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Mining the Northwest: MineConnect makes inroads in northwestern Ontario

A 2020 rebranding and a pan-Northern approach has improved the visibility and diversity of mining supplier association
MineConnect executive director Marla Tremblay hosting a reception at the Prosperity Northwest trade show in Thunder Bay (Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce Facebook photo)

A regional mining supply industry association is making inroads into northwestern Ontario, an area that’s been gaining attention and investment for its gold and high-tech mineral potential.

Marla Tremblay, executive director of MineConnect, said in the past year they’ve tripled their membership from Thunder Bay and the northwest, and are working with the city’s economic development office to better promote the region and its suppliers to the world.  

Within the last year, Tremblay said membership from the northwest has increased from 10 to 30.

Tremblay was recently at the Prosperity Northwest business-to-business tradeshow in Thunder Bay, an event her organization co-hosted.

“It’s been our biggest growth area, no question.”

She places MineConnect’s overall membership at 275.

Tremblay is a well-known figure in Northern Ontario’s mining supply community. 

For a decade, she’s organized the Northern Ontario Mining Showcase at the PDAC mining show that takes place in Toronto in early March, on behalf of the City of Temiskaming Shores. It’s the largest regional pavilion at the show and this year they’ve maxed out their allotted space at the convention with 112 exhibitors from Northern Ontario. 

But Tremblay said it was always a struggle to raise awareness and get buy-in from industrial suppliers in Thunder Bay, many embedded in the forestry industry, to see the growth opportunities in mining.

“Now, it’s an non-issue,” she said, as northwestern Ontario’s mineral prospects look brighter and more businesses are tuning into the possibilities.

First as a director and later as head of MineConnect, Tremblay said it was doubly difficult to grow membership outside Sudbury beyond its 75 to 80 members.

MineConnect originally launched in 2003 as SAMSSA, the Sudbury Area Mining Supply and Service Association, in recognition of the city’s place as a world mining capital. 

In looking to cast a wider net and grow membership, Tremblay said the Sudbury-centric SAMSSA name was a hard sell. It didn’t resonate with companies and communities outside the city, and was viewed by outsiders as representing the city’s interests rather than taking a pan-Northern Ontario approach.

“You can’t go to Thunder Bay and say, hey, we represent you,” said Tremblay, a resident of Sturgeon Falls who once worked in economic development with the City of North Bay. “It was the main reason we rebranded (in 2020).

“We needed economic development support and to work with those partners, and it’s difficult to do that when we’re seen as a Sudbury-based organization…but times change. The projects and suppliers are everywhere.”

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Today, MineConnect's board chair is Thunder Bay’s Todd Domney and the organization has made a concerted effort to make its presence known in the city to share their expertise.

MineConnect will also be working closely with the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC) to help implement some of the recommendations in the city’s mine readiness plan.

Tremblay said they’ll provide tips for local companies on tradeshow preparation and will collaborate with the CEDC with its appearance at the upcoming MINExpo mining show in Las Vegas come September.

“Given our network it makes sense to work with us.”

Nevada is familiar turf for MineConnect. The organization maintains a storefront in Elko that gives Northern Ontario companies a base to connect with mining companies in that state. 

Tremblay has been a frequent traveller to MINExpo in support of Ontario’s North Economic Development Corporation (ONEDC). Thunder Bay will be a first-time visitor.

“We’re partnered together to work on a program with Thunder Bay, Sudbury, and province, all aligned together with a booth,” she said.

In an email, Jamie Taylor, CEO of the Thunder Bay CEDC, said they’re still working on the details of a relationship agreement with MineConnect, “and we expect to be working collaboratively on events in 2024.”

Since Tremblay was selected to lead MineConnect in 2021, she said they’ve grown their team, added more internal structure, built partnerships with their counterparts in other provinces, and frequently hit the road for tradeshows and to host social gatherings for membership across the North. 

“We’re like a well-oiled machine now,” she said.

Her vision was to get the word out on what MineConnect does to as many people and organizations as possible. Not just to the suppliers, but job training boards, economic development departments, municipalities and First Nations.

The MineConnect membership is certainly more diverse beyond the metal fabrication firms of SAMSSA’s early days. Their stable includes environmental consulting firms, safety trainers, trade unions, insurance brokers and PPE apparel makers, among others.

“We’re seeing players that touch every part of the mining cycle, from exploration to remediation," Tremblay said.

“I wanted people to want to be members, not that we had to chase and convince them.”

They maintain an office with a full-time staffer in the NORCAT building in Sudbury.