Skip to content

OPINION: Skipping the 20th century in the northwest

Let’s just skip the 20th century in northwestern Ontario and go directly to the 21st.
David Robinson, economist at Laurentian University, and director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

It’s time to get back to the future. Take a look around at the technology of the 21st century: we have wind and solar power systems, effective power storage, satellite-based internet, small nuclear power systems for remote mines, and even modern high-capacity airships that can service the North cheaper and better than anything we have used before. All available now.

Northeastern Ontario has no roads, a tiny population, and almost no export products. We are at the very first stages of bringing the region into the global trading system. The rapidly growing world population needs the north’s metals. In fact, the world will need more metals than have been produced in in the entire history of humankind. The world also wants those metals produced with no carbon dioxide emissions.

The world will also be demanding that the partially integrated Aboriginal communities of the region are given a reasonable opportunity to develop with some autonomy and cultural protection while also being given a large share of the benefits of the global culture we live in.

Can we do what has to be done relying on 20th century technology? We certainly haven’t inherited the low-carbon technology we need from the 20th century. Our mining technologies are not up to the task of producing a lot more metal from low and declining grade reserves. Our ice roads are horribly unsatisfactory and uneconomic, and will cost more than they are worth within 15 years. 

Building all weather roads in the region will cost billions. The planned electricity transmission system will cost billions. Every new mine will cost hundreds of millions to connect to roads and transmission lines. Those roads and transmission lines are far more environmentally destructive than the mines or the communities themselves.

The truth is that developing Ontario’s northwest was not economic with the technology of the 20th century. It is still not. So let’s imagine development by a 21st century government.

We start by building the hover barge proposed by the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation at Laurentian University in Sudbury. For $20 million we can build a machine that will let construction begin at the Ring of Fire in two years. Why wait five to 10 years for the road to be completed?

Saving on ice roads would more than cover the cost of building a hover barge fleet. The ice road to the DeBeers diamond mine alone cost about $5 million a year. Eight of these hover barges could service all the Northern fly-in communities year-round for about $1 per tonne.

Hover barges could also deliver wind turbines and batteries to every remote community, providing cheaper power and eliminating all costs of diesel for generators. They would also make the $1.5-billion transmission line unnecessary. 

Hover barges are a low-tech solution that can be built today with the skills we already have in Northern Ontario. A whole family of advanced airships should hit the market about 2022. When they do, the fuel-guzzling helicopters and small fixed-wing aircraft that are the main transport across the Far North will be squeezed out of much of the market. Dirk Naumann, president-CEO of Torngat Metals, is already planning to develop his Strange Lake rare earths mine in northern Québec using the Lockheed Martin HAV, which is nearing certification in the U.S.

The French entry in the high-payload airship contest is the wonderfully named Flying Whales. Shareholders include the French forest authority, Office national des fôrets (ONF), as well as the Chinese aerospace conglomerate AVIC. The state-owned French development bank BPI France has put in 25 million euros. Production of the first of 150 machines is supposed to start in 2022.

Just slightly farther down the line are the small nuclear reactors that can power low-impact remote mines more economically than any other source.

The technology we need for cheap, fast, low-carbon development in the North is on sale now. The technology we need to provide cheaper food and better health care for Northern communities is available. It just doesn’t happen to be the 20th century technology that built southern and eastern Ontario.

So let’s just skip the 20th century in northwestern Ontario and go directly to the 21st.