How are Atlantic Canada provinces preparing for the future of mining?

How are Atlantic Canada provinces preparing for the future of mining?

current Liberal government has put forward a plan it describes as visionary in its scope of change for the province’s mining industry. Announced in November of 2018, Mining the Future 2030 outlines a 10-year plan to increase mining activity at every level—education and training, prospecting and exploration work, and, significantly, the number of mines and jobs.

Projected to double the current provincial mining workforce to 6,200 people—including doubling the industry participation by women to 30 per cent—the government hopes Mining the Future 2030 will provide an economic boost to rural areas that are quickly greying and emptying out. With a target of five new mines by the end of the decade, it posits that communities in proximity to these new projects will benefit from a bonanza of activity.

With one year already gone by, the first crop of milestones scheduled for the two-year mark is quickly coming due. Among these are modernizing the 1976 Mineral Act and the 1999 Mining Act. Ed Moriarity, executive director of Mining NL, the primary body representing industry in the province, says that while consultations with stakeholders have begun, he expects government has much work to do to stay on track. “Other sectors and other parts of government have had modernization occur with their Acts,” says Moriarity. “It’s going to be new territory. It’s a piece of work. It will involve work not just with the Department of Natural Resources, but it will have work involved with the departments of Finance and Environment.” As well, stakeholders such as industry and aboriginal groups will need to be consulted.

With outdated legislative frameworks for exploration and development that currently slow or confuse the path to a new mine’s development, change to the Acts are long overdue. But how much can the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals—currently sitting in a minority government—achieve of their agenda? The current NDP Opposition leader Allison Coffin characterizes the plan as “long on vision and short on details”. Aside from the NDP’s concerns that the Liberal’s targets for job numbers will ultimately be driven by global market prices, Coffin cites the plan’s principal goal of “safe, environmentally responsible exploration and development” as lacking a clear outline. The NDP, in turn, state they want “strong legislation to ensure all mining companies operating in the province practice sustainable mining.” Believing that past governments have sacrificed the environment for short-term gain, ‘sustainable mining’ for the NDP would prioritize taking better care of the environment and relationship building with adjacent communities.

Facing choices that will guide the long-term future of mining in the province, how does Newfoundland and Labrador’s plan compare with the approach other provinces are taking?

What resource will future markets and industries demand? For the current Nova Scotia government, their policy direction is guided by green energy and materials like tin, lithium and graphite (needed for technologies like wind turbines and solar panels). An emphasis on geoscience and identifying potential deposits of electric battery essentials are the pathway to future mining development in the province.

According to the province of Nova Scotia’s Minister of Energy and Mines, Derek Mombourquette: “We’re focused on working with our counterparts across the country to develop a new plan for public geoscience.

“It will focus on critical minerals that will position Canada as a leader in innovation. This is especially important as we fight climate change by lowering emissions by using electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels and other devices. All of these items require materials that need to be mined. Our geology suggests we have the potential for some of these elements, including tin, lithium and graphite.”

How this policy direction impacts future development decisions remains to be seen. Currently there are 12 mines operating in Nova Scotia, including two coal mines. The Nova Scotia government states that it anticipates up to five more mines becoming operational by 2025.

Employment for young people is a perennial issue for the Atlantic provinces, especially for rural areas which make up the greyest population in the country. For the New Brunswick government, investment in skills training and transfer, as well as educational outreach, is a priority.

“New Brunswick is proactively preparing for an ever-changing workforce,” says New Brunswick’s Minster of Energy and Resource Development, Mike Holland. “The provincial community college system, for example, has successfully run several courses to train miners and concentrator workers for employment in New Brunswick’s mines. The Bathurst campus offers a full-time Mining Technology program.” With 70 companies currently active in staking and exploration activity in the province and, as of 2017, 224 businesses involved in primary mining or mineral processing, mining is an active employment sector across New Brunswick.”

New Brunswick offers both a Prospectors Assistance Program and a Junior Mining Exploration Assistance Program to encourage exploration activity. This investment by the Province is offset by the direct and indirect economic activities generated by mining operations.

“Apart from the benefits of direct employment, typically at wage levels that far exceed the local average, mining developments lead to spin-off activities, such as machine shops, equipment rentals and services in general,” says Minister Holland. “This tends to keep people in the community.”

