Sept/Oct 2011

Strength in numbers

BC mining suppliers aim to take advantage of global economy

By C. Crawshaw

With British Columbia’s forestry industry waning, many are looking to the mining sector to fill in the economic gaps. Fortunately, global trends favour a major comeback in the mining industry, particularly the high price of gold and Asia’s growing appetite for fossil fuels.

In the last few years, a handful of new mines have opened in BC and some decommissioned mines have been revitalized. “I would call it the early tremblings of a boom,” said Kevin McCormack, BC mining product manager at A.J. Forsyth.

The 102-year-old company, a Canadian subsidiary of Russel Metals Inc., is banking on a mining resurgence.  Based in Prince George, British Columbia, the company makes metal products for manufacturers of heavy equipment. Five years ago, management opted to move away from forestry and towards mining.

“Being in BC, the forest industry was everything for years and years,” explained McCormack. “We could see the forestry industry slowing down, and at the same time, we saw that mining was having a resurgence.”

To connect with the industry and help with efforts to open more mines in the province, in 2006, A.J. Forsyth joined the Mining Suppliers Association of British Columbia (MSABC). Formed in 1986, MSABC is a non-profit association affiliated with the Mining Association of British Columbia (MABC) comprised of suppliers, contractors and consultants that endeavor to raise the profile of the mining industry and promote the development of a sustainable mining industry in BC. To that end, it frequently partners with MABC to lobby government for the creation of new mines and to change public perceptions through initiatives like BC Mining Week and Mining for Miracles, a fundraising effort for BC Children’s Hospital.  

Even though a few new mines have opened in recent years, MSABC chair Patty Moore noted that there are plenty of barriers standing in the way of industry growth, including the public’s perception of mining. “We have to convince the public at large of the importance of mining for them to understand and perhaps not be so judgmental,” she said. “Mining today is a whole different ball game than it was 100 years ago. Companies take sustainability and the environment very seriously.” She pointed out that both MSABC and MABC are involved with the Mining Association of Canada’s Toward Sustainable Mining initiative, which works to promote more sustainable practices in the mining and mineral processing industry.

Moore feels that collaboration is crucial to strengthening MABC and the industry as a whole. “My vision is to continue to work closely with MABC and other associations such as AME BC [Association of Mineral Exploration BC] to further advance this vital industry,” she said.  “To that end, I would like to see our membership at least double in the next few years.  Through our close to 200 member companies, we already represent about 25,000 employees throughout the province, which is a significant supporting voice for our industry. You can just imagine the impact we would have if we could double that amount. The potential is definitely there to do so.”

The strength that comes from a unified vision will be vital, as Canadian suppliers increasingly look outside our borders for new and developing markets.  A case in point is Knelson, based in Langley, British Columbia, which manufacturers equipment for mines around the world. Currently, its biggest and fastest growing market is Russia, but China and other Asian countries are also buying the company’s products. British Columbia represents only five to 10 per cent of Knelson’s equipment sales, and Canada represents about 15 to 20 per cent, explained Doug Corsan, the company’s vice-president, international sales. Of course, this could change. “We’ve seen a real surge of the number of exploration projects that have been active,” he said.

Unfortunately, the soaring Canadian dollar and high cost of manufacturing in BC have proven challenging. Government regulations have also created barriers for growth. “I’m not saying it’s necessarily wrong that we have these regulations, but an investment dollar will go where it thinks it can get the best return,” said Corsan. He noted that it can be hard to attract investors to mining projects that can take 10 years to come to fruition.

Miscommunication between government departments can sometimes further slow down the process. “You’ve got four or five government bodies that are involved at various stages of development and they don’t seem coordinated,” Corson said.

McCormack agrees that the processes can be slow, but he is optimistic this will change. “I know the MSABC is working hard with the government to come up with ideas to streamline the process,” he said. For all the challenges ahead, McCormack is convinced that BC’s mining industry is on the verge of a major growth period. “I think the demand is going to stay strong in Asia and as long as that happens, you’re going to see new mines in BC,” he explained. “The conditions are right for new mines – we just have to get through the processes.”

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