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Timmins' George Pirie takes the helm as mines minister

Expediting mine development in critical minerals and in the Ring of Fire on the new minister's radar
Pirie Webequie Chief Cornelus (Michael Fox LinkedIn photo)
George Pirie (centre), Ontario's new mines minister, chats with consultant Michael Fox and Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse. (Michael Fox LinkedIn photo)

“We can’t be green if we’re not mining.”

Ontario’s new mines minister, George Pirie, mentioned that phrase a handful of times during an interview this week in commenting on the desire of governments in Canada and globally to rapidly transition into net-zero emission economies over the next decade.

With major multi-billion-dollar investments being made into electric vehicle battery component plants in Windsor and Kingston, Pirie said mining is crucial to supply these facilities with the necessary raw materials to build these clean technologies.

“None of this is gonna happen unless we mine the battery minerals, if we’re going to be successful.”

The former Timmins mayor and mining industry veteran eases into the new job after the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines was split off into new portfolios in the naming of Premier Doug Ford’s new cabinet in late June. Pirie was handed the mining file; Greg Rickford will focus on Northern development and retains Indigenous affairs.

A special mandate for Pirie will be to develop the Ring of Fire in the James Bay region. The remote, untapped Far North mineralized region contains many of the so-called critical minerals needed to produce batteries for electric vehicle manufacturers. 

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Pirie appears to be Ontario’s first standalone mines minister since Alan Lawrence, who served in the position in the John Robarts government from 1968-1970.

Pirie, who said he had no prior knowledge of his appointment until swearing-in day in late June, suspects his placement in cabinet is due to the emphasis the premier is placing on achieving the goals set forth in the province’s Critical Minerals strategy released last March.

He takes on the job in the midst of a mining and exploration boom in Northern Ontario.

Current mines are expanding, new mines are under construction, drills are turning and millions are being spent on exploration programs in just about every corner of the region. The search is on for new sources of nickel, copper, platinum group metals and lithium, among others, all key ingredients in the battery supply chain and for other vital technical applications.

For Pirie, the creation of a separate mines ministry is not only about keeping the “momentum going,” but boosting it.

At the Energy and Mines MInisters’ Conference in St. John’s NL last month, Pirie said it was “music to my ears” to hear the sense of urgency in which federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson wants to make the green transition, spurred by the Ukraine war and removal of 20 per cent of Russian nickel from the global market and government’s eagerness to move off fossil fuels.

Pirie said the message meshed with the Ontario’s Critical Minerals Strategy, which seems to be the playbook from which his ministry will be operating from.

One of the mantras of the Ford government’s first term was cutting regulatory red tape. When it comes to the mining industry, long permit wait times have been a chronic complaint of company CEOs for years, a concern shared by Pirie from his days as a senior mining executive.

An initiative within the province’s Critical Minerals Strategy, he said, will improve the regulatory environment throughout the entire mineral sector. 

Another area of focus, he said, is ensuring Ontario has the federal government on board as a “willing and full partner” in funding road studies to the Ring of Fire, extending broadband north and doing their part toward “streamlining the regulatory environment that is required if these projects are going to get done in a meaningful time frame.”

Pirie recalls the days when major mineral discoveries could be put into production within three years.

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“Now it’s at least 12 to 15 years… as minister of mines, we can certainly do better than that.” 

Lending more uncertainty to the development timelines in the Ring of Fire is Ottawa’s Regional Assessment process, a new and untested region-wide approach to study the impact of industry development in the James Bay area.

Then-federal environment minister Wilkinson called for this process to be applied in the Ring of Fire area more than two years ago. But according to Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, the Regional Assessment process hasn’t officially started. It’s still in the early terms of reference stage.

Not overly keen on the process, Pirie said the feds have promised, whenever this assessment process begins, it will "not interfere with the (Ring of Fire) road permitting at all.”

But he stressed the importance of getting the process right the first time and not letting world-class deposits in Ontario languish in the bureaucracy.

“That is ultimately wrong and, again, we can do better than that.,”  

Red tape cutting aside, Pirie acknowledges nothing will be accomplished without the support and participation of First Nations. 

He mentioned being in Webequie last week, the closest community to the Ring of Fire claims, where he had an “incredibly positive meeting” with Chief Cornelius Wabasse and Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum. The two communities are proponents of the all-season mine and community road projects. .

Their aspirational goals are to improve the well-being of their communities and provide a prosperous future for their younger generation. 

“They want to see their kids educated, want to see their communities grow, they want to see the economic benefits that should accrue to any community in Ontario or Canada.”

Pirie said one only has to look at the east side of James Bay to see the benefits of what resource development and participation has delivered for the Québec Cree communities.

As executive vice-president with Placer Dome, Pirie was in charge of negotiations to reach an impact benefit agreement (IBA) with five communities near the remote Musselwhite gold mine in northwestern Ontario.

Pirie said he knew the agreement was successful when some of the non-signatory communities were asking the company to consider exploring in their traditional territories. 

It was a point of pride with the company that the water used in the Musselwhite processing plant was discharged back into the environment in a cleaner state than what was drawn into the facility.

These industry success stories and best practices can be pointed out to counter the campaigns of environmental activists and address some of the reticence of Indigenous communities fearful of mine development in the Far North, Pirie said.

“Canadian miners are the best miners in the world.”

Pirie said the province has great tools to build regional consensus and achieve economic reconciliation, mentioning resource revenue sharing, introduced by the province in 2019.

But the best approaches have been taken in the relationship building between the mining companies and the progressive leadership of some Indigenous communities in signing IBAs to partner on projects. He cited the example of the IBA signed between Taykwa Tagamou Nation and Canada Nickel Company. 

“These companies are doing things correctly because they’ve got enlightened management,” Pirie said. “If you’ve got good relationships with First Nation partners, anything’s possible.”