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How international gold mining companies are getting their way in Nova Scotia

With the reappearance of gold mines in the province comes an all-too-familiar playbook: international extractive companies bend politicians to their will and win concessions, tax breaks and land allocations

In October 2017, Vancouver-based Atlantic Gold opened Nova Scotia’s very first open pit gold mine, one of four it has planned for the province. The Touquoy mine, about 100 kilometres from Halifax, is named after French miner Damas Touquoy, who first worked the Moose River deposit back in the late 1800s.

Officiating at the opening ceremony, and applauding energetically at the cutting of the ribbon, was Nova Scotia’s Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Renewal, Lloyd Hines.

Years earlier, Premier Darrell Dexter’s NDP government in the province gave the mine a helping hand when then minister of natural resources, Charlie Parker, issued a vesting order allowing the mining company to expropriate land that had been in the Higgins family for 120 years.

It looks as if Nova Scotia, where small-scale, underground gold mining persisted from the mid-1800s until the 1940s, is once again pinning a good part of its future on gold. There are currently two new open pit gold mines undergoing environmental review in the province, another four potential mines in the works, and several junior companies talking up Nova Scotia gold to investors.

Chilean Metals, a Canadian-Chilean company is promoting its “wholly-owned copper-gold” properties in Parrsboro and in Fox, Lynn and Bass Rivers, along the shore of the Bay of Fundy, a place so environmentally remarkable it has been designated a UNESCO “biosphere reserve.” The junior mining company has been telling investors that a gold discovery in the area will be like a “moonshot.” Chilean Metals says it has optioned its Bass River North Project to Tejas Gold Inc.

Another junior company with its corporate headquarters in Vancouver, Resource Capital Gold Corp, is promoting its “Nova Scotia gold fields roll-up” at four “historically high-grade gold projects” it has acquired on the province’s Eastern Shore, at Dufferin, West Dufferin, Forest Hill and Tangier. The underground mine in Port Dufferin mine has already begun processing ore.

Anaconda Mining is gearing up to do open pit and underground gold mining in Goldboro, between Isaac’s Harbour and Gold Brook Lake, also on the Eastern Shore. On August 1, 2018 registered its proposed mine for environmental assessment with the Nova Scotia Department of Environment. In September 2018, the minister determined that the company would need to submit a focus report before it could make a decision.  

In recent years, government geologists in the Geoscience Branch of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR, which has now been moved to the Department of Energy and Mines) used tens of thousands of dollars of public money, both provincial and federal, to collect data on potential gold deposits in 30,000 hectares of mostly forested land stretching from the ski hill in Wentworth valley to Earltown in the Cobequid Mountains of northern Nova Scotia.

These data are going into a “request for proposals” that the Department of Energy and Mines will issue to invite mineral exploration companies to come and drill in the area, despite the fact that the “highest exploration potential” is in the watershed for the Tatamagouche water supply.

The reappearance of gold mines in the province may be a blessing to some — but for others it’s opening an all-too-familiar playbook through which international extractive companies bend politicians to their will, gaining concessions, tax breaks and land allocations that result in ever-shrinking benefits to the owners of the resource.

Meanwhile, the same well-worn tactics are being applied in the province to secure social licence and ensure mining companies are held to as little account as possible.

Open for business, or open for exploitation?

In recent years the government of Nova Scotia has been going all out to promote mining in the province. There has been a flurry of new quarries, and approvals for the expansion of existing ones throughout the province, which already has gaping holes in the landscape that cover close to 6,000 hectares.

It’s a rush for underground resources that is Made in Nova Scotia by the Government of Nova Scotia, along with a little help from the Mining Association of Nova Scotia, formerly the Chamber of Mineral Resources of Nova.

In 2015, the government announced it was redesigning its mineral promotion strategy in view of its goal of “attracting investments to the province’s mineral industry.”

The same year, the province signed a new Memorandum of Understanding to update Nova Scotia’s “Mining One Window Process,” first signed in 1994 under the Liberal government of Premier John Savage. This process makes it easier and faster for mining companies to work in Nova Scotia, including “a streamlined environmental assessment process and success with Aboriginal consultation.” It was part of a powerful sales pitch made by Diane Webber of the former Department of Natural Resources in 2014 to the mining industry about the “tremendous opportunity” that Nova Scotia offers.

The One Window Process looks a lot like the “one-stop shop” investment vehicles that the World Bank Group invented and then, together with many Western countries, promoted in a host of resource-rich and monetarily poor countries in Africa hit hard by what is known as the “resource curse.”

