Ontario Mining Industry needs certainty: Ford's "Building More Mines Act" lacks regulatory details
LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY OF ONTARIO
Tuesday, March 7, 2023
Mr. John Vanthof: It’s always an honour to be able to rise in this House and speak on behalf of the people of Timiskaming–Cochrane and especially on Bill 71, Building More Mines Act. Timiskaming–Cochrane is fairly unique in Ontario because our economy relies on three main pillars: forestry, agriculture and mining. That is very unique. We have a perspective. The first thing I’d like to do is give a shout-out to PDAC and to the people from northern Ontario who hosted the Northern Ontario Night last night at the Steam Whistle brewery. A lot of us were there. I’d like to give a shout-out to our home garage band, the Kings of Nowhere, who played there last night. They’re a great band, it was a great party and I’m finally—kind of—over the hangover, just to let you know.
Everyone knows in this House that I’m a farmer, but a lot of my friends work or worked in mines. My best friend, who has since passed away, offered once to take me to where he worked. I went to 6,600 feet in Macassa mine—it was owned by Lac Minerals then; they don’t allow this anymore—it’s now Agnico Eagle Mines. I will mention them again. I have a lot of respect for that company. We went to 6,600 feet. Then we went to 7,200 feet. And I couldn’t believe the working conditions: the heat, the smell. Miners are a fraternity, because only they know—only they really know what it’s like.
I’ve never had this opportunity, but I’d like to mention Randy Yantha, one of my best friends, who has since passed away, who took me down there. A few years later at that mine they had a bump. Randy wasn’t down that shift, but I thought he was, and I went to his house because two people died in that bump. That’s when I saw in his face what it’s like to be a miner. I’d like to give a shout-out to anyone who has ever—mining is much safer than it used to be. Mining has come a long way, but it is still—miners are well paid, but they’re not paid enough for what they do. We, on this side of the House, know that.
I’d also like to give a bit of a tour of the legislative buildings here. On the first floor, on the west side, there is a big chunk of silver. It comes from the Keeley mine just outside of Cobalt in Timiskaming–Cochrane. I believe 257,000 ounces are in that chunk of silver.
Mining isn’t just a new thing. Mining has always been boom and bust. Hopefully, with legislation, we’re trying to take the busts out of it. The silver boom in Cobalt was the first boom in Ontario—the TSX was built from Cobalt. It was the first boom. Then it busted. Then we went to Kirkland Lake and Timmins for gold. We have to remember that.
There are always winners in the boom and losers in the bust. Throughout history, it’s usually the people who are left there to deal with the environmental degradation. There is environmental degradation from mining. Whenever you do anything—there are environmental degradation problems from agriculture, there is from mining too. As we progress, the mining industry, along with government regulation, has found ways to improve that.
But if you go to Cobalt, you can see the degradation from the first mining boom. It’s still there. There are tailings ponds that have never been reclaimed. There are still—not in Cobalt itself, because of Agnico Eagle, but in parts outside of Cobalt and Silver Centre—open mine shafts that no one has ever bothered to close. Even today, no one has ever bothered. That’s something that we have to remember, and it’s really important to remember that. When we hear, “We’ll worry about the financial part of remediation later,” well, you know what? We’ve gone through this a few times, that the company doesn’t make it until later and we’re left with the degradation. No one’s going to tell me that hasn’t happened, because I can take you to those places.
But getting back, I’d like to focus on a company that I’ve had a lot to do with and a company that I respect: Agnico Eagle Mines. They actually got their start in Cobalt in 1955, the Cobalt Consolidated Mining Co. In Cobalt, second generation, after the bust, they had a bit of a boom. In 1957, Agnico became Agnico Eagle, and in 1989, Agnico Eagle stopped mining silver in Cobalt. Agnico Eagle has continued. It’s a major, major mining company. It’s the biggest mining company in my part of the world. It has lately gone together with Kirkland gold, and they control most of the gold mining assets in my part of the world.