There have been notable gains on some of the biggest ticket items announced in Mining the Future 2030. Direct employment numbers, which hovered around 4,700 in 2018, are projected to come in at 5,200 when the tally for 2019 is completed. Those numbers are getting a big boost from existing operations rather than new projects—like the restarting of the previously mothballed Scully mine and a 30 per cent increase in employment at Voisey’s Bay in 2019. With eight years to go, reaching the plan’s goal of 6,200 jobs seems an achievable rather than merely aspirational target.

Within that benchmark number are some other embedded goals: a mining workforce that is 30 per cent female and has better representation from aboriginal groups. Finding the right workers and preparing the local workforce for growth requires training paths that put the mining industry on the radar of young people. On the education front, the government touts its ongoing work in Labrador as a place for engagement with aboriginal populations, including a $23.6-million project led by the Labrador Aboriginal Training Partnership. By the project’s conclusion, over 400 Indigenous participants in Labrador will have the opportunity to work at the Vale mine site as they learn new skills and take part in training-to-employment.

For Ed Moriarity of Mining NL, the local employment boosts that come from having mines as anchors of rural communities is an economic multiplier. “They can generate three dollars for every one dollar that has gone into the core activity part of it. That sustains smaller and mid-size towns.”

Regarding the promised overhaul of the Minerals Act and the Mining Act, Moriarity says industry sees it as an opportunity to clarify legal standing in areas that have complicated exploration and development. “Having a more organized manner to assess rights,” explains Moriarity of his membership’s hoped-for outcomes. “We’ve had issues with water use licencing and permitting.”

In January of last year, exploration plans for the Big Triangle Pond area on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula were released from further environmental assessment. The assessment review was actually a four-year delay: the project had been approved in 2014 by the government of the day, only to be challenged in 2015 after government changed hands.

The push to clarify development frameworks and revamp outdated ways of working in the mining sector is part of a Canada-wide transformation that is taking place. The Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan, which Mining the Future 2030 aligns with, began with the Whitehorse Mining Initiative in 1993 that brought together aboriginal groups, unions, industry, federal, and provincial governments to position Canada in the global market. Closer to home, the Atlantic provinces are also finding ways to work together, including a joint show in January at the Vancouver AME Roundup, the biggest annual international mining event in the country. They are aligning their regional interests in order to attract new investment to this side of Canada.

As for the Newfoundland and Labrador government’s promise of five new mines in the next 10 years—the backbone of all the potential economic and employment windfalls—they’re already counting two of those mines as open: the Scully iron ore mine in Wabush and the Beaver Brook Antimony mine both restarted in 2019. With the life cycle of any mine, the work begins with exploration. From first find to proving out the potential value of an economic deposit worth developing, the timeline can be long. “No question, 10 years is not out of reason,” says Moriarity. Exploration numbers are up and central Newfoundland’s Dunnage Zone has even seen moments of a staking rush for gold in the past few years. But like all of the provinces’ population, the prospectors currently working are aging out of the field, creating a need to attract younger people.

“We have to do more in terms of the promotion and development of opportunities on our exploration side,” says Moriarity. While the province’s prospecting community greys along with the rest of the population, the long-standing Prospecting Program offered annually by the College of the North Atlantic will come under review during Mining the Future 2030 and could offer another doorway for attracting young people to the mining industry.

“The prospecting program is a critical part,” say Moriarity. “Folks that would have been attracted to that program maybe 20 years ago, they’re at the tail end of their career. The challenge is to find younger folks to become aware of it, gain exposure and then have a delivery method that is cost-effective and meets their needs.”

As the province looks to diversify away from its dependence on the fluctuations of oil and gas revenues while solving the growing issue of an aging population, can the province’s mining industry attract the young people and exploration dollars needed to find deposits that become the mines of 2030? For rural communities that stand to reap the benefits of having a large or mid-size operation in their area, mining may well be the motherlode for a viable economic future. •

1 Comment to “How are Atlantic Canada provinces preparing for the future of mining?”

  1. […] edited version of this article was published in March 2020 edition of Atlantic Business/Natural Resources […]

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