Interview: Michael Gravelle beats the drum for Ontario at PDAC

Michael Gravelle, Ontario Minister of Northern Development and Mines.Michael Gravelle, Ontario Minister of Northern Development and Mines.

The 2015 Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference kicked off with announcement that the Ontario and federal governments will be investing  funds to support development in northwestern Ontario.

On March 1 Michael Gravelle, Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development and Mines, and Greg Rickford, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario, announced that the two governments will each invest $393,814 to enable the Webequie First Nation, in partnership with the First Nations of Eabametoong, Neskantaga and Nibinamik, to study a regional community service corridor. 

The study will examine the benefits of developing an all-season transportation corridor connecting First Nation communities in the area with existing roadways, in order to capitalize on resource development opportunities in the region, including in the Ring of Fire, 540 km northeast of Thunder Bay.

The provincial government also announced plans to renew its 2006 Mineral Development Strategy (MDS), with fresh input from stakeholders. Over the next three months, the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines will host workshops across Ontario to provide industry, Aboriginal communities, and other community partners the opportunity to respond to the proposed themes for a renewed MDS and set priorities to strengthen the sector.

The Northern Miner caught up with Gravelle on the sidelines during the conference.

The Northern Miner: The Fraser Institute recently ranked Ontario twenty-third internationally in terms of its Attractiveness Index, a drop of nine spots from a year ago, and in the same category the province ranked ninth in Canada, after B.C., Nunavut and Nova Scotia. How do you explain Ontario’s drop in the rankings of the survey, and what should the province be doing to improve before the survey next year?

Michael Gravelle: We understand that the Fraser Institute is an opinion survey, and I appreciate that, but what I have been saying and will continue to say, is that we need to look at the facts in terms of Ontario being an extremely attractive jurisdiction in terms of mineral investment, and the facts are, that in 2014, our mineral exploration dollars were over $500 million. When one goes back to 2003, I think it was somewhere just below $200 million in exploration dollars being spent. It’s number one in the country, in terms of mineral exploration. I think 26% of all mineral exploration in Canada is happening in Ontario. When one looks at the actual production of our minerals, we were above $11 billion dollars in 2014.

I’m not going to say that there aren’t challenges. We recognize the market challenges and the commodity market challenges, but there continue to be new mines that are opening up in the province of Ontario. It’s not a terribly well-known statistic, but over the last 10 years, 24 mines have opened up in the province of Ontario. We have 43 operating mines in production right now, which are employing well over 25,000 people, we have a mining supply and services sector — there are something like 900 companies that are providing those services — so those are impressive.

And when one looks, even in the last couple of months, at Goldcorp’s purchase of Probe Mines, or if one looks at Centerra making a decision to invest $300 million in partnership with Premier Gold Mines for the Hardrock project in the Geraldston greenstone area, that’s a very strong signal. When Goldcorp made its announcement about Probe, that was also seen as a strong indication of confidence in the Ontario market. New Gold has a big project in the Rainy River area of the province, this is a $750-million capital spend on a gold project where both the provincial and federal environmental assessments have been approved. They’re underground doing some work right now. There’s a new mine opening up — Rubicon Minerals is opening up the Phoenix gold project this year, it’s been commissioned … my point is that the survey is a survey. I actually think what we need to be looking at is what is happening on the ground and how can we continue to support the industry, and our ministry has always focused on that.

Despite all the challenges, we have a good story to tell. I’ve told this story 100 times, but when I first became minister, very early on, in the early days in my job back in 2007, I was talking to a president of a mining company who had been in the industry for more than 35 years. He told me that the only thing I had to understand is that this is a cycle industry, there are going to be ups and there are going to be downs, and I have been through three or four of them.

Again, that is not to say that we don’t always want to be looking at what measures we can do as a government. That’s why we modernized the Mining Act, and that’s why [at the opening of the Ontario Pavilion] we’ll be announcing a refreshment of our mineral-development strategy. We brought forward the strategy in 2006 as a way to focus on the mineral development sector.

TNM: All of this is very true, making the results of the Fraser Institute’s survey stand out all the more. Any ideas as to why the drop?

MG: To be fair, you’d have to speak to some of the people who put those views forward, and perhaps speak to some of the people in the industry. But certainly, again, discussions I’ve had with industry leaders, particularly over the last week since the survey came out, have all been positive. I will never deny the fact there are significant challenges in the mining sector. Getting capital has been tough — it’s been difficult for the junior exploration companies in particular.