To their credit, Agnico Eagle is responsible for the environmental protection of their claims in Cobalt, and they do a good job of it. They do their job. They respect what they took out of the ground and they know they’re responsible. They’re still there, and they take their job seriously. I respect them for that. I’m actually having a meeting with them tomorrow, and hopefully they’re not going to yell at me for what I say.
The last time I met with Agnico Eagle, we talked about the approval process—what can we do better in Ontario for mining? Because Agnico Eagle has also got a big project they’re just developing in my riding—a really big project—so they know how this process works. I’m not going to quote exactly what they said, but regulation isn’t the problem. Regulation protects not only the people, but also protects mining companies. Because now, when someone talks about a mining development, people in my part of the world don’t get frightened because we know we’ve got really strong regs, and that the mining companies live up to those regs because they also have to be responsible to raise money to—we understand that. They understand that.
Talking about getting rid of red tape actually doesn’t help mining companies. Talking about putting bulldozers to the Ring of Fire doesn’t help mining companies. What helps mining companies—and this is what I got from Agnico Eagle, and again, when I meet with them tomorrow, they could correct me, and I hope they do if I’m wrong. What helps mining companies, and what we want to provide in this legislation, is certainty—certainty. That’s what they need. So, “Here are the regs, and if we meet these regs, there is a process that we can understand, that we can go to our investors and say, ‘Okay, we’ve done this and this.’ Now, when we do this, then we’ll have this long and we’ll be able to do that and that and that.” But there’s a difference between talking about making less regulation or providing more certainty. There’s a big difference there.
So in this legislation, we’re talking about—so now we have a director of rehabilitation that goes to the minister. Well, ministers come and go. Governments come and go Government attitude towards industry changes. So I’m not 100% convinced—and that’s why we’re supportive of mining, supportive of what I hope the government is trying to do with this bill. But I’m not sure that putting all the onus on the minister actually adds to certainty.
Does the minister—whoever is the minister of the day—and I have a lot of respect for the current minister. I don’t agree with all his political views, but I know he’s deeply steeped in the mining industry. I know that. I respect that; I do. But does this legislation ensure that future ministers, future governments, will treat all mining projects the same? I don’t see that. I don’t see that. That’s something that the government is going to have to flesh out on how that is going to work for it to add certainty.
I personally—and we in northern Ontario very much so—and the NDP totally support mining for the jobs, for the economic development, for the cornerstone it provides to our province and our country, but we need certainty. When it talks about we’re going to, through regulation, have a qualified person do the remediation plan—okay, but that again provides a window of uncertainty. Who makes the rules for the qualified person in regulation later?
Again, we’re not trying to throw a wrench in this bill, we’re not trying to throw a wrench in the mining industry at all—at all. We want the mining industry to be able to go and get financing and build projects that are environmentally sustainable, that support this country, support this province and that everyone benefits. When I’ve heard several members say, “Oh, yeah, and this is going to help Indigenous communities,” I will challenge how many past mining developments have fully helped Indigenous communities because if that is the case, then they wouldn’t be living in areas with some of the conditions we have now.
Again, we’re not trying to throw a wrench in this, but if you say you’re going to make things better, let’s make them better. Let’s add certainty not just for one minister, for one government—because you’ve created it. And I’m not trying to be partisan. It’s a partisan job, but the current Conservative government has created some misgivings in the public about how you deal with the environment. Now you’re saying the qualified person shall do the remediation plans. Very well, you might have this all figured out, but it sure isn’t figured out in this bill. No one in the mining industry has ever asked that the one thing we need to get this going is to have the minister be responsible for the remediation plan.
I don’t know. What they ask me is for clarity. When I talk to Agnico Eagle, they have mines in several constituencies in this country, and in some areas, they can build a mine faster than in Ontario. And in some of those, the environmental regulations are actually higher than ours. So that tells me we do have a problem in Ontario.
I’m not saying that we can’t do things better in Ontario, but I don’t see that this bill is the answer, because the problems you’re trying to solve or you’re saying you’re trying to solve—I don’t see the answers to those problems.
