Municipality of Greenstone
A ground-breaking chromite discovery in Northern Ontario offers the Municipality of Greenstone a route to growth and prosperity – providing it is sufficiently prepared.
The Municipality of Greenstone stretches alongside Highway 11 from Lake Nipigon to Longlac in Ontario. It was formed in 2001 through an amalgamation of the communities of Beardmore, Caramat, Geraldton, Jellicoe, Longlac, Macdiarmid, Nakina and Orient Bay. However, as its nickname “Spirit of the North” suggests, historically Greenstone is another of Canada’s many towns built on mining around the turn of the 20th century. In the past, it has been a rich source of gold, nickel, copper, chrome, zinc, palladium, vanadium, lithium and diamonds, but in recent years its traditional resource industries have fallen into decline.
Now, a large discovery just north of Nakina looks set to turn that decline around. The Ring of Fire is said to be “one of the richest Canadian mineral discoveries in more than a generation” and particularly significant due to its large amount of chromite: a rare mineral used in producing stainless steel. Estimates say there is enough chromite alone to support 150 years of mining activity, making it a multi-generation deposit.
Following the Ring of Fire’s discovery in 2007, Greenstone rebranded itself as the “Gateway to the Ring of Fire” in anticipation of a surge of mineral development and investment.
The task of promoting Greenstone’s role in the Ring of Fire’s development falls largely to the municipality’s economic development officer Vicki Blanchard – and it is not an easy one. Taking into account Greenstone’s recent formation and the area’s resources slump, preparing the municipality for a surge of mining activity creates several challenges.
“We’re in an adjustment situation, because this area was really hit hard by the closure of mines in the 1960s and in the last seven years the forestry industry has disappeared,” she explains. “So the opportunity we have with the Ring of Fire really requires the municipality to unite and pull together.
“It’s also really important to understand that this municipality is one of the largest in Canada in terms of landmass – we cover nearly 2,800 square kilometres – and it was only 12 years ago that we amalgamated four small towns and the communities between them,” Blanchard continues. “The resulting municipality is relatively young and there are many challenges associated with pulling that new community fabric together, so that we’re prepared for this increased mineral activity.”
That planning process began with more than 20 studies looking at possible factors of development, including hydropower implementation, highway upgrades, waste management and mining services procurement. The conclusions from these analyses went towards formulating a growth plan for Greenstone.
The Grow Greenstone Expo, which took place at the end of March, was set up to show this growth plan to anyone and everyone connected to the minerals industry. “More than 300 entrepreneurs from Canada and more than 1,000 individuals came together to see what we were doing, so it was very well attended,” says Blanchard. “We had insurance companies, First Nation organizations, large mining companies such as Cliffs Natural Resources and Premier Gold, and many government agencies.”
Guest speakers included Ovide Mercredi, a former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and now a prominent Canadian politician. Once the Expo finished, the Matawa Tribal Council and the Ministry of Greenstone entered into a conference to determine how they would work together persuaded Blanchard and her team to throw a similar event in 2014.
Much of Greenstone’s growth plan can be summed up by the acronym CAPP – standing for Connectivity, Accessibility, Power and People. These are the areas Blanchard considers crucial to ensuring the strong and successful development of Greenstone.
“We need connectivity such as broadband and telecommunications infrastructure to support global trade and business opportunities,” she says. “With two airports serving our small community of less than 5,000 people, we have excellent accessibility already and we’re working to construct the roads from Nakina that lead to the Ring of Fire.”
Power is a concern because many far-north First Nation communities don’t have electricity grid power and instead run off diesel, the cost of which is offset by the government, says Blanchard. “We’re working on the grid, ensuring the infrastructure is done accordingly so that we can attract more manufacturing and processing companies,” she adds.
The last part of the formula is people – the number of which is expected to skyrocket once the Ring of Fire mining boom kicks in. “The government believes our population will triple over the next five years, so it’s important we have the facilities for training them,” adds Blanchard. “We are currently negotiating with the government to put in a regional skills centre here, focused primarily on the mineral and exploration industry, so that we can train and retain some of the population.”
Greenstone’s initial preparations for the Ring of Fire boom are already underway. The municipality recently secured more than $1.6 million to reline waterlines in the Geraldton ward, which will enable the gold mine there to expand. It is also undertaking a “cultural mapping process” to enhance understanding of Greenstone’s unique culture. “This is important because the fabric of the community has changed,” says Blanchard. “There’s a large missing generation of 18 to 45 year olds and we want to attract those people back.”
Blanchard has also taken the community through an Investment Readiness Process and is working with the federal government to make Greenstone a foreign investment community, so that representatives from the municipality can travel with federal trade missions.
Meanwhile, several mining companies have started exploration in the Ring of Fire. Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE: CLF) and Noront (TSX.V: NOT) have both established early-stage projects there and, according to Blanchard, to date there are 30,000 claims established in the region. She expects Cliffs and Noront’s mines to go into production in 2016-17.
The new mines will inevitably create jobs for local people, as well as bring in people from elsewhere. “We don’t have enough people in Northern Ontario to fill the positions these mines will create; just to do the initial infrastructure will require thousands of labourers,” Blanchard remarks.
“By driving a tripling of the population, the Ring of Fire development will make our local people the minority. That’s why we’re taking the bull by the horns – you just can’t plan enough, because if you don’t plan, there’s no catching up. I’m trying to minimize the impending impact by having the answers and tools ready for the time it arrives. And our various preparatory projects are not just about benefitting Greenstone – they are all regional in scope.”
Blanchard believes that Greenstone is “way ahead of the curve” in comparison to other northern communities facing similar events. Even so, many challenges still lie ahead for the municipality and its relatively small population.
“There are a lot of sceptical people, because the potential of the Ring of Fire is too massive to grasp,” says Blanchard. “So if we can see the first shovel in the ground that would be a celebration – the first step, I believe, towards Greenstone becoming one of the biggest municipalities in the northwest.”