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Dubreuilville gears up for growth

Gold mine construction means plenty of planning for northeastern Ontario wilderness community

Melanie Pilon will soon be putting out the call for skilled and entrepreneurial-minded Dubreuilville ex-pats to come home.

That's the primary audience for the economic development officer in the secluded northeastern Ontario community as excitement builds over news that Argonaut Gold is pressing ahead with construction of its Magino open-pit gold mine next January.

The mine project, 14 kilometres southeast of town, will be the second such operation in the vicinity of the mainly francophone community of 600.

Alamos' Island Gold underground mine, Argonaut's next-door neighbour, is one of Canada's most productive operations, and continues to expand. Their workforce of more than 500 draws close to 200 locals and those from surrounding communities. 

"This project is great for Dubreuilville; it's right in our backyard," said Pilon of the development nearly a decade in the making. 

"It was welcome news in a kind of a yucky COVID time."

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No official sod-turning date has been set, but the company expects the first gold pour to take place in 2023.

Gearing up for growth and the sudden influx of people related to the US$380-million development means a sizeable to-do list for town officials like Pilon.

The construction workforce of 400 to 600, expected to arrive for the two-year build in early 2021, could almost double the town's population.

Big contracting firms usually provide their own modular accommodations. The challenge is finding an adequate place in Dubreuilville to park them.

"That's the biggest problem," said Pilon. "We're a small municipality so we have limited space within our boundaries."

Dubreuilville is a former – and legendary – forestry town, built on the backs of the Dubreuil brothers in the 1960s.

The sawmill closed in 2008 and a Québec demolition company – the current owners of the property – are tearing down the buildings this fall.

A cleared mill site would seem ideal to place the construction crews, but potential contamination could limit its uses.

"The mill site has to remain of industrial use," said Pilon. "We're not able to change the zoning to residential."

Should that land be unavailable, the township might opt to extend its boundaries to create room for industrial, commercial and residential uses.

Still, the township is eyeballing the mill property for a future industrial park for mining service and supply companies.

With six gold mines operating within a 200-kilometre radius, plus a frenzy of exploration going on, the municipality envisions Dubreuilville as a mine service centre.

"That has always been our goal," said Pilon.

Acquisition talks with the Québec owners have settled into a wait-and-see mode as demolition work finishes up.

By the time the permanent mine workforce of 350 arrives for 2023, Pilon said they'll be a need for bunkhouses and residential serviced lots to attract families.

"Right now, we're just walking through the steps, day by day. We're going to try to sell the space that we have, and kind of build out as necessary.

"I've read prior studies that once Magino comes online our population will increase by 300 to 400 people. I don't put a lot of stock into those kinds of things. We have 12 serviced lots. If we can get 12 families into Dubreuilville that would be amazing."

As with other remote mining operations in Northern Ontario, she expects a large transient workforce for Magino.

"There has to be."

And she'll be relying on nearby communities like Wawa and White River to accommodate the population overflow.

Pilon, who lives in Wawa, 74 kilometres away from Dubreuilville, is used to the 45-minute commute, when not working from home.

"It's the norm. People are willing to travel. It's just part of our DNA of what we're willing to do."

Though Argonaut is committed to hiring as many locals as possible, Pilon said the area's population base – within 100 kilometres – would come close to filling the available positions. And there's always fierce competition for skilled labour.

The company needs tradespeople such as millwrights and electricians, and is looking to fill professional positions, including geologists and engineers.

"This is one of many enormous projects this region," Pilon said, mentioning the construction start of IAMGOLD's Côté open-pit project in Gogama.

From her dealings with Alamos Gold, she expects Magino will create numerous spinoff opportunities, especially in the mechanical, hospitality and dormatory-accommodation fields.

"We've been working with Argonaut and Alamos to learn how local businesses can become involved in their procurement."

The initial focus for Dubreuilville's residential and workforce attraction campaign will be an appeal to former community residents and those within the French-speaking community. Much of the town's infrastructure, like the local school, is geared to francophones.

She'll also be stepping up her efforts to provide English instruction in town.

"That's something we have had a number of conversations with school boards from time to time," said Pilon. "But in terms of resident attraction, it's a really big one."

A big attraction tool should be in place next year to finally address Dubreuilville's chronically poor internet service.

With government funding in hand, Dubreuilville will be the first of nine communities in the North Superior Regional Broadband Network to have upgraded fibre-optics in place by the fourth quarter of 2021.

"It's a huge thing if we want to attract anyone here," Pilon said.