Opening up Ontario's Far North to mineral development means First Nation communities will need top-notch environmental experts in their corner.
Almost as fast as major mining companies want to develop chromite and base metal deposits in the James Bay Lowlands, Thunder Bay's True Grit Consulting Ltd. intends to keep pace by their recent acquisition of a smaller consulting firm with strong First Nation ties.
In a deal closed Jan. 20, True Grit acquired Anebeaaki Environmental Inc., of Sioux Lookout, which specializes in assessing and remediating contaminated diesel fuel depots and abandoned Department of Defence radar bases in remote northern communities.
True Grit president Eric Zakrewski said Anebeaaki is a trusted name among 26 fly-in communities in northwestern Ontario.
“We wanted their reputation and their people,” said Zakrewski.
This will be True Grit's third office since Zakrewski established the company in 2006. The company expanded to Sudbury last year.
Both parties are familiar with one another teamed up on First Nation-related projects in the past.
“It's been such a good fit and we recognize this as a high growth market,” said Zakrewski.
True Grit will be able to access a large client base in a soon-to-be booming area of Ontario, while Anebeaaki management can finally offer an expanded array of services that their clients have been asking for.
“Our work is based primarily on the relationships that we've established with the communities,” said Anebeaaki manager Randy Edwards, who co-founded the six-employee Sioux Lookout firm in 1998 with Dave Cornier.
Though neither is of First Nation heritage, they have painstakingly fostered solid relationships and an understanding of the cultural sensitivities of these communities. Before the partners were in business together, they were involved in Ottawa's Environmental Issues Inventory in the early 1990s to take stock of contaminated sites on reserves.
Today, these historic liabilities are ones that Indian and Northern Affairs, Environment Canada and the Ministry of Natural Resources are pouring more funds in each year to clean up.
“Each community is different and that's key to our working with them,” said Edwards. “We've slowly built momentum up and have been really busy in the last few years.”
Their biggest challenges have been manpower and staff retention. Edwards said True Grit has a strong industrial hygiene department capable of dealing with mold contamination issues in communities.
Housing is also a major on-reserve issue with the exploding First Nations population. True Grit's civil engineering expertise and an aggregates testing lab should come in handy with subdivision planning, road, power line and infrastructure work to address resource development issues.
Zakrewski plans to bolster the Sioux Lookout office staff with 16 employees and create a 'Centre of Excellence in First Nations Services' with additional high-level engineering and other capabilities.
The town is the hub for three major tribal councils representing 20 communities that regularly meet to discuss projects and development. “That's why want to build a more significant and robust operation in Sioux Lookout.”
The combined companies could play an important future role in smoothing relations between First Nations and mining companies with the looming prospect of a chromite and multiple base metal mines at the McFauld's Lake camp.
Mine development has been driving True Grit's business at the Marathon PGM project on the north shore of Lake Superior where they are handling all of the junior miner's environmental permitting work.
While working for their First Nation clients, Anebeaaki has worked cooperatively with Hydro One, Bell Canada and the Ministry of Transportation.
“We've been hired many times to peer review projects and troubleshoot them to make sure that specific sensitive First Nations' concerns are being addressed,” said Edwards.
At McFauld's Lake, Cliffs Natural Resources and Canada Chrome, a subsidiary of KWG Resources, have hugely ambitious $1.5-billion plans to develop a chromium mine and a 350-kilometre-long ore haul railroad with processing mills to be sited somewhere in northwestern Ontario.
Getting buy-in from all the area First Nation communities is to key to make any kind of progress.
“It's not a single entity,” said Edwards. “These are 26 First Nations that have 26 different ideas on how they want to move forward with their resources and their projects.
“Some are really gung-ho and are out prospecting and staking claims. Some are more hesitant and uncertain on what it's going to bring, and are not happy in the larger political consultation regime that's set up.”
Zakrewski said it's unrealistic for the mine proponents to expect a mine and railway to be in operation by 2015 giving the massive scale of the projects and the full-blown environmental assessment work involved.
True Grit intends to assist First Nations in understanding what the impact will be on the landscape they claim as their traditional territory. It will require long-term monitoring of air and waste water emissions, disposal of tailings and other environmental programs.
“First Nations are not going to sit back and watch outside entities come in,” said Edwards. “They want to be involved as partners and be active in what's going in their traditional lands, and we're helping them to do that.”
True Grit is also making news to help forestry clients develop new facilities and processes.
The company added two vice-presidents this winter who are well-known industry heavyweights in the region.
Former Buchanan Forest Products executive Hartley Multamaki and Richard McMullen, an ex-operations manager at Thunder Bay's AbitibiBowater pulp and paper mill, both started new jobs at True Grit Jan. 4.
Multamaki will be servicing the environmental regulatory needs of the forest products and mining sectors. McMullen will serve in a general manager's role in areas of project management, continuous improvement and quality control.
Zakrewski said with dormant sawmills being bought out from big companies and revived by local interests, the struggling forest economy may be turning a corner.
The Ontario government's ongoing wood supply competition means there will be new and smaller players – many with First Nation partners – entering the market with the potential to ship specialty niche products.
In some cases, there are environmental issues with established and historical operations that need assessment work, permitting and clean-up.
“We're investing in the future and where things are going and we want to be at the forefront of that,” said Zakrewski.