Bathurst used to be home to the richest zinc-lead mine in the world. Then the mine closed and New Brunswick’s crown jewel lost its lustre. Is there a chance it might shine again?
Five strangers stepped onto the verandah and knocked on the door of the Gray family home, a sprawling burgundy house with elegant white trim on a rural road south of Bathurst. As workers with a contractor at the then booming Brunswick Mine, they were desperately looking for room and board in private homes. All the hotels and motels in the area were fully booked.
“I was 11 or 13 years old, my brothers were gone, and I remember people coming up. They saw this big house and they would come up and ask if we were taking boarders,” recalls Florence Gray, now the archivist and genealogist at the Bathurst Heritage Museum. “There were a lot of private boarding houses,” she says. “(The Brunswick Mine) touched everything. Everyone was making money.”
During its peak production years, the Brunswick Mine provided work for more than 4,000 people, including contractors, and was the most profitable zinc-lead mine in the world. When the size of the ore body was made public, a headline in Weekend Picture Magazine in March 1953 screamed out in big, bold letters: “Bathurst Feels Rich”.
The province’s premier at the time, Hugh John Flemming, reportedly told the publication: “I am not a promoter and have no miraculous way of knowing what’s in the ground. But if the reports are correct, this is the biggest thing we’ve had in this province in a century and it may well transform the economy of northern New Brunswick.”
Those early reports were wrong. They forecast an ore body of slightly more than 28 million tonnes. The Brunswick Mine eventually proved to be a much richer ore body than originally thought.
A spokesperson for Glencore Canada, Alexis Segal, says 137- million tonnes of ore were removed from the Brunswick Mine No. 12 alone, enough to produce almost 6.9 million tonnes of lead concentrate and 18 million tonnes of zinc concentrate. That doesn’t include what came out of the smaller, nearby Brunswick Mine No. 6 property. One estimate pegs the amount of ore from both the Brunswick Mine No. 12 and No. 6 operations at 229 million tonnes. But that was then.
Today, the mine is closed. The Brunswick Mine No. 12 site is an open rolling field of grass, shrubs, and large patches of dirt. The headframe, mill to process the ore, and the offices are all gone.
Nature is reclaiming its territory.
Beyond a gate with a yellow and black sign to warn off would-be trespassers, the only indication there was ever a mine is a largely-abandoned road leading to a massive pile of tailings secured in place by a wall of large rocks.
Underground, the main mining shaft (more than twice as deep as the CN Tower) and all its 210 kilometres of excavated tunnels are slowly filling up with water. Equipment which could not feasibly be brought back to the surface is still there, left to rust away in a watery grave.
By the time the Brunswick Mine was ready to shut down in May 2013, its workforce had been greatly reduced from its glory days but it still employed several hundred people. The loss of those good-paying jobs was a big blow to the small northern New Brunswick city of Bathurst.
A mining boom spanning generations was finally over. Or so it seemed.
Industry insiders are now saying the closure of the Brunswick Mine signalled not so much the death of mining in the Bathurst Mining Camp as much as a pause, a lull before someone discovers of the next big ore body and takes the world by storm again.
“With multiple majors and juniors like Puma Exploration … actively exploring the Bathurst Mining Camp, I think it’s just a matter of time before someone hits something really BIG,” wrote Canadian Metals Inc. vice president of development Sean Tufford on LinkedIn earlier this year.
Bathurst Mayor Paolo Fongemie agrees. As the director of the local French-language college, the Collège Communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick’s Bathurst campus, Fongemie is very much in touch with the local mining industry. His college not only offers mining industry training programs but also co-sponsors the annual Exploration, Mining and Petroleum New Brunswick Conference. He’s pleased with what he’s been hearing from mining industry insiders.
“There’s a lot of money being invested in drilling,” he says. “Last year, with three companies, it was a total of $20 million … They know they won’t be able to find the mother lode like Brunswick Mine was but their strategy is to find smaller spots that would have a total of 10 million tonnes of ore spread over three deposits within 50 km.”
The mayor expects they could see the eventual development of smaller mines with 150 to 300 employees each, clustered around a central mill to process the ore.
Trevali Mining Corporation has already re-opened the Caribou Mine formerly owned by Blue Note Mining Inc. The zinc, lead, copper, silver and gold underground mine 50 km west of Bathurst went into commercial production on Canada Day three years ago.
Terry Richardson, a councillor with the Pabineau First Nation and the Mi’gmaq benefits manager at Trevali, estimates that between its Caribou operations and the Halfmile, Heath Steele and Stratmat projects, the company is sitting on deposits big enough to keep it mining for the next 15 years.
Trevali already employs about 346 people at its Caribou Mine, including roughly 60 members of First Nations, many of them trained in mining operations at the local colleges in Bathurst and Miramichi. “As soon as Trevali had purchased Blue Note … in 2015 … we started a mine training program and a mill training program for First Nations workers,” says Richardson.
The Halfmile project is already fully permitted and there has been initial production. Two years ago, Trevali completed its preliminary economic assessment of the mine as part of a project that would also see the development of its nearby Stratmat deposit. Even without those other projects, though, Trevali is already stepping up its production.
“The Caribou zinc mine will look to improve its production capacity this year after running into a hurdle in the latter half of 2018. Due to rock conditions at the operation, production guidance for the year was lowered and operating costs rose,” noted the Conference Board of Canada in its summer Provincial Outlook Economic Forecast. “As the operation recoups, metal mining [in New Brunswick] will grow by 3.2 and 1.2 per cent in 2019 and 2020, respectively,” stated the Conference Board report.
