The sale of Ring of Fire explorer Noront Resources to Wyloo Metals of Australia is about a week away from being finalized.
While the Perth-based mining company has imposed a news blackout on all things related to its newly acquired James Bay mineral interests until the transaction closes on April 7, it didn't stop Wyloo's top executive from swooping into Thunder Bay last week for a brief visit.
Wyloo CEO Luca Giacovazzi circulated around town for a series of low-key meetings with some high-profile movers and shakers in the city. Toronto-based Noront also maintains an office for its geology team in an inner city industrial park.
The Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce organized an informal gathering of about 40 last Thursday in a hotel conference room, attended by local politicians, First Nation leadership and business owners with an interest in the Ring of Fire.
Chamber president Charla Robinson called Giacovazzi's presentation and the conversation that followed "very informative."
She expects the arrival of Wyloo will inject some "rigour" into the Eagle's Nest nickel project, projected to be the first mine to go into commercial production in the Ring of Fire, tentatively at the end of 2027.
Wyloo emerged as the winner in a six-month bidding war against Australian rival BHP with a $616.9-million proposal that was recently approved by Noront shareholders. The apple of Wyloo's eye is the high-grade Eagle's Nest nickel copper, platinum and palladium deposit.
Wyloo is a mining subsidiary of Tattarang, one of Australia's largest private investment companies, which is engaged in real estate, agri-food production, marine terminals and shipbuilding, renewable energy, and hospitality.
This is the Western Australian miner's first foray into Canada in attempting to jumpstart a dormant world-class and untapped mineral belt that was discovered 15 years ago.
"We've been talking about the Ring of Fire for a long time," said Robinson. "It was nice to see Wyloo has the resources to move this forward. They've got significant financial support through their parent company.
"We know mining developments take time, and particularly mine developments in such a complex environment with multiple stakeholders involved."
But certainly, she said, it generates positive feelings that Wyloo is bringing a fresh perspective and deep pockets that haven't been seen in northwestern Ontario in a number of years.
She forecasts only good things ahead for Thunder Bay and the entire region. The city is home to more than 400 companies engaged in some aspect of the mining supply and service sector, working for producers such as Impala, Newmont and New Gold. Many of those providers are already well adept at tapping into the procurement process of the mining supply chain, Robinson said.
"It was a great meeting and nice to get an update on where things are going and I'm excited to see how things move forward in the future," she said.
One of Robinson's takeaways from the meeting was Wyloo's approach to establishing partnerships with Indigenous groups in Australia. It reminded her of the early days of preparations to construct New Gold's Rainy River Mine near Fort Frances.
To participate in the procurement process, a contractor or service company needed an Indigenous business partner to qualify to bid.
Wyloo, Robinson said, wants to take the same tact.
"It's one of their tenets of how they (Wyloo) do business," said Robinson. "That will be a real positive opportunity for Indigenous business to be at the ground floor."
Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins was also encouraged by what he heard from the Wyloo boss.
Collins said he was pleased with what the company had to say about the "great magnitude" of economic spinoffs and opportunities for Indigenous people in Western Australia. He hopes to see that same approach transferred to Northern Ontario, but stressed he wants to see a written procurement policy to ensure First Nations are "not left behind."
The other side of the recipe for success, Collins said, is Wyloo making room for some kind of joint ownership structure in the Eagle's Nest mine project or within a larger district-scale mining complex. It's something he calls "an imperative" to open the door for the First Nations connected to the land.
"You're on the traditional territories of our First Nations; the ownership by the communities is an important aspect of that. We're always talking about IBAs (impact benefit agreements) but the reality of IBAs is ownership for me."
Giacovazzi also met last week with Matawa First Nations, the Thunder Bay-based tribal council representing the fly-in communities closest to the Ring of Fire.
A spokesperson for Matawa said the organization declined to make any comment on their discussions with the company.
Eric Zakrewski, CEO of the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC), was impressed by the Wyloo executive's emphasis on getting relationships with First Nations off on the right foot.
"That was the stuff I was expecting to hear," said Zakrewski, who worked with Indigenous communities as an environmental assessment practitioner prior to the joining the CEDC. "Those are the positives for me as a takeaway from our first meeting."
He was particularly interested in Wyloo's corporate culture and values, shaped by owner Andrew Forrest and his wife Nicola.
"I was actually surprised by how the depth of their personal integrity comes into their corporate culture. They provided us with a handbook: this is how you need to live and behave to work for Wyloo and if you don't, you don't belong in the organization.
As he thumbed through it, he noticed the company's commitment to communication, leadership and integrity under a larger corporate umbrella that contains a diverse mix of companies.
"It's a big organization with a lot of depth but there seems to be some core integrity values that they're operating by under these different business lines, including Wyloo."
As to how Thunder Bay will economically benefit from the Ring of Fire, Zakrewski explained once the delays in process and the complexity of the transportation issues are ironed out, he envisions the city becoming a regional supply hub and a workforce bedroom community for the mining camp, some 500 kilometres to the northeast.
The city is already primed and prepared to address the supply chain needs for an estimated $5 billion in other mine capital expansion and construction projects in the northwest, expected to take place between now and 2028.
But the development opportunities in the Ring of Fire will be on such a scale that, if proven feasible, all of Northern Ontario will see the spinoffs, Zakrewski said.
Once the environmental assessment processes for the access roads are finished and the corridor is established, he said, it will instantly change the financial dynamics of working, exploring and mining in the James Bay region for the better.
"You'll see a ton of additional exploration work start to happen in a flurry once the transportation element becomes finalized and bankable."
But those unknowns have to be addressed before any municipality can get too excited about those prospects.
On the metals processing side, Wyloo indicated last year that it intends to re-examine how it will handle the nickel and chromite ore, once thought to be destined for Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, respectively, under Noront's watch. It leaves the door open for the possibility of Thunder Bay snagging some value-added manufacturing.
The CEDC put out a message of its interest in the city hosting a hydrometallurgical processing plant only a few weeks ago.
Zakrewski said they brought up that point with Giacovazzi but added it's too early to comment on that.
"They (Wyloo) will re-examine the technical and financial feasibility of that in their own business case and model, and certainly Thunder Bay will be waving the flag to attract they type of capital investment.
"We're hoping that's something they want to look at and, if they do, we're willing to put some skin in the game and be a partner."