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Risky business pays off for Canadian mine developers

Goodman School of Mines fireside chat yields inspirational career stories

In 1991, Catherine McLeod-Seltzer and Eira Thomas embarked on journeys that would separately launch their careers in mine development and discovery. 

In 2015, the women celebrated together as their company, Lucara Diamonds, unearthed a softball-sized diamond in Botswana.

The third largest diamond ever discovered signified the risky but rewarding nature of their industry.

McLeod-Seltzer, the chair of Bear Creek Mining, and Thomas, founder of Lucara, joined Jonathan Goodman, Laurentian University's executive in residence, for an informal, fireside chat in Sudbury, Jan. 10.

Speaking from a couch nestled beside a tiny gas fireplace, McLeod-Seltzer shared how she accepted a job running an office for a gold company in Chile in 1991.

She said the global economic climate was open and optimistic and that there was a “shiny path” in South America.

However, her father didn't necessarily agree with her decision to head to a country that had just undergone significant political upheaval, officially shifting from dictatorship to democracy the year before.

“My father had been following these events, and he tried to talk me out of going and slipped me a gold coin in case I had to flee the country if there was a coup,” laughed McLeod-Seltzer.

It was a risk, but it paid off.

She refers to the region in the early 1990s as the place where companies would “send their best and brightest as a proving ground.”

Since then, McLeod-Seltzer has become known as a “serial company builder,” working with Francisco Gold, Miramar Mining, Stornoway Diamonds, and Peru Copper, among others.

At the same time that McLeod-Seltzer was working in Chile, Thomas was backpacking through South Africa and wound up signing up for graduate work when she got a call from her father.

“He said: ‘Hey, guess what? Diamonds have been discovered in the Northwest Territories. You’ve got to get home,’” said Thomas.

She responded, “What are you talking about, dad? There are no diamonds in Canada; everybody knows that.”

But she found herself proven wrong and wound up leading the Aber Resources’ field exploration team that discovered Diavik, Canada’s second diamond mine.

McLeod-Seltzer and Thomas shared how the tight-knit nature of the community has allowed them to build strong teams.

“It's a very collegial industry; we all know each other,” said McLeod-Seltzer.

Despite working in a risky industry, McLeod-Seltzer and Thomas have both leveraged their experience for success.

“When we look at risk and we look at jurisdictions, I don’t think there’s a place on the planet that has no risks,” said Thomas. “You have to look at total risk; we have to look at getting the right balance. It might have low geological risk, but politically it might be more challenging.”

And when Lucara acquired the Karowe mine from De Beers in Botswana, the risk paid off when they found their giant gemstone.

Bruce Jago, executive director of the Goodman School of Mines, hopes the comradery within the industry resonates with the public.

“We wanted to get the community and industry together,” said Jago. “It's more freewheeling than a PowerPoint. This, you're watching people answer with spontaneity and honesty.”