city in northwestern Ontario knows how quickly jobs can disappear in the resource industry.

Nine other mines are still expected to open in the Thunder Bay area before 2017, leaving some hope for job growth in the city’s future. But volatile metal prices mean Thunder Bay doesn’t know whether it is about to be the next Fort McMurray, or the same old hard luck Thunder Bay.

The city has essentially experienced zero population growth since 1971 and an under-performing economy for the last 10 years, says a report released earlier this year by Thunder Bay Ventures, a non-profit organization working on economic development.

If the nine mining projects go ahead as planned, Stephen Lindley, SNC Lavalin vice-president and project manager for the Mining Readiness Strategy, said Thunder Bay is poised to become the “services centre” for the industry, bringing about $850-million and 4,000 new jobs annually to Thunder Bay’s economy for the next 10 years.

Yet, even before Cliffs’ announcement, Mr. Lindley cautioned against using the word “boom” to describe mining developments in the region because it implies fast and sustained growth.

Fluctuating job growth is a “significant challenge” in the mining industry, particularly during the exploration phase, said Ryan Montpellier, executive director of the Mining Industry Human Resources (MIHR) Council, an industry group based in Ottawa.

Employment in mining is “tightly linked” to commodity prices and is “more volatile than most other sectors in Canada,” the council wrote in a 2010 report. Up to 88% of job growth and contraction is due to “fluctuations in the international commodity price index,” it said, meaning jobs are created when prices are good and taken away when they drop.

The province of Ontario and the city of Thunder Bay are trying to deal with making a strategic, long-term workforce plan in the face of such volatility. They need to train thousands of workers if local residents are going to benefit from any potential growth in the region. And they need to ensure that those benefits are shared amongst the population.

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