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Mining the Northwest: A groundbreaking day in Greenstone

Dignitaries toss dirt, tout the long-term benefits at the start of construction of $1.5-billion Greenstone Gold Mine project
Rickford at Greenstone Gold sodturning
Groundbreaking ceremony at the Greenstone Gold Mines construction start, Oct. 27. (Greg Rickford Facebook photo)

Long Lac #58 Chief Judy Desmoulin shared her inspiring moment on Oct. 27 to mark the start of construction of the Greenstone Gold Mine.

Upon entering the project site, two of her community members came running up to her to enthusiastically explain their jobs in the early stage of the $1.5-billion development.

"This is what makes it all worth it." said Desmoulin, who wore a traditional Anishinaabe outfit topped by a white hardhat at the podium in delivering her congratulatory remarks at the spot where Equinox Gold and Orion Mine Finance are carving out an open-pit mine and processing plant.

The ceremony also included an Indigenous blessing and remarks from the leadership of the mining companies, the Municipality of Greenstone, Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, Aroland First Nation, Ginoogaming First Nation, Métis Nation of Ontario, all of whom stand to benefit from training, employment and business spinoff opportunities.

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The mine has been 14 years in the making since Thunder Bay's Ewan Downie, then head of Premier Gold, and his team first began prospecting around the former MacLeod-Cockshutt underground gold mine near the intersection of Highways 11 and 584, three kilometres south of the town of Geraldton.

What followed were many exhaustive, sometimes argumentative, discussions between the prospective mine developers and the area communities to ensure there were profits to be made and local jobs created, but also safeguards in place to protect the land and water and ensure that the mine would be run in an environmentally responsible way.

The mine will deliver a much-needed economic boost to a region that's experienced the highs and lows of the cyclical nature of resource development. The first gold pour is slated for mid-2024.

The Greenstone Gold Mine will employ, on average, 550 people over the three-year build and employ 450 miners when in operation. They'll be a need for construction workers, heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, crane operators, welders and millwrights during the construction phase and over the mine's 14-year life. 

Many of those opportunities will go to members in area Indigenous communities.

"This project has really brought us together, it got us talking," said Desmoulin of how the proposed mine brought the area communities together to make sure all might benefit to make the whole area stronger.

It was red letter day too for Greenstone Mayor Renald Beaulieu who called the mine one of his municipality's "biggest achievements" over his 23 years in office.

"I remember the first time we talked about this project," Beaulieu said in directing his remarks toward Downie, now CEO of Nevada-based i-80 Gold, who was in attendance.

"I can't believe what I'm seeing," said Beaulieu, as excavators and dump trucks worked in the background.

"You had a vision and I commend you for it," he said to Downie. "You will make a huge difference for us."

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Through 12 years of engaging and building relationships with local communities, Beaulieu praised the efforts of Greenstone citizens and area First Nation leadership for pulling together to work with the company to make progress and create jobs for today and future generations.

"It's not a sin to say there's a profit in the mine."

Greenstone Gold Mines is a 60-40 joint venture partnership between Equinox Gold and Orion Mine Finance. The companies took over the mine-ready project last December, replacing Premier Gold and Centerra Gold as project co-developers.

"We want to build one of the great gold mines here," said Christian Milau, CEO of Equinox, who declared Greenstone Gold already one of its cornerstone assets.

Established in 2017, Equinox has quickly become owners of seven gold mines in North and South America, including one being finished up in Brazil over the next couple months.

Milau said his company's stated intention is to ambitiously create "one of great gold mining companies in the world" in aiming for excellence in responsible mining.

"We plan to prove that to you here."

Milau said they will be an industry leader in environmental stewardship and social responsibility by forming true partnerships with First Nations and municipalities. He said they intend to follow best industry practices that involve a clean-up of legacy on-surface mine waste from historic mining operations with plans to leave the place in better shape than they found it.

The mine currently has five million ounces of gold in the ground with likely more to be discovered through ongoing exploration. Milau said Greenstone will be a multi-generational mine and certainly "transformative" for the area.

They'll be widespread opportunities for many to receive training, employment and participate, through business ventures, he said, through the mining phases of construction, operation and mine closure and remediation.

Equinox chairman Ross Beatty compared development of a mine to a marriage where the relationship can be rocky at times but he urged all parties to continue to work together to solve problem through open communication.

With a small operating and environmental footprint, Beatty said the objective of his company is showcase Greenstone as a prime example of how responsible mining can improve lives and communities.

"The one thing about this business of mining is it can be a tremendous make things better," Beatty said.

The mine that will produce 400,000 ounces over a 14-year mine life, generating $800 million of value annually, he said.

"And that's the engine that's going to create better roads and schools, better hospitals and communities. Jobs for your kids, taxes for the government, returns for the shareholders. And it's going to go on for year after year after year."

Most of the money generated from the operation will stay in Ontario and the area, he said. "That's the real long game we want to see come out of this."

Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources, Forestry and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said he was only too happy to add another sod-turning shovel to his wall.

The Kenora-Rainy River MPP said on his watch the provincial government has helped advance more major mining projects in the last three years than in the last two decades prior, mentioning IAMGOLD's Côté Gold Project at Gogama, Harte Gold's Sugar Zone MIne in White River, Argonaut Gold's Magino pit outside Dubreuilville, and the renaissance of gold mining at Red Lake.

Key to the success of all these projects, he said, was extraordinary relationships between the provincial government, Indigenous communities and mining companies committed to building communities - "not camps" - for the greater prosperity of the region.

Rickford said Northern Ontario is experiencing a "window of prosperity" in a red-hot mineral commodities and investor market insisting upon socially responsible mining companies.

During the ceremony, references were made that Greenstone can be a stepping stone for what can be accomplished through trust and engagement when it comes to undeveloped mineral potential of the Ring of Fire, several hundred kilometres to the north in the James Bay region.

Rickford said the prospect of future development in the Ring of Fire will be marked by the "incredible Indigenous leadership we have seen here today."