Canadian diamond mining icons Grenville Thomas — co-discoverer of the Diavik mine in the Northwest Territories — and his daughter Eira Thomas were featured guests at The Northern Miner’s inaugural Diamonds in Canada Symposium, sitting down for an in-depth interview with Diamonds in Canada editor Alisha Hiyate.
While Gren is now chairman of Arctic diamond explorer North Arrow Minerals and Eira is president and CEO of producer Lucara Diamond, the interview touched on how they both got into mining, the excitement of the Diavik discovery and tips for a successful career.
Harkening back to his youth in Wales where he started working in coal mines at age 16, Gren noted that “it was a job” and “in those days, people my age — I suppose you’d call them children today — didn’t have much choice in what they did. The point was, you had to get a job. I could have ended up being a historian, I suppose, or a poet or a singer, maybe. That is one of the problems I see today: children are so relatively well off, they aren’t obliged to make a decision to do anything.”
He said he could have gone into the steel industry, or oil or manufacturing, “but I chose mining, because there was more money in it. I was fortunate I ended up doing something I really enjoyed all my life. I’m not saying I couldn’t have done something else I would have enjoyed all my life, too. But I think it was fate.”
Gren moved to Canada after graduating from University College, Cardiff, in 1964, to get more experience in metal mines. He worked in Sudbury for Falconbridge and was soon transferred to Yellowknife to work at the Giant mine.
Though an engineer, he said it was in the Territories he “got the bug” for exploration. “You’re out there getting paid to ride in a canoe and walk around, with wolves and so on. Stuff I’d imagined as a schoolboy. Adventures.”
Asked if he had any advice for today’s diamond exploration juniors, after a long pause, Gren sighed, “Not really.” But then he answered, “You’ve got to get out and explore. You’ve got to drill, essentially. Unless you drill, you’re not going to find anything.
“But I can’t give advice because I’m old in the tooth and don’t understand a lot of the new ways of raising money, like crowdfunding, and all this stuff that’s done online. That is where the future will be, of course. But I think exploration will still be done by the small companies.”
While acknowledging interest in diamond exploration is “fairly weak” today, Gren struck an upbeat note: “We need a price increase, and listening to the talks here today, that is probably long overdue. That will reignite activity in the sector.”
Eira acknowledged her father was “a huge influence” on deciding to make mining a career.
“As a child, I used to spend my summers joining my father in the field in the Northwest Territories. So from a very young age I got to experience this extraordinary world — it was so different from the small town I grew up in. I had early exposure to exploration and he had me working early, carrying samples and trudging around the bush. My sister and I couldn’t often keep up with him, because he’d walk fast and eventually turn around and realize we weren’t there, and he’d have to come back and collect us later in the day. It was an amazing experience.”
Asked the most valuable lesson about mining she’d learned from her father, Eira said, “it’s all about people. From a very early age, going into the camps, recognizing you need a lot of different talents and skills, whether it’s someone who’s there to build the dock and maintain the equipment, or the cook in the camp, or the geophysicist or engineer. It’s all these people who are ultimately necessary to make a discovery and to be successful.”
Gren was asked what character traits have led to his success.
“I’m naive enough to be optimistic all the time,” he answered. “You have to have a certain attitude, because 95% of the time you get defeated, right? Probably more often than that. But the success happens often enough to keep us at it. And I think Eira’s like that.”
“It’s the treasure-hunting gene, that’s what I call it,” Eira said. “You get addicted to it, and when you have the kind of experience we all had at Diavik, it’s an amazing story. You’re able to follow the project all the way from the staking of the claims right through to cutting the ribbon on the mine opening. I agree with dad that even if you’re talented and successful, very few people get to have that full life cycle experience.
“Then, of course, it begs the question: why don’t you quit while you’re ahead? But at that point you get addicted to the whole process and want to do it all over again.”
Listen to the entire hour-long interview on The Northern Miner Podcast – episode 112.