Navigating Uncertainty

A semblance of normality alongside the pandemic

Though it might all fade into one challenging blur, it has been two years since the Covid-19 pandemic started, with over 32,000 casualties in Canada - 10,700 of which were in Ontario. Disruptions to all industry verticals impacted the globe, with many thinking that after the first pandemic wave subsided in 2021, we would all be able to start building back businesses. Unfortunately, Omicron came to throw a spanner in the works, and just like other sectors, miners have suffered numerous inflationary, operational and supply chain disruptions.

The New Year began with the news that PDAC 2022 had been officially postponed from March to June, and will continue to be a hybrid event moving forward. Events going virtual and companies making a switch to remote work is not something that will go away any time soon, but the fact that PDAC moved the event to the summer to retain an in-person element, is indicative of the importance the mining industry places on human interaction, even in an increasingly digital world. The general sentiment is that people and companies just want everything to be over and are trying their best to carry on despite the added challenges.

Vaccine uptake has been prevalent across Canada, with fourth doses starting to be offered to vulnerable people. In Ontario, 78.54% of the province has been fully vaccinated, with 83.9% having received their first dose as of January 26th, 2022.

All provinces continue to face lab delays and various companies were harder hit with the second wave than the first. “Initially, we did not see much Covid in Québec, however, now Covid has gotten into the province in a big way, and Omicron has affected some of our company. A lot of our team were very eager to get vaccinated though, which was a good sign for us,” said Jose Vizquerra, president and CEO of O3 Mining.

In March, the first signs of spring were accompanied by better news on the Covid front, as Premier Doug Ford began to lift restrictions in Ontario. Although the province has learned to adapt to the pandemic, the challenge of dealing with rising inflationary pressures means that businesses will welcome a semblance of normality returning.

"New discoveries are becoming increasingly rare as the low hanging fruit is gone, and global gold resources amongst major mining companies have dropped precipitously over the past decade. IAMGOLD has been adding resources over this period of time with new discoveries. This industry trend is going to continue, given that exploration is not a faucet you can turn on and off and get immediate results. It requires an investment over time and talent."

Daniella Dimitrov, President, CFO and Interim CEO, IAMGOLD

Although there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel from a Covid perspective, companies headquartered in Toronto with international operations have had to stay nimble, and many CEOs have stated they have not been able to visit their projects as often as they would have liked over the past two years. Even travelling across Canada or intra-provincially has been more challenging than before, limiting access and causing delays.

Through this slightly surreal time, technology has been a major driver for investment, with new technologies being pushed faster and further than ever before to optimize operations. Now, more than ever, ensuring there is adequate monitoring and response to cyber-threats is pivotal for mining companies to mitigate risk, detect safety breaches quickly and prevent damages. EY Canada’s mining and metals leader, Theo Yameogo, warns that cybersecurity needs to be monitored 24/7. “Ongoing integration between IT and OT networks, reliance on third parties with less secure networks and limited workforces are all creating new entry points for cybercrime.”

Despite all of the challenges, the Ontario mining sector has not only been able continue to function, but has played a key role in supplying PPE to remote areas and donating equipment to communities and hospitals. Covid will linger, but there is hope that the widespread vaccination program will diminish the impact of the virus and may believe that soon things will start to streamline again. In the meantime, isolation programs and testing continue to be an indispensable part of every company’s operations. The mining sector, resilient and familiar with the cycles of fortune, is perhaps better equipped than most to navigate this uncertain landscape. With access to some of the best technologies, resources, communities and innovation for mining in the world, Ontario mining companies will continue to respond to the challenges, leveraging on their world-leading expertise and experienced mining community. The mining sector in Ontario retains a resolute, fighting-attitude, ready for what is, and what may come.

Mining with the First Nations

“The industry needs to do a better job of showing what it does well. There is a communication and trust deficit between communities and the perception of what mining companies are doing,” said Ryan McEachern, managing director of MSTA Canada. The social contract is no longer about ticking a box in order to move a project forward, but rather an opportunity to re-build trust, exemplify the positive impact that mining companies can have on communities, and integrate a fractured society.

Working in tandem with First Nation communities, The Corridor to Prosperity is an initiative that aims to connect Ontario’s Far North to infrastructure, power and roads. This would allow northern communities to become a part of the economic prosperity that can be unlocked mining. Ontario has committed C$1 billion to support the year-round road network. The Corridor to Prosperity aims to create a sustainable pathway that connects the Far North and benefits the original inhabitants and mines alike.

Establishing agreements with Indigenous communities in proximity to mine sites and creating opportunities for these communities to become involved with the industry have often been led by the mining companies. However, in this instance the process has been streamlined by having First Nations communities as proponents for the cause.

"The concept of economic reconciliation is real. This is a palpable opportunity for Canada to do something important and well in the region."

Alan Coutts, President & CEO, Noront Resources

“Given that First Nations communities have the traditional territory and land use, a better model emerged in which the First Nations themselves would lead the road development and permitting,” said Alan Coutts, president and CEO, Noront Resources. Environmental assessments for the Corridor are scheduled to take at least until Q4 2023, at which point the road can begin to be built. Coutt’s best estimate is to have a fully permitted road in 2026.

Speaking to the Wabun Tribal Council, it would seem that, though a palpable amount of progress has been made, there is still much that needs to change. “We have met some captains of the industry that have been fantastic, but there are still those out there who believe they have a free entry system and that First Nations should just remain silent while they collect their government checks. Let's go forward, not backwards,” said Jason Batise, executive director of the Council.

Ontario is home to 133 First Nations communities, representing 23% of all Indigenous peoples in the country. The province has more remote communities than any other region in Canada, with 30 First Nations only accessible by air or ice road for large parts of the year. Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie, Timmins, Ottawa and Toronto have large Indigenous populations living off-reserve. Indigenous people make up 3% of the Canadian total population and account for 6% of the country's mining labor force. “Ontario is now offering expanded resource revenue sharing agreements with Indigenous communities proximal to either mining, forestry or aggregate developments,” said Greg Rickford, Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources, Forestry and Indigenous Affairs.

The Ministry’s Aboriginal Participation Fund (APF) supporting consultation, education and relationship-building has been built-out, while the Ministry of Labor, Training and Skills Development has invested C$3.5 million to help 150 Indigenous people receive training to join the Greenstone mine. “We have also supported initiatives for employment opportunities on major energy infrastructure projects, such as the Wataynikaneyap Power Transmission project. This project will serve the interests of the Greenstone Belt and translate to a transferable skill set for Indigenous workers,” added Minister Rickford.

Mining companies are increasingly realizing that incorporating Indigenous communities not only into their field operations, but also into their boards, fosters long-term collaborations and de-risks projects for the future.

Image courtesy of Noront Resources