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Ontario is a tough place to do mineral exploration

Prospectors' group wants revisions in provincial plans, permitting process to attract investment, improve Indigenous relations

An onerous permitting process, Indigenous relations and project financing continue to be a hindrance to Ontario’s exploration and prospecting community.

Growing wait times for exploration permitting in Ontario and other provinces were the subject of a Fraser Institute report released in July.

The survey of mining executives, conducted in 2017, indicated industry and investors were losing confidence in the province’s exploration permitting regime with applications taking longer to be processed and approved. 

The polling was done before the province officially made the switch from traditional claim staking to digital map staking earlier this year.

Ontario Prospectors Association (OPA) executive director Garry Clark, who was not surveyed, read the report from cover to cover and concurs with its findings.

“The reality is Ontario does stand out as being one of the hardest (jurisdictions) to permit.”

In taking the temperature of his members, Clark said the permitting process is becoming harder in Ontario to the point where junior miners have expressed concern that they can’t obtain permits in a timely fashion.

The timing of this year’s provincial election proved particularly exasperating as no exploration permits were processed from the time the writ was dropped on May 8 until after a new cabinet was named in late June. A similar stoppage occurred last winter during a brief map-staking transition period.

Up until then, Clark said Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNDM) staff did a good job of processing permit applications within the prescribed 55-day period.

In the Fraser report, 83 per cent of respondents in Ontario said permit wait times had lengthened over the last decade, with 71 per cent of respondents indicating that they received the necessary permits in six months or less.

“Three months is considered too long,” said Clark, when it comes to taking advantage of times during the year when the ground is firm or frozen enough to do exploration work.

“If I apply for a permit in December and I don’t get it until March, I’ve missed the winter season.”

The permitting process is just one challenge, among many others, facing the industry.

“Somewhere, someone has to grasp how we deal with the Indigenous communities,” mentioned Clark.

In July, following a ruling by the Ontario Divisional Court, an exploration permit approved for Landore Resources was revoked on the basis of inadequate consultation with Eabametoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

The government’s error in granting the permit has had a chilling effect on the industry, Clark said.

It’s led the industry to call into question how the permitting process is carried out and how the decision is made on who must be consulted.

In the Fraser report, 50 per cent of Ontario respondents cited the lack of transparency as a deterrent to investment.

Currently, when ground is digitally staked, companies and prospectors receive an email on their online dashboard account alerting them as to which communities they must consult.

“It would be nice to know ahead of time before you acquire the ground,” Clark said.

He believes junior mining companies should have access to maps outlining First Nation traditional lands in areas where they plan to do fieldwork. That information is not provided by MNDM to the public or the exploration industry.

In some cases, there are overlapping traditional territories among tribal councils.

On the flip side of the transparency issue, Clark explained a First Nation community might voice concerns about an exploration project to a ministry liaison that the province might dismiss as insignificant. 

The government then proceeds to issue an exploration permit, which only upsets the community. When consultation matters go before the courts, First Nations usually win.

“What should have happened is that the person handling the file on the ministry’s side should (have given) the junior company a briefing on what they heard,” said Clark, allowing the company to address it directly with the community.

With a more pro-development government in place in Queen’s Park, it’s not clear if there’ll be any major changes in the plans and permitting regime.

Clark and Ontario Mining Association president Chris Hodgson have upcoming plans to meet with Greg Rickford, the provincial minister handling the combined Energy, Northern Development and Mines, and Indigenous Affairs portfolios.

Down the road, Clark would like to see industry dialogue starting with First Nations as soon as claims are acquired. When projects move to the permitting stage, regulatory plans should be in place for activities that are truly impactful on the ground.

“Right now, we don’t have to have a permit or a plan to do an airborne survey because airspace is federal. You could plan to do an airborne survey and it’s right in the middle of the goose hunt. You’re flying over a prime hunting area. That has incensed First Nation communities before, and it makes sense.” 

And instead of requiring companies to give the government advance mobilization and demobilization notice on the specific time when they plan to do exploration work, Clark suggested merely including in a permit’s terms and conditions what time of the year First Nations want industry to stay off the land.

He has mixed views on whether there needs to be less government involvement in the consultation process and more autonomy given to exploration firms to do community engagement.

About 70 per cent of companies doing exploration in Ontario come from outside the province and need a certain amount of government hand-holding to dialogue with First Nations, he said.

On the project financing side, Clark said grassroots exploration desperately needs a boost.

The market remains tough for companies to raise under a million dollars for smaller exploration plays. Many times, work gets deferred and promising ground stays inactive.

Clark would like to see a dedicated government program similar to the successful Junior Exploration Assistance Program (JEAP), introduced in 2015 by the previous Wynne government.

About $300,000 remains of the original $5 million in funding for the now-expired program. Some 50 companies tapped into JEAP to do geophysical work and first-stage drilling work that resulted in discoveries across the North.

Combined with the money the companies themselves invested, Clark said those funding dollars were well spent in communities across the North for accommodations, food, fuel, and assay labs.