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OPINION: Sustainable solutions needed for remote mining

The most significant mineral discoveries in Canada the last two decades are the base-metal deposits found in the Ring of Fire.
Douglas Morrison, president and CEO, Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation; network director, Ultra-Deep Mining Network in Sudbury.

The most significant mineral discoveries in Canada the last two decades are the base-metal deposits found in the Ring of Fire.

The discoveries were made five years ago in the midst of a global economic crisis from which no economy has completely recovered. It is unreasonable to expect that any mineral deposit in a very remote region could be in production by 2016.

No one, not government, not industry, not Aboriginal communities, are to blame for the current hiatus in developing new mines in the Far North. Starting a new mine anywhere in Canada is very difficult.

For the last decade, Canada has been making major changes to the political relationships with Aboriginal communities. Some have gained, or retrieved, complete political control of the territories they inhabit, and many others are on a trajectory to achieve something similar, if in a more piecemeal or less organized fashion. The process may be slow and difficult but it is long overdue, and it is unstoppable.

The living conditions in most Northern communities in Ontario – not seen in the rest of the country for more than 80 years — are unacceptable in today’s Canada. The improvement in national living standards over this period was the result of an increase in economic activity that has yet to be re-introduced in the remote communities. I say “re-introduced” because all traditional communities in Ontario used to engage in the barter for goods and services in the fur trade. This will never regain the global importance it once had, but the development of mineral resources can provide an economic foundation.

This is globally important for mining because most new deposits will be developed in remote regions through negotiation with local inhabitants by respecting their cultural processes, and by raising living standards. Mining builds communities. But the interface between traditional lifestyles and modern business has to be permeable in both directions; companies must respect cultural traditions, and remote communities have to accept the pace at which mining projects must progress. They have to attract capital and provide an adequate return, and to achieve this companies need timely and reliable decision-making processes. We have to use this economic downturn as an opportunity to learn how to make this work in the future.

There is growing recognition that alternative electricity generation systems have remote applications, but the next step will be accepting the need for alternative transportation systems for year-round access. The dramatic expansion of developed economies after the Second World War was based on massive investment in road and rail, enabling and accelerating the movement of goods and services. Without year-round transportation, the social infrastructure in remote communities cannot be improved. Bringing in alternative generating and water treatment systems by ice road can only be done by reducing all other supplies. And climate change is making this worse.

Roads and railways are costly transportation solutions in the temperate climatic zones. The Darien Gap in Panama is in jungle too dense to build a road. Flying is an expensive option that is high risk during adverse weather conditions. Hover technology is well- proven over various terrains.

Significant change in accessing remote areas is possible, but it must be self-sustaining. We need three things: the political will to make changes to social infrastructure in Northern communities within a decade, the acceptance that conventional approaches are too slow and expensive to achieve this, and the openness to try things that have ‘not been tried here before.’ This does not mean research studies or inventing something new. It means trying practical solutions that can be deployed quickly and operated by Northern communities. A socially sustainable system.

And when the global mining industry is ready to invest in new deposits, Northern communities will be prepared to accelerate the development to create an economic foundation for themselves and a stronger economy for everyone.