These investment promotion vehicles have been very useful for moneyed investors from wealthier lands seeking to get their hands on natural resources and arable land on the continent. Indeed, much of what Premier Stephen McNeil’s Liberals have been doing to try to lure investors to the province is reminiscent of what impoverished developing nations such as Sierra Leone and Mali were urged to do by creditors (also called “donor” countries) and the World Bank Group to attract large foreign investors.

A golden platter

In the past two years, the Nova Scotia government has overhauled the provincial mining legislation to “cut red tape for industry.” The new Mineral Resources Act requires “less frequent reporting on exploration licences” by industry, and for the Department of Natural Resources, frees up “more staff time to provide hands-on assistance to industry.”

What it doesn’t do is designate any parts of the province as absolutely off limits to mineral exploration and mining. It hands power to the minister to “open selected areas in the province for mineral exploration.”

This new legislation, not surprisingly, was “positively received by industry.” The Mining Association of Nova Scotia issued a press release saying that it had worked with the government on the review of the Act for several years and that they were “pleased that the government has accepted many of our recommendations for improving the Act.”

Moving ore at Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy gold mine. Photo: Joan Baxter

‘We’re going for gold’

For years, the Nova Scotia government has been funding mineral exploration in the province with its Mineral Incentive Program. In 2014, this included a grant of $50,000 to the large Canadian company, IAMGOLD (with mines on three continents) to explore for gold just south of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This was the same year IAMGOLD sold just one of its numerous mines for half a billion dollars.

In the 2018 budget address, Nova Scotia Deputy Premier and Minister of Finance and Treasury Board Karen Casey announced the government would be building on the success of the opening of the Atlantic Gold open pit gold mine to launch the Mineral Resources Development Fund.

So in 2018, rather than the $400,000 given out under the Mineral Incentive Program, the government would be handing out $700,000 to “increase mineral exploration and mine development.” The government press release announcing the new fund quoted a delighted prospector and owner of a resources company, who proclaimed, “We’re going for gold.”

Three of five members of the Advisory Council for the Mineral Incentive Program represent industry.

While not many Nova Scotians know it, they have also been footing the bills to send prospectors, bureaucrats and politicians to international mining and investment extravaganzas, to solicit mining companies. One of these, the annual convention in Toronto of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), attracts thousands of “investors and 25,606 attendees from 135 countries” and bills itself as the “event of choice for the world’s mineral industry.”

In March 2018, Nova Scotia’s government and private prospectors shared a large booth at the PDAC convention in Toronto, handing out Nova Scotia tartan scarves to potential mining investors.

All of this has earned the province praise from industry. Atlantic Gold describes itself as a company that focuses on projects in “mining friendly jurisdictions,” which can only mean Nova Scotia, since it is the only jurisdiction in which it operates.

Chilean Metals promotes the province as a desirable place to work because of its “favourable tax structure” and “mining friendly provincial government.” It describes the former Department of Natural Resources (jurisdiction over mining has now moved to the Department of Energy and Mines) as a “supportive partner offering exploration assistance to the company.”

The province has also been wooing China, the world’s biggest producer and purchaser of gold, as a potential exploiter of the province’s underground. In 2017, DNR officials participated in the Canadian Mineral Investment Forum in Beijing and the China Mining Conference in Tianjin. They have invited the Chinese investment group to the province for a site tour.

Government as a regulator or a cheerleader for industry?

The province is still struggling to document and deal with toxic tailings from historic gold mines, which operated from the mid-1800s until the 1940s, and left millions of tonnes of finely ground waste tailings contaminated with mercury and arsenic, some more than a century old. Nor does it seem to be taking into consideration the long-term dangers of tailings ponds, which need to be monitored and maintained to prevent leaks, breaches, leaching, and contaminated groundwater for centuries after mines close.

But the mining industry has a powerful advocate with Sean Kirby, son of retired Liberal senator Michael Kirby, who heads the mining association. Kirby is leading the charge to convince the government and public that mining is not just safe and modern, but key for “jobs and prosperity.”

To spin what might otherwise have been an unpalatable message for environmentally aware people in the 21st century, the mining association came up with the slogan, “Not Your Grandfather’s Mining Industry” and developed “an educational site” to explain how it all works with “games, videos and fun facts.”

