MBiz Magazine | Digging Deeper Into Manitoba’s Critical Minerals Industry

Jun 14, 2024 | Front Page, MBiz Magazine, MMDF, Natural Resources & Environment & Energy

By Lindsey Ward

From nickel to copper-zinc and lithium to gold, many of Manitoba’s richest natural resources remain untapped. The opportunities to discover high-demand critical minerals in Manitoba are as vast as the land they lie beneath.

Equally expansive are the benefits these explorations can have on the province. Aside from the obvious advantage of promoting sustainable growth, the critical minerals sector has a unique ability to foster economic reconciliation with Indigenous communities. “Fifty per cent or more of our province is actually hard rock, an area which we can explore to discover critical minerals,” says MaryAnn Mihychuk, president of the Manitoba Prospectors and Developers Association (MPDA), a leading voice of the mineral exploration and development sector in Manitoba.

“Manitoba has an enormous amount of land that has potential for mineral discovery.” Mihychuk, a retired politician and geologist, says Manitoba is underexplored compared to neighbouring provinces like Ontario, which houses similar resources. Creating meaningful partnerships with the Indigenous communities where these critical minerals are situated is a crucial part of uncovering them, she says, and there is still work to be done.

“Exploration companies have two bosses. You have the province that you must comply with their rules, and you must get their permits and you must get all the things that they demand,” she says. “But you also need permission from the First Nation. And if you don’t get that, your project can’t go on.” Indigenous people have been involved in exploration and extraction for thousands of years. Trappers even founded Manitoba’s largest mines in Flin Flon and  Bissett, where they helped settlers locate various types of rock, but their involvement dissipated soon afterwards.

“After the settlers created the rules, most First Nations have not been engaged in the mineral sector,” Mihychuk says. “So they’re like, ‘How is this going to benefit us? We see areas that have not been cleaned
up. We’re worried about our environment.’

And then you’ll have some communities that say we would consider it, but we want to become realpartners and share in the equity.” Norway House Cree Nation (NHCN) has successfully fallen into the latter category, having recently secured funding from the Manitoba Mineral Development Fund (MMDF) to acquire its own mining camp.

MMDF is a $20-million provincial fund administered by the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce. The purpose of MMDF is to grow the mineral development industry and stimulate economic development in northern Manitoba by providing grant funding to projects that benefit Manitoba’s economy and local communities alike, with a focus on projects related to the mining supply chain. Not only will the camp create dozens of jobs and additional revenue streams for the 9,000-person nation, but it will also set the stage for future partnerships with mining companies and critical mineral explorations in the North.

Chief Larson Anderson of NHCN strongly believes visiting mining companies will benefit from utilizing already at-hand assets such as the camps. He says NHCN also can execute drilling and build roads and is constantly exploring potential ways to work with outside groups. “We need to find a way to create employment and have better investments that will go a long way into developing our nation,” Anderson says. “We’re not open completely. Not just anyone comes into our territory. We have a very strong belief that mining companies can be more successful when they work with us. That means utilizing what assets we have that they would require. We’re no different than anyone else in the world. We want work.”

Last year, NHCN signed an Impact and Benefit Agreement with Flying Nickel Mining Corp. to advance the development of the Minago Nickel Project located in the Thompson nickel belt while ensuring environmental protection and creating jobs and contract opportunities. NHCN will also see a potentially multimillion- dollar profit in one year alone from Flying Nickel’s revenue at Minago since they also own 19.9 per cent of the company’s shares. NHCN’s progressive approach and dedication to accountability have helped it gain the respect of the companies it has joined forces with so far — while setting an example of what good can come when both parties work together.

“We didn’t want to be under the same messaging as most First Nations in this country where companies come in, take what they want and leave,” Anderson says. “As a First Nation, you have to start considering what you’re giving up and what you can try to do to achieve as much as that revenue for your nation.” Another neighbouring Cree Nation very recently followed suit, forging a partnership with mining company Vale Base Metals, whose Manitoba operations are based in Thompson.

“We formally announced a new exploration agreement with Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN), on whose traditional territory we operate,” says Stacy Kennedy, Vale’s director of Manitoba operations. The agreement includes commitments to regular meetings partnership, preferential consideration for qualified NCN businesses and employment through the exploration program, an environmental monitoring program led by NCN and a financial commitment.