I was pleased to see the federal government announce that they are going to extend the mineral tax credit — the 15% tax credit — for another year, I think, upon budget approval … I think that’s what the federal finance minister said, so I think we need to continue to work together with the federal government to find measures to continue to attract investment.

Certainly my experience over the last 24 hours, and may I say prior to that, tells me that we have lots of activity in the mining sector in the province of Ontario … so we’re eager to work in as helpful a way as we can with industry, we’re eager to make sure these projects come forward in the right fashion, and I think one of the real positive changes in terms of moving projects forward has been the significant consultation that has taken place with the aboriginal communities, First Nations and Métis Nation of Ontario, and we’re seeing real successes — challenging as that might be — we’re seeing real successes in the industry.

TNM: There has been some criticism of the Mining Act amendments regarding First Nations consultations. Can you discuss that?

MG: There has been a very clear embracing of the fact that in order for a mining project to move forward in any part of the province, particularly in the remote part of the province like the Ring of Fire, that the relationship with the First Nations, the ability to ensure that there are benefits that are able to accrue to First Nations, are vital to a project moving forward. I think it’s fair to say that we’re in a transitional phase of that process. If one looks back 10 years, maybe even five years, we were in a different landscape in terms of the understanding of industry, and indust
ry now embraces that. When you speak to the companies that I referenced — Rubicon, Goldcorp, New Gold — if you speak to any of them … they’ll tell you how important the consultation process has been, and it’s not to say it hasn’t been challenging … but it’s been the key to seeing many of these projects moving forward.

TNM: There are critics who would argue that the development of the Ring of Fire has been too slow. What is your view and how does advancing infrastructure in the Ring of Fire, for example, compare with Quebec’s advancement of Plan Nord?

MG: There have been three significant things that have happened in the last year. At the end of March last year, we signed a framework agreement on a historic, unprecedented agreement with the nine Mattawa-member First Nations to ensure that the benefits were going to the First Nations. This was a special experience, we had Bob Rae up with the Honourable Frank Iacbouchi representing the province, we signed this framework agreement and Premier Kathleen Wynne was there for the celebration. That allows us to move into phase two of the discussion. That framework agreement signing was extraordinary.

Last year we also made a commitment on behalf of the province of Ontario of $1 billion dollars to transportation infrastructure, recognizing that a project such as this in a remote part of the province requires significant infrastructure build-up to happen. So we put a $1-billion commitment on the table. As you know, there was an election, we were fortunate enough to be re-elected, we had another budget [mid-year] and the $1-billion commitment for the Ring of Fire was in the budget again, and it was no longer contingent on federal government participation.

We are keen to see the federal government match those dollars, and work with us to see those major infrastructure costs matched. We think that there is a clear jurisdictional and social responsibility for the federal government, and that’s why we were so pleased about what happened … I was standing on the stage with the Honourable Greg Rickford, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, announcing joint funding for a joint study for four of the Matawa First Nations, to look at the work that needs to be done for an all-weather transportation corridor that will have an impact on the Ring of Fire. So we need that partnership, and Rickford and I have spoken about the fact that the province believes strongly that there needs to be a more significant support from a financial point of view from the federal government, and we’re going to put together a Bill Canada application to make that happen. So that’s the second part: our $1-billion commitment — and again, this is all in the last year — and we’ve also put in place a development corporation, a Ring of Fire infrastructure-development corporation, with an interim board and the goal to bring all the partners together to make the decisions related to what are the right transportation corridor decisions.

These are significant pieces. So phase two of the negotiations with the Matawa were going on, we’re working much more closely with the federal government. I was pleased, again, to share the stage with Minister Rickford, that was good news, and to have three of the four First Nations chiefs, one of the chiefs wasn’t able to be there due to circumstances in her community. But to have the others on the stage with us, telling us they were pleased to move forward on this particular project, to me indicates progress in the Ring of Fire. And I think that there is no question that that is very much how the people I’ve spoken to feel since the announcement. I’ve spoken with municipal and industry leaders, they’re all saying this is great news and it will help us move forward.

TNM: Is there a timeline on the $1-billion commitment?

MG: It will be very much determined by the decisions that will be made by the development corporation partners. One of the attractions for me of putting together a development corporation was this can be the delivery agent, this can be the model by which we can make decisions and design and build the infrastructure.

It’s a model that has worked in other jurisdictions and other provinces, but the decisions on how that money should be spent, and when it will be spent, will be made in partnership with industry, with First Nations, with the federal government, so we’re working hard to make that comes together as agreements in principle, and get all the board members together to make those decisions.

