Skip to content

Curiosity spurred Virginia Heffernan to write a Ring of Fire book

Toronto mining journalist hits PDAC 2023 with a primer on arrested development in the Far North

"Keep the faith."

It was an oft-used phrase by Richard "Dick" Nemis, a Sudbury native and colourful mining promoter whose company, Noront Resources, secured one of the largest land positions in the mineral-rich area of the James Bay known as the Ring of Fire.

Nemis clung to that motto even as he was being ousted by shareholders as the president of the junior mining company he helped establish in October 2008. It was a personal blow since the exploration outfit was named after his father’s industrial fabrication company, started in the Nickel City in 1945, and still in operation today.

The Canadian mining hall-of-famer raised financing for many mineral plays but his hand in one of the biggest chromite discoveries in the world, in the Ring of Fire, remains his legacy. He had always been intrigued by the lure of a treasure hunt. 

And so is Virginia Heffernan, a veteran mining writer and now the author of a forthcoming book entitled: Ring of Fire; High-Stakes Mining in a Lowlands Wilderness.

Sadly, Nemis died in March 2019, months before Heffernan started her book project.

“I'm sure he would've been just full of stories,” she said.

Heffernan adopted Nemis’ motto in concluding whether the rich deposits in the Ring of Fire will ever see a ton of rock moved, more than 15 years after the initial discoveries of nickel and chromite.

Heffernan, a trained geoscientist and former reporter at the Northern Miner, spent two years researching and interviewing mining executives, financiers, Indigenous leaders and public servants about why the stalled and untapped strategic Far North mineral belt remains mired in a three-way dialogue between industry, First Nations and government.

In explaining why she's writing a book on something that hasn't happened, Heffernan attributes her motivation to being fuelled by her curiosity of the discovery and the region’s vast mineral potential.

The geologist in her thought, "Okay, this is a massive potential mining camp."

"It's not just about chrome; it's so many other things — zinc, copper, gold — it's just endless.”

The book, she said, is an exercise in trying to comprehend how resource development has changed in Canada over the last couple of decades. 

In comparing the inertia of the Ring of Fire to other significant national projects, she came to the realization "we're just not getting anywhere."

Her book will be officially released on March 15. Pre-orders can be made through ECW Press with early copies on the stand at the PDAC bookstore next week during the Toronto mining convention. Heffernan will also be signing copies at The Northern Miner booth at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Tuesday, March 7 between 11 a.m. and noon.

The social dynamic and demographics at the world’s biggest mining convention and tradeshow, the annual four-day affair of deal-making and beer-drinking, has certainly changed over time.

Thirty years ago, Heffernan, the reporter, and one of the few women in attendance, would be advised to leave her heels at home unless she wanted to be propositioned. Any Indigenous person seen walking the acres of convention space back then probably would’ve been asked to leave.

By 2020, the industry had diversified to the point where PDAC was the place for Heffernan to interview pivotal figures such as Scott Jacob, the former chief of Webequie First Nation, the remote community closest to the Ring of Fire. 

Jacob, who later became Noront Resources' manager of community relations, provided invaluable insight that informed her writing.

"I found him very intriguing because he could see both sides,” said Heffernan. 

Jacob is fully aware that Indigenous peoples' rights were sideswiped in the pursuit of resource riches. But industry can provide benefits in delivering training, employment and business spinoff opportunities for isolated First Nations.

After the summer 2007 discovery of high-grade nickel, Jacob’s community was overwhelmed by an armada of aircraft, prospectors and junior miners in the staking rush that followed. Exploration companies sucked up all the airport's aviation fuel and emptied grocery store shelves.

It was not the most auspicious way for industry to make an entrance and probably made a lasting impression on the local populace.

Pressure is now mounting to find domestic sources of nickel and other critical minerals. Governments are in hurry-up mode to come up with a structured plan and timeline to fulfill their own mandates to create an electrified and carbon-free world. That begins with putting more mines into production.

It’s why Heffernan believes this “labour of love” needed to be written starting in June 2019.

She credits Stan Sudol, a Toronto-based mining industry blogger and keen observer of the Ring of Fire, with getting her started.

Sudol graciously handed over four bankers boxes of newspaper clippings, magazine articles and press releases. The files were sorted into subject piles atop her dining room table which later morphed into chapters. She identified important people to interview and began cold-calling them or had introductions made on her behalf.

The mining industry is a traditionally closed fraternity, but Heffernan was surprised at how forthcoming people were, including such people as geologist Neil Novak, formerly of Spider Resources, another mining hall-of-famer who was involved in the early 2007 discoveries,

Like many early arrivers in the McFaulds Lake area, Novak was on the hunt for diamond-bearing kimberlites and instead intersected high-grade, abundant and near-surface chromite, nickel and copper. The drill results later took shape as deposits like the flagship Eagle’s Nest, now under the Ring of Fire Metals flag.

"I found people surprisingly frank given that it's such a controversial subject,” said Heffernan.

"They weren't shy about expressing their opinions or their knowledge of the process, whether they were coming from the geologic, corporate or First Nation perspective.”

A lingering regret is not being able to interview more prominent Indigenous leaders in the Far North.

“I think that's simply a trust issue. Here I am down in Toronto and they don't know me and don't know what my motivation is. It’s understandable.”

The self-imposed community pandemic lockdowns scuttled any trip plans.

Former premier Kathleen Wynne proved to be an impressive interviewee. She had canoed through the Far North river systems to get a better understanding of the environment and the people. At the same time, her government was trying to reach a regional framework deal with the nine-community Matawa First Nations on how development would unfold.

The nature of the watery terrain, Wynne vividly described as “like Queen’s Anne lace.” Constructing mines and infrastructure in this sensitive ecosystem would be an enormous engineering feat. She likened a north-south road-building project to constructing a “causeway.”

Her government’s 2014 framework process lacked tangible results and was scrapped five years later by the Ford government. In the book, the former premier takes issue with the current government's pro-development “bully tactics” on the Ring of Fire.

While the spirit of the process was admirable, "the outcome was not,” said Heffernan.

“You can't just lump nine First Nations that are geographically spread apart and don't necessarily have the same interests in mind and then expect them to reach a consensus on what needs to be done in the Ring of Fire. That was definitely a flawed process, but I think the intent was good."

How things will shake out with the arrival of Australia’s Wyloo Metals as the region's dominant mining player and the future impact on the well-being of Indigenous people remains to be seen, she said.

“First Nation issues are different in Canada than in Australia. We’ll see if that can translate.”

Heffernan would make her own canoe expedition to the James Bay lowlands in the summer of 2020 to develop a deeper appreciation for the region. Time can't be a primary factor in advancing development, she said.

“I did get a sense of how difficult it is to build infrastructure up there. That really came to light on that canoe trip. It was such an eye-opener on what that part of the world looks like. Most people can't imagine how much of a swamp it really is.” 

If she could offer any advice to decision- and policy-makers, it's how "incredibly important" transparency is in the ongoing engagement and consulting process.

“We haven't had enough transparency between the different stakeholders,” said Heffernan.

Should development proceed, she suggests a blockchain-like tracing system that tracks ore extraction and its movement through the mining, processing and transportation process, “so everybody knows what’s going on at any given time.”

“Give the communities up there a chance to monitor the situation and not be just shut out of the whole process. If I were at the table, that’s one thing I'd like to introduce.”