The mining association sponsors a video contest called “Mining Rocks” to get its message into schools across the province. Both Liberal and Progressive Conservative MLAs work with the association to hand out prizes for this contest in schools around the province. In April, MLA Geoff MacLellan, who was then Minister of Energy, helped distribute mining association prizes in a school in Glace Bay, Cape Breton.

Sean Kirby also pens frequent op-eds, extolling the virtues of the today’s mining industry, to soften up the public on why mining should be allowed in protected wilderness areas.

Kirby’s pro-mining PR hasn’t gone unchallenged. I wrote a piece for the Halifax Chronicle Herald pointing out that modern gold mining is definitely not like that of our grandfathers’ times. They are often owned by highly complex multinational corporations that operate through a maze of subsidiaries for all kinds of tax and legal reasons, making it difficult to track them down or make them accountable for environmental or human rights abuses.

These are not small underground mines around which communities grow, schools are built, and in which mining money circulates. The jobs they create tend to be short-lived, coming to an end when mines close, often after just a few years.

Kirby’s push to have protected wilderness areas opened up for mining by swapping those for other pieces of land that could be protected, earned him the wrath of the Ecology Action Centre’s Raymond Plourde. He pointed out that when the protected areas were selected, this was done in consultation with the mining industry, and that “great pains had been taken to avoid areas deemed to have the highest mineral potential.” Elsewhere on the planet, Plourde wrote, major mining companies “largely accept the need for protected areas, but in Nova Scotia it seems they just can’t wrap their minds around it.”

The government responded by saying it was not considering land swaps. But this did not appease citizens concerned about the mining association campaign to have protected land such as Kluscap Wilderness Area in Cape Breton, sacred territory for the Mi’kmaq, opened up for a quarry. They organized a protest in Cape Breton and another in front of the Mining Association of Nova Scotia’s headquarters, which is also Kirby’s residence in Ingramport, south of Halifax.

Section 21(1) of the Minerals Act authorizes the minister the authority to grant permission for anyone “engaged in duties under the Act or in geoscientific activities” to enter all lands in the province “at any reasonable time” and “pass over the land of any person by any reasonable means doing as little damage as possible.”

This means absolutely no lands in Nova Scotia are totally off limits for mineral exploration and mining. Any property owner in Nova Scotia could one day get a knock on the door from prospectors or exploration companies asking for permission to work on their property, and there is nothing they can do about it. What lies underground belongs to the government, which is keen to open the doors to miners.

Preoccupied by the (business) environment

On March 9, Nova Scotia’s then Minister of Natural Resources, Margaret Miller who was shifted back to the Department of Environment in July 2018, brought forward Bill 76, amendments to the Minerals Act, which establishes the rights and obligations around, in the minister’s words, “the responsible development of Nova Scotia’s mineral resources.” She told the legislature it fulfilled “a commitment of the Natural Resources Strategy.”

That document, “The Path We Share: A Natural Resources Strategy for Nova Scotia 2011 – 2020,” was developed with the input of thousands of Nova Scotians. It pointed out that, “Historically, mining practices focused on the economic benefits, with little attention given to the environmental impact.” It specified the need to ensure that any new mining operations include reclamation plans that stress biodiversity.

The Natural Resources Strategy also referred to the province’s water strategy, Water For Life, which committed Nova Scotia to being “a national leader in water resource management,” stating that, “Water is essential for life and will be valued, kept safe, and shared.”

Minister Miller made no mention of these goals when she brought forward the amendments to the Mineral Resources Act. She used the word “environment” once, and then only to describe the “open-for-business environment” for mining that the Act supported.  She didn’t mention the word “water,” focusing instead on how the bill “cuts red tape” for industry and reduces “barriers to industry.”

So where does this leave the citizens of this province who are concerned about the environment and their water? One answer to that question came from the province’s Auditor General in 2017, when he reported that the Department of Environment had approved 53 of 54 projects, but monitored less than half of those to ensure the terms and conditions were met.

His conclusions? “Poor monitoring of approved projects increases risks to NS environment and makes terms and conditions less useful.”

As for the “myth that mining brings jobs and prosperity,” Joan Kuyek, co-founder of MiningWatch Canada, says that is debunked when one looks beyond industry spin, at the environmental and other costs that are its legacy.

Unfortunately, it looks as if the government of Nova Scotia has been well and truly taken in by the tales of gold that the industry likes to spin, and decided it’s full speed ahead – or backwards – when it comes to mining the province.

Joan Baxter is a Canadian journalist, award-winning author, development consultant, researcher and writer, and anthropologist. Since 1982, she has lived,…

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