“It’s the first step towards a broader agreement between Vale Base Metals and the community of NCN that we will be discussing in the coming year. It’s important that northern Manitoba and Indigenous communities benefit economically from critical minerals, creating jobs and prosperity through the mining industry.” Kennedy says reconciliation is high on Vale’s priority list, and educating current employees is crucial at this stage to keep their ties with northern communities strong.

“We’re privileged to have a strong relationship with many Indigenous organizations in Thompson, and we want to deepen our relationships with communities in our surrounding region. There are huge opportunities surrounding critical minerals in northern Manitoba, and we want to ensure Indigenous communities are part of the critical minerals boom.”

While environmental concerns will always be a factor in reconciliation, mining companies such as Vale are invested in protecting the North. They currently have a world-class environmental management program to protect the wildlife, land and water quality surrounding their operation, Kennedy says. “We’ve been proactively remediating decommissioned areas within our sites while recycling the byproducts to yield critical minerals like copper and residual nickel,” she says. “Our clay-capping operations also work with a local beekeeper to support pollination and revegetation in our tailings area and throughout our operation: last year, we gifted our employees 700 jars of Thompson honey, harvested directly from hives on our site.”

Similarly, Anderson says Flying Nickel has also gone above and beyond to address NHCN’s past concerns with water runoff and potential acidity of the nickel sulphides. Rob Van Drunen, chief operating officer for Flying Nickel and long-time northern Manitoba resident, expresses appreciation for the collaborative approach. “Working with the First Nations and Métis is extremely valuable in creating an environmentally sustainable, green mine concept. Manitoba has vast untapped mineral resources, and what is often unrecognized is the opportunity to develop skill capacity in the communities to fill roles needed for mining,” Van Drunen says.

“Flying Nickel continues to work towards developing new ways to builda mine, not only environmentally world class but community centric. None of this can happen without the support and direct involvement of First Nation and Métis peoples.” Flying Nickel confirms in company documents that it submitted substantial updates to a 2014 Notice of Alteration (NOA) for its 10,000 tonne-per-day open pit mining operation at Minago and is working closely with all Indigenous rightsholders, including NHCN, where significant input was utilized in the NOA submission.

Meanwhile, Minago is potentially one of the lowest carbon-intensity nickel projects in the world. Several initiatives are being considered or taken to minimize the carbon footprint of potential future mining operation at Minago. For mining, the company is examining the use of a fully electric mine fleet. For ore and waste processing, the crushing, milling and flotation processes would be powered by renewable Manitoba hydroelectricity.

The Agriculture and Resource Development Department (ARDD) has expressed support for the Minago Project, which would supply muchneeded Class 1 high-purity nickel to make nickel-lithium batteries used in electric vehicles. The project is expected to have an industry-leading low carbon footprint, lower than 99 per cent of existing global nickel production, according to a study by Skarn Associates, a metals and mining ESG research company.

Mihychuk agrees most of today’s operations are transparent with their intentions through publicly published reports and use the latest technology to ensure safety. “We have great scientists, and the way that we manage projects now is environmentally safe — a tiny footprint,” she says. “The last thing we want to do is leave a legacy that’s going to cause negative repercussions to a community or the environment.”

While the MPDA currently has several “big asks” on their agenda — including a road on the east side of Lake Winnipeg up to the community of Red Sucker that could lead to the potential access of over a million ounces of gold — the Manitoba critical mineral sector’s future has seen recent glimmers of hope thanks to growing support from communities like NHCN and the province’s current premier, Wab Kinew. The premier was recently in Washington, D.C., speaking with American congress people, senators and stakeholder groups about critical mineral opportunities in Manitoba and their technology, defence and EV applications.
“Minerals really hold a great opportunity for investment and wealth creation, both for the First Nations and for all taxpayers,” Mihychuk says. “We’re excited about the premier and his ability to reach out to his communities and his commitment to the critical mineral industry. We’re all waiting in huge expectation and anticipation that Manitoba will finally  open its doors to exploration.” ■


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