Ontario budget boosts funding for exploration, mine rescue

Greg Rickford, Ontario's Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines. Credit: Minister's Office.

The Ontario government is launching a new program to fund junior exploration in the province and upping financial support for the Ontario Mine Rescue program.

The province’s 2021 budget, which laid out the initiatives, was tabled on March 24 and was passed on April 26. The document sets out $23 billion in spending targeted at bolstering the provincial economy, and $16.3 billion for health-related measures. Ontario projected a $38.5 billion deficit in 2020-21, which it expects to slowly reduce to eventually reach $20.2 billion in 2023-24.

As part of the government’s plan to increase jobs and economic activity in northern Ontario, the budget set out $5 million over the next two years for the new Ontario Junior Exploration Program (OJEP). Under the program, junior mining companies can apply for funding to cover eligible costs up to a maximum of $200,000 per exploration or development project.

“The impact of Covid-19 on the mining sector has resulted in a decrease in the availability of capital for mineral exploration, [which] junior mining companies rely on,” the budget document said. “The success of junior exploration is critical to the discovery of existing and new mineral deposits that support larger mining companies, equipment manufacturers and investors across the province.”

In an email to The Northern Miner, Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines spokesperson Drew Campbell said the ministry expects the program to be launched in the summer of 2021.

“Ontario is well positioned to become a global supplier, producer and manufacturer of choice of critical minerals, such as nickel, copper and cobalt,” he said. “OJEP will help generate investment in early exploration, expand the pipeline of mineral development projects, and eventually lead to more mine construction and jobs in the province.”

Garry Clark, president of the Ontario Prospectors Association, said the new program was something his association had requested for a long time. “Most of the provinces already have these types of programs. … It makes it harder to attract companies to come to Ontario to explore [without such a program] even though we’ve got great rocks.”

Clark said the OPA is currently in negotiations with the province on whether his association will help to disburse the funds. Campbell said the ministry hasn’t yet finalized the program delivery details.

The province previously administered two similar programs called the Ontario Mineral Incentive Program and the Ontario Prospectors Assistance Program, which were wrapped up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “They were very successful and assisted in finding a whole bunch of different projects,” Clark said.

The OPA had also run a similar support program for juniors more recently called the Junior Exploration Assistance Program, with a $5 million budget supplied by the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund. The program helped finance exploration costs that led to Great Bear Resources’ discovery of high-grade gold zones at its Dixie project in Red Lake, which received the Northwestern Ontario Prospectors Association’s 2018 “Bernie Schnieders Discovery of the Year Award.”

Clark said he hoped to see the OJEP follow a similar qualification threshold as the previous government programs, which only required that applicant companies not be producing miners, something that he said would allow a combination of listed and unlisted junior mining companies to qualify.

Campbell said the ministry is “currently in the process of developing the program parameters.”

The budget also included a nod to the province’s in-development critical minerals strategy, which Minister of Northern Development and Mines Greg Rickford announced at the 2021 PDAC Convention. The strategy, which is set to be released in the fall, is aimed at making Ontario a major jurisdiction for critical minerals, including rare earth elements, which can be used in electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines, car catalysts and more. The province’s proposed critical minerals list also includes nickel, platinum group elements, zinc, titanium, vanadium, chromite, graphite and more.

“We are confident this [strategy] will generate investment, reduce red tape, create jobs and advance Indigenous participation in the sector,” Rickford said in a March press release. “Local and global markets, including Ontario-based industries, are looking for reliable, responsibly-sourced critical minerals and we are ready to capitalize on this growing market demand.”

The budget also allocated an additional $2.9 million to Ontario Mine Rescue’s annual funding to address the growth of new mining operations in the province, bringing the division of Workplace Safety North’s total yearly operating budget to just under $8 million.

“As more mining sites come into operation, this funding will ensure we can provide the resources and training needed so more brave women and men can re-enter mines in emergencies and save lives,” said Monte McNaughton, minister of labour, training and skills development, in an April press release.

Ted Hanley, vice-president of Ontario Mine Rescue, said the funding will be used to purchase new rescue equipment and supplies for the eight “districts” Ontario Mine Rescue operates in, and conduct additional underground mine rescue training at new and existing mines.

Hanley pointed to the Southern Ontario district, which has seen an increase in workers to the three mines operating there, and the Algoma district, where Newmont’s Borden mine and Harte Gold’s Sugar Zone mine have opened in the past few years. Thunder Bay, he added, is expecting two to three new mines in the next three years. He also noted that the organization works with some exploration phase companies and begins training workers as soon as companies begin construction on a new underground mine.

“We’re going to hire more mine rescue operators and make more training available to mines that they were at risk of not keeping up with,” Hanley said.

The organization is also planning to roll out an electronic communications system for underground mine rescue — a significant technological advancement in the way mine rescue is done. “For the previous 85 years, mine rescue teams had gone into mines with pencil and paper and either had no means of talking to surface, or had something pretty ordinary like a handheld radio where they communicated by voice,” Hanley said.

Ontario Mine Rescue plans to leapfrog off multiple mines’ use of underground WiFi and LTE to deploy ruggedized tablets with built-in software that allows mine rescuers to communicate with their surface-level team members. “That allows the team to communicate back and forth to make safer, quicker decisions in an emergency,” he said.

“We’re well aware that only a third of mines in the province have moved to a more robust communications infrastructure, but the speed at which more mines are adopting it is very impressive and encouraging.”

Hanley said the technology, which has been in development since 2015, will put Ontario at the forefront of mine rescue globally. “As simple as it sounds, for mine rescue we’re the first organization in the world to do that.”

Kelsey Rolfe is a Toronto-based freelance writer who specializes in the mining industry.


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