A map on the Province of New Brunswick’s website shows there were roughly two dozen exploration projects in the Bathurst Mining Camp as of December last year.
In August, Callinex Mines Inc. announced it was pulling back on 20km of planned survey work until it can complete a drilling campaign to test 20 target areas it has identified at its Nash Creek project roughly 45km northwest of Bathurst. The initial preliminary economic assessment for Nash Creek was for an open-pit mine. Callinex, which also has its Superjack project southwest of Bathurst, inked a deal in February to pick up the nearby Headway property adjacent to the former Brunswick Mine No. 12.
Meanwhile, junior miner Puma Exploration is partnering with Trevali on its Murray Brook site after doing exploration work on its own Turgeon and Nicholas-Denys projects.
And after picking up SLAM Exploration Ltd.’s 35 mining claims in the Bathurst Mining Camp for $700,000 in cash and five million common shares earlier this year, Eastern Zinc Corp. brought in a diamond drilling rig to its Portage property in the western part of that area in August and announced plans to drill to a minimum of 500 metres.
Also ramping up its exploration activity in the Bathust Mining Camp is Osisko Metals Inc. It added to its holdings in the region last year, picking up the Key Ancon project. In a statement earlier this year, Osisko CEO and president Jeff Hussey announced plans for an airborne survey of the area between Key Ancon and the Brunswick Belt. With its geological analysis done, the company turned its attention to drill testing 10 new greenfield exploration targets, all of them less than 200 metres in depth.
Osisko’s increased interest in the Bathurst Mining Camp comes at a time when “zinc metal inventories are at critically low levels and with mid-term mine supply forecasted to be less than global demand,” said Hussey in a statement.
In addition to those mining companies looking for base metals, there are also a half dozen sites where companies are looking for gold in the region.
The total amount of money spent on mining exploration by all companies in the Bathurst Mining Camp itself is unknown. But Natural Resources Canada figures show companies spent an increasing amount of money on mining exploration and appraisal of those deposits from 2015 through to last year when spending hit almost $20.1 million, up from $8.6 million four years earlier.
Despite that upward trend, money invested in exploration and deposit appraisal in the province is still far below what it was while the Brunswick Mine was in operation and winding down. In each of 2011, 2012 and 2013, companies sank more than $27 million into exploration in New Brunswick. And in 2014, those investments added up to more than $29 million.
Geologist Dr. James Walker, though, is bullish on the area. The manager of the northern Geological Surveys office for New Brunswick’s Department of Energy and Resource Development, Walker says there are 45 known deposits in the Bathurst Mining Camp that are thought to hold up to 20 million tonnes of ore.
“What are the odds of finding another commercially viable deposit? Pretty good,” he says. “There are small deposits and people are wondering about building a central mill and bringing all the ore there.”
Among miners in the region, many believe there’s an even bigger ore deposit than the Brunswick Mine out there. Retired miner Ron Doucet, who worked at Brunswick Mine for 38 years, is one of them. “A lot of geologists have come to Bathurst and done a lot of work and they all know (there’s a bigger ore deposit in the Bathurst Mining Camp),” says Doucet.
In northern New Brunswick, the name of former premier Louis J. Robichaud, affectionally known as “Little Louis”, is revered. That’s partly because Robichaud was the first Acadian to be elected premier of New Brunswick. It’s also because Little Louis made a big difference when it came to getting the Brunswick Mine and its smelter in Belledune off the ground.
“When I become premier,” he promised on the campaign trail in 1960, “I will see that a smelter is built and the mines will go into production.”
It’s a promise he kept.
After offering a total of $40 million in guarantees to the mine, Little Louis helped broker a deal between Matthew James Boylen (his company, Brunswick Mining and Smelting Corp., owned the mine) and New Brunswick’s most powerful industrialist, Kenneth Colin Irving, who invested $3 million into the venture. Two other mining companies, Patino and Maritime Mining Corp. were also brought into the deal.
By July 1964, the Brunswick Mine was producing ore.
Ray Doucet is convinced another Brunswick Mine-sized deposit is out there, waiting only to be discovered and put into production with the help of a strong political leader like Little Louis. “If it wasn’t for Little Louis Robichaud, the Brunswick Mine would never have opened when it did,” says Doucet. “They would have kept it on hold for future generations.”
“We need a premier that’s a go-getter,” he says.
Doucet was only 17 years old when he landed a job at the Brunswick Mine. It paid him $1.25 per hour—enough in those days to buy and pay off a brand-new pickup truck in his very first year on the job.
Those good-paying mining jobs sprouted an entire sector of support industries, including companies like Industrial Rubber Company and Mandrake Erectors & Welding. Three canteens sprouted up along the road to the mine, offering meals to miners going to work or coming back after their shifts.
At the Gray family home, each of the five workers paid about $30 per week for room and board. Marie Gray, Florence’s mother, was able to bring in annual revenues of roughly $7,800 from her boarders at a time when a Toyota Corolla sold for just under $2,000.
“Our youth … had cars. They had money. They could stay in Bathurst and some of them ended up getting trades, welding and mechanics,” says Florence Gray.
Even those who worked the most dangerous jobs at the mine look back on the Bathurst’s mining boom with fondness. Retired miner Normand Roy was a rod bolter for three decades. When a hole was blasted out of the rock, he would go in and install long, metal rods into the ceiling to keep it from collapsing. The threat of injury and even death was ever present. “I broke my foot once,” says Roy. “A rock fell on it, right on top of it, and broke it. I was off for a while and then went right back to work.”
“(The Brunswick Mine) was good for everyone in Northern New Brunswick,” says Roy. “Everyone worked there.” •