While there are those who say things aren’t moving fast enough — it was interesting, I don’t know if you heard Mr. Thomas Mulcair speaking … he was a guest speaker at one of the events. He was saying that on the one hand, things aren’t moving quickly enough in the Ring of Fire, but in the same breath, he said you can’t move ahead unless you have the absolute partnership with the First Nations. That’s about getting it right, that’s about making sure the project really moves forward the way it must, and that’s the work we’re doing, and we’re proud of that work.

While people on the one hand tend to ask: ‘What’s happening with the Ring of Fire, why isn’t it moving forward more quickly?’ We’ve made significant progress, and what I’ve been outlining for you — that was in the last 12 months — including an election in the middle of it. So I’m not bragging. I’m just proud of it!

I feel that we’ve done some good work and I have an extraordinary level of support from the Premier, and our government and the [provincial] finance minister, who recognizes what a vital project this is. This is a multi-generational opportunity in terms of the economy of the north. It’s exciting in terms of the thousands of jobs it’s going to create, but again, we need to make sure we get it right, and that’s part of this study that was announced [March 1].

TNM: So the $1-billion commitment from the Ontario government is no longer contingent on the federal government matching dollars?

MG: The difference was that the original $1 billion was contingent on the federal government matching our dollars. And I believe that for all the right reasons, it was determined that we’re so committed to this project, we’re locked into that, it won’t stop us from continuing to put what we think is appropriate pressure on the federal government to join us in a significant way — but we felt that the $1 billion was very important.

TNM: What did you make of the decision Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE: CLF) made last year to retreat from Ontario — and Canada?

MG: Certainly everybody recognized that the withdrawal of Cliffs left us without a major proponent, in particular for the chromite project itself, but I can tell you, without telling tales out of school, there has been considerable interest expressed by a number of investors in the assets Cliffs has, and that will unfold. But there is another project put forward by Noront Resources (TSXV: NOT; OTC-MKTS: NOSOF), a nickel project, and we think it’s important for us to work closely with that company. But we’re not changing our perspective on the long-term extraordinary opportunity that the Ring of Fire offers all of us in the province of Ontario.

We view this very much as a nationally significant project, so the withdrawal of one company, and that is ultimately what it was, Cliffs is one company,
it was unfortunate when they made that decision, and I know that this chromite discovery is a high-quality chromite, [but] there are lots of other minerals in the ground at $60 billion plus.

I believe there will come a time, and I think sooner rather than later, that we’ll see more significant movement on that. That will be determined by markets as well. Commodities have a big impact on investment decisions, but we think that’s all the more reason why we’ve got to work really hard to get ourselves positioned. That’s why the work with the Matawa First Nations, and I must say the other First Nations who want to have a say in the process moving forward, the impact of a development like this. So we are not going to slacken at all in terms of our obligations to keep moving forward, which is why we want to continue to work to put our partners in place in the Development Corporation, and why we’re determined to keep doing the positive work with the First Nations and continue to put pressure on the federal government to join us.

If one looks at the entire Ring of Fire, it’s not just about building a transportation corridor to a mine, that’s how you get to the minerals. Unless we take advantage of this, and provide community access, open up the north, help communities get off diesel, provide them with opportunities for electrification, those are the large opportunities — that’s where the federal government’s role becomes important. And when you look at the release [on March 1], in terms of the shared dollars, that’s what that’s all about.

TNM: Ontario and Quebec are often compared when it comes to mining jurisdictions. Is there anything that Quebec is doing to make itself more mining friendly that you think Ontario might want to emulate, or vice versa?

MG: I’m developing a really good relationship with Minister Pierre Arcand [Quebec’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources]. And as you may know, the province of Ontario and the province of Quebec are very close. We had a joint Cabinet meeting a couple of months ago. Premier Philippe Couillard and Premier Wynne are close … there have been challenges with Plan Nord as well. If you are familiar with Plan Nord, as I think you are, you’ll know what I mean by that. So they have their challenges as well, but regardless, we’re looking at the best models, and the fact that I’m in a position to develop a good relationship with the minister responsible, is all good. We’ve looked at a lot of models. I’m going to continue to work more closely with Minister Arcand. And he’s looking at what we’re doing, too. We’ve had some pretty interesting discussions about it. We’ve got some great things happening in the mining sector right now and more to come, and I’m going to try my very best to tell that story.


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