I’ve heard a lot more rhetoric on your side regarding, “The Liberals have done this, supported by the NDP.” I hear all that rhetoric. But are you hearing that from me? No. We want this to work. That’s why we’re going to be voting for it on second reading. That’s why we hope there is a good committee process and that when amendments are put forward that aren’t partisan in nature, that actually want to make confidence in the mining sector and confidence in the public—because that’s one thing that’s very important. And this isn’t just for the mining sector; this is for agriculture, for forestry, for mining, anything. You need to have public confidence. If the public doesn’t have confidence in what you’re doing, you’re not going to be able to raise the money to keep doing it—maybe in the short term. Maybe in the short term, but in the long term, you’re not. You’re not.
I’ve got a couple of minutes left, and I’m going to—my son works in the mining industry, indirectly. He’s a commercial diver. When the tailings pond let go in 2019—I’m not even going to say the company, because I’m not trying to hurt anybody’s reputation. When the tailings pond let go in Brazil, my son sent me that video before it ever hit the news, because my son dives for that same company in Canada, and they were looking at the dams in Canada to make sure that wasn’t happening in Canada. He sent me a text. He says, “And that’s why you need strong regulations.” Same company, different regulations, different country.
So when you talk about getting rid of red tape, when you talk about that, “Well, we’ll get a qualified person to look at the remediation plan”—they maybe had a qualified person in Brazil as well. But 267 people died when that tailings pond let go, and I believe the company was charged. But, same company—the same thing was happening. Liquefaction, it’s called. A qualified person. But here, we had regulations—good regulations—and we need to keep good regulations. We need to work together to make sure that we have a solid regulatory platform that promotes profitable mining, but also protects people.
The Acting Speaker (Mme Lucille Collard): We’re going to move to the questions portion of the debate, and I recognize the member for Essex.
Mr. Anthony Leardi: Thank you, madame la Présidente. I appreciated the submissions made by the member from Timiskaming–Cochrane. I was listening carefully to his comments. He is obviously a very experienced and respected member of this assembly, and I recognize his experience and I respect him.
He made some comments with regard to communications that he had with various mining interests, and it’s good that members of the House communicate with people in their ridings about their concerns. I was hoping that the member from Timiskaming-Cochrane might give us some feedback about what he hears in his riding about the length of the permitting process and how long it takes to get through the permitting process. We use the words “permitting process.” There’s not actually a permit, but we refer to the permitting process. What has he heard? What feedback has he gotten on that?
Mr. John Vanthof: Thank you to the member from Essex. That’s a very good question. I think I touched on it in my remarks. There are parts of our country—and I don’t know about internationally—where the permitting process is quicker. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be quicker, but it shouldn’t be quicker by lowering the standards. And I’m not saying that’s in this bill, but it’s not saying that it’s not, because it says we’re going to change who does the plans.
Can we make the process quicker? We’re not opposed. We need to make sure that we don’t do that by lowering the standards or lowering the financial package in case something goes wrong.
The Acting Speaker (Mme Lucille Collard): Next question?
Mr. Tom Rakocevic: We have a government that takes a very clear line when it comes to regulations: They hate them. They hate regulations. They hate them so much that they’ve created a Ministry of Red Tape Reduction because there’s red tape everywhere for them. Sometimes, if you misdiagnose something as red tape, you know what you end up with? Yellow tape. You end up with yellow tape sometimes. And so they don’t have a good track record when it comes to this.
This government has the ability to move really quickly. When it comes to the north, not so much, but here we talk about haste when it comes to removing minerals out of the ground. But when it comes to road safety in the north, like we hear from our amazing member from Mushkegowuk-James Bay, they don’t move too quick. And when it comes to clean drinking water in the north, they’re dragging their feet. They blame the feds. They pass the buck.
I’d like to hear from our member, how does this government choose its priorities when it comes to the north?
