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Mining the Northwest: Thunder Bay's mining point man heads into retirement

John Mason raised public awareness of the mining industry in Thunder Bay and helped build a local mining industry supply chain
John Mason (right), the outgoing mining projects with the Thunder Bay CEDC. (Supplied)

It might be teary ride for John Mason when he departs Thunder Bay next month to begin a two-day driving trek, heading towards retirement in central Ontario.

After 36 years with the Ontario Geological Survey (OGS) in northwestern Ontario and 11 more years with the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC) as its project manager of mining services, Mason and his wife Barb are bidding adieu to northwestern Ontario.

His last day with the CEDC is March 4. Final departure from Thunder Bay, his hometown, is on March 19. 

Just after Christmas, the couple bought a house in Bracebridge that fits the bill.

Retirement and relocating is an option the couple had been kicking around for the last two years. 

"Blood's thicker than water," Mason responded when asked about his decision. 

One son, Michael, is a physician in town, with another son, Andrew, two hours away in Orangeville. There are five young grandchildren between them, plus a slew of extended family nearby.

Mason is looking forward to a new career in babysitting and chauffeuring youngsters to hockey games.

For more than a decade at the CEDC, Mason has been instrumental in heightening the profile of the region's mining industry in Thunder Bay. 

Hired in 2011 for an initial five-year run, the position created for Mason by the commission was a unique, industry-specific, one.

The Ring of Fire was fresh in everyone's mind and Mason credits then-CEO Steve Demmings and the board for having the foresight to see the coming mining boom. 

Thunder Bay wanted to get in on the action. The city was searching for ways to better capitalize on the economic spinoffs in offering the workforce pool, providing the employment training and academic research opportunities, and most importantly, delivering the industrial supply and service component.

As a trained geologist, Mason always saw the mining sequence from the front end, the exploration and property acquisition perspective. He needed to get up to speed on mine construction, production, and the closure and remediation side.

The big learning curve was figuring out how the pre-qualification and request for proposals processes worked to enable local suppliers to get their foot through the door with the mines.

Given great latitude to do the job, Mason realized he had to get out to the mine sites and exploration properties to familiarize himself with what was happening on the ground and get to know the players — especially the procurement officers — on a first-name basis.

"Mining is portrayed as a big business. It's not," he said. It's an industry built on relationships and performance.

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Mason saw the job as being a facilitator to connect Thunder Bay companies with the supply needs of major mining operation across northwestern Ontario and the many exploration projects.

In the mid-2000s, the city's industrial mainstay, the forest products sector, was decimated by a wave of mill closures and job losses.

Mason admits it took some persuading to convince local suppliers that they could use the same skills and expertise to make the transition from servicing the forestry mills to fulfilling the needs of the mines and exploration sites.

"Some had to be coaxed and shown what their talent and skill set was, and why they should do that," he said. "Some did it better than others."

To help on the networking side, pre-pandemic, the commission would stage two or three town hall-style information sessions a year in a hotel conference room. Usually headlined by a mining company, the gathering would attract more than 100 people from industrial service companies, workforce advocates, and community leaders.

After a decade, Mason feels they've developed a robust and reliable supply network of mechanical shops, fabricators and engineering firms with enough muscle to compete against any in the world.

"At the end of the day that's what producers want to see. They want to see that support for the scheduled shutdowns, the breakdowns, parts, and the cost of bringing people into work... on the supply chain and mining and exploration side."

Judging by the feedback from the mining companies, he estimates Thunder Bay's mining supply and service sector has grown from less than 200 in 2011 to well over 400. Musselwhite Mine alone contractually deals with 390 companies.

"I think we've come light years in a decade."

He also aspired to work with the smaller, outlying communities and Indigenous people to ensure everyone across the region benefitted from what the industry has to offer, not just Thunder Bay.

It was also an opportunity to educate the public on the impact that mining and metals play in people's daily lives. He recruited a freelancer to write regular topical columns in the local newspaper on some aspect of the industry.

One of the legacies Mason leaves behind is a road map for a potential successor to follow.

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Last spring, the CEDC released its Mining Readiness Strategy, an opportunities document based on a regional scan of the northwest's then-six operating mines and more than a dozen advanced exploration projects focused on gold, nickel, copper, zinc, platinum group metals, lithium and chromium.

"I think it was a smart strategy. I'm proud of the fact that you've got a community that understands mining a lot better," said Mason, "an understanding this is part of our future as an economic path."

In close to 50 years in the industry, Mason observes more international investment than ever in the region.

Australian companies, in particular, have aggressively advanced exploration projects and taken over major operations with Evolution Mining in Red Lake and Wyloo Metals' big splash into the Ring of Fire through its pending acquisition of Noront Resources.

"Australians have poured investment into acquiring and developing exploration ground, especially in northwestern Ontario, something they can't do in their country," he said.

More junior miners are bold enough to take projects through to production, Mason notes, mentioning the likes of Pure Gold at Red Lake, Generation Mining at Marathon, and Thunder Bay's own Premier Gold, the latter having transitioned from exploration in Northern Ontario to gold mining in Nevada under the banner of i-80 Gold.

"In my tenure at the OGS, that rarely happened," said Mason. "Most (junior) companies would say, 'buy me out,' sell and move on somewhere else."

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Engagement with First Nations happens at the early stage of exploration, he said, and agreements are being signed that provide training, jobs and preferential business opportunities for Indigenous-owned companies.

On the regulatory side, Mason said there's more rigourous environmental assessment of mining projects, "and rightly so," that follow today's societal trends.

And many resource companies have adopted ESG (environmental, social, and governance) principles to appeal to the socially conscious investor but also because the tech companies, downstream, like Apple and Dell, insist that their metals and products are responsibly sourced and manufactured.

"It's the reality of doing business these days," said Mason.

On plans for his successor, Mason said the CEDC will be retaining the position and will begin a search to find his replacement. The CEDC did not respond to queries by Northern Ontario Business to confirm that, or what that hiring process would look like, and or when a replacement is expected to be in place.

But even in retirement, Mason would like to still keep his hand in the industry and stay connected.

"I don't have any firm plans. It's going to take a month or two to get settled in Bracebridge."

Mason said he would be amenable to serve in an advisory capacity with the commission. He plans to attend the PDAC mining show in Toronto this June.

Looking back, Mason said he's proud of being part of a collective effort to grow the local roster of supply and service companies working in the mining industry.

"For Thunder Bay and for northwestern Ontario, there's a realization, and hopefully I've been part of the messaging, why these projects are significant. 

"More importantly, perhaps it gets into the heads of the business people, the discussion on the street is, this is an important industry."