Six months is an eternity in politics, but that’s how long it’s been since the Ontario government made a series of announcements at this year’s Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention in Toronto, which were intended to show the province’s support for the mining sector.
Shortly after PDAC wrapped up, however, the provincial government found itself dealing with Covid-19. The $10.5 million in financial support for mining businesses in northern Ontario, one of their key PDAC announcements, would soon be dwarfed by the massive expenditures required to keep the province’s economy afloat.
But now, the provincial government is turning its attention back to the mining sector to pick up where it left off at PDAC. To this end, Greg Rickford, Ontario Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, as well as the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, took part in the announcement of a series of initiatives on Aug. 20 between Saskatchewan-based uranium producer Cameco (TSX: CCO) and Ontario-based nuclear energy generator Bruce Power.
One of those initiatives is the creation of a new Centre for Next Generation Nuclear in Ontario, which will study small modular reactors (SMRs) and medical isotopes. As well, it was announced that Cameco would be supplying Bruce Power with 1600 specialized fuel bundles for the nuclear power plant’s Unit 6, which is scheduled to restart in 2024.
Minister Rickford spoke to The Northern Miner just before returning to his home riding of Kenora-Rainy River.
The Northern Miner: Can you give us an update on what’s happened since the government signed an agreement at PDAC earlier this year to advance the planning and development of the Northern Road Link into the Ring of Fire?
Greg Rickford: I said at PDAC, in March, that we’ve identified road access as vital. As somebody who has lived and worked extensively in many of those communities, the corridor is as much about the physical access connecting them to the south as it is about connecting to a prospective resource development project, like the Ring of Fire.
Now, there was a pause of fairly significant proportions for the duration of stage 1, but more recently some of the activities relating to moving the environmental assessments (EA) forward with two communities, Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations, have restarted. I’ve been in regular contact with Chief [Cornelius] Wabasse, from Webequie, directly, on some local, community opportunities around infrastructure.
TNM: What about the other Indigenous communities that were not part of the initial agreement?
GR: Well, in addition, we are hopeful that we can create an opportunity for a dialogue with Neskantaga and Eabametoong [First Nations], but that has been held back a little bit by Covid. But we hope in the not too distant future we can start to have substantive discussions with those communities.
TNM: And then what about the mining sector?
GR: I’ve also spoken to Al Coutts [president and chief executive of Noront Resources (TSX-V: NOT)] pretty regularly, and I don’t think it’s any secret that we’re hopeful that they’ll proceed with their EA on a mining operation. And we’re in discussion with the federal government to that end, to take a look at the impact assessment process.
TNM: Last December, the Ontario government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the governments of Saskatchewan and New Brunswick on developing and deploying SMRs. Is this initiative still moving forward?
GR: This is one of the most exciting developments in the energy sector, though there was a pause when everything was in stage 1 and very little was going on. But now things are picking up again. Alberta is going to become a signatory to that MOU. We’ve also had preliminary conversations with other provinces and territories. And that second wave of interest in the MOU ranges from a basic desire to keep tabs on where the technology is going, to the more serious case of Alberta, to see it as an energy solution.
And there’s been a commitment by both Saskatchewan and Ontario to lead the charge on SMRs, to a made in Ontario, made in Canada technology that has applications for our country, and around the world.
TNM: You have also been quoted talking about the way SMRs can be used for more than just producing energy. What exactly are you referring to?
GR: Well, it became clear that isotope production needed to be stepped up, and also that in planning for the future, there would be a demand for medical isotope production. So, we hope that as early as the winter to convene an expert forum on SMR technologies.
You know, the SMR conversation could, in five or six years from now, it could be talking about medical isotope production in places in Canada that we never conceived of. And, additionally, to provide reliable, clean energy to places that historically didn’t have access to energy outside of sources like diesel- and gas-fired [power plants].
TNM: How important is the mining sector for Ontario, and Canada, when it comes to the economic recovery from the pandemic?
GR: We’ve committed to put mining at the forefront and be a significant part of Ontario’s and especially Northern Ontario’s recovery. To the extent that the city of Toronto is the corporate epicentre of mining, [we want] to set a fire on Bay Street and let people know that we’re on the move.
In a conversation I had just [recently] with Minister [Seamus] O’Regan (Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources), he said that when it comes right down to it, mining is one of the big bang sectors that could potentially move us through this pandemic and start an important part of our economic recovery, and most notably in Ontario.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)