Mr. John Vanthof: Thank you very much for that question. It had a lot of issues in it, but the one answer I will give quickly is—so the Trans-Canada Highway goes across Canada. I would say that the standards in the Trans-Canada Highway where it goes across northern Ontario aren’t the same as southern Ontario.
With First Nations as well, this government has said several times that this Critical Minerals Strategy—which we’re not opposed to, actually—will benefit First Nations. Well, the proof is going to be in how you deal with First Nations before you start, because if it’s going to continue to be divide and conquer, First Nations know exactly what’s going to happen: The project is going to be built and some of them won’t benefit at all, because that’s been proven through history over and over again.
The Acting Speaker (Mme Lucille Collard): Next question?
Mr. Todd J. McCarthy: Does the member opposite know—and I listened carefully to his remarks—that there are no proposed changes to our world-class environmental protections by virtue of this proposed bill? Does he know that this bill is in fact about improving how the Ministry of Mines operates and increasing efficiencies? Does he know that updating the Mining Act is crucial to support our transition to a green economy? Does he know that that is what this is about?
Mr. John Vanthof: Thank you to the member for Durham. My response to that is, is he so sure that’s the case? Because when I read the act, it makes the decisions regarding the remediation plan—it moves it to the minister as opposed to the director of remediation. So the interpretation is up to the minister or up to a qualified person whose qualifications aren’t mentioned in the act. They’re in the regulations to be named later, so we don’t actually know who is going to interpret those regulations. Is he so sure that this act won’t change how those regulations are interpreted? That’s what we’re trying to find out here.
The Acting Speaker (Mme Lucille Collard): Next question.
MPP Jill Andrew: We’ve seen this government appoint folks to tribunals, even, that have not had the experience or the qualifications for said position. So with this particular bill, when it permits the minister to exercise any power and perform any duty of a director of exploration under the act in place of the director, it does make me question whether or not we know if the minister—I mean, the minister right now might be wonderful. I don’t know. But what about future ministers?
At the end of the day, isn’t it important that the director—the person who is doing many of these processes—have the qualification, have the skills, and that they are connected mostly to community as well, too?
Mr. John Vanthof: That’s a very good question as well. I hope that the good players in the mining sector won’t let that happen, because they have worked very hard. The company I mentioned and other companies have worked very hard to gain that reputation. They’ve got a much better reputation environmentally than the Ford government. And I hope that they won’t allow that to happen, because not all players in the mining sector have that reputation.
And so it’s incumbent on us all, but it’s also incumbent on the government, to make sure that they have qualified people and that the political process doesn’t get involved in the actual scientific permitting process. That is very cloudy in this bill, when you’re moving it to the minister. It’s very cloudy, and I don’t think the mining sector needs cloudiness. They need certainty. That’s what they all need.
The Acting Speaker (Mme Lucille Collard): I recognize the member from Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound.
Mr. Rick Byers: I thank the member for his comments—I really do—about the minister’s experience, which we share—extensive experience in the industry. I appreciate his story about his long-time friend who passed away who took him down the mine and his son who works in the industry and meeting with Agnico Eagle. As a matter of fact, I’m meeting with them tomorrow too, so I look forward to hearing about their experience.
At the root of it, I think we share objectives here for the mining industry. I must confess, I’ve been an MPP for eight months now, and I think I heard the opposition will be supporting the bill. I think that may be the first time in the House I’ve seen that, but I think it’s—
Mr. Rick Byers: Okay, I retract that, Madam Speaker. I look forward to it.
But as I understand the member’s comments, I think your concerns are more about the process with the bill than the outcomes. Is that fair, and could you elaborate on what you’re looking for to see it pass into law?
Mr. John Vanthof: Thank you for that question. No, I would say that our concern is with the outcome of the bill. We have the same goal; we want the mining sector to flourish in this province. The latest boom with electric vehicles is a boom that we don’t want to bust at the end. We have the same goals; we have the same goals. We want the same outcomes. But we want to be sure that those are the outcomes that this bill is moving forward, and the bill itself doesn’t ensure that, in our opinion.