Canada is home to 38 nonferrous metal smelters and refineries, which are operational in six out of 13 provinces and territories. In 2007, 86 per cent of mining-related jobs were employed in activities related to mineral processing, an overall increase of five per cent since 1991. Over the same period of time, environmental considerations have gained prevalence as a major priority for the Canadian mining industry. The Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative includes a number of guiding principles that will have an increasing impact on the industry’s skills development needs, leading to a requirement for an increasingly more diverse and highly skilled workforce.
Practicing continuous improvement through the application of new technology, innovation and best practices in all facets of our operations.
— MAC-TSM Guiding Principle
Current economic circumstances provide industry with an opportunity to restructure operations and to develop and apply new technologies, innovations and best practices that will position the Canadian mining industry as a global leader in sustainable practices in mining. A key factor in developing this leadership will be the attention given to the development of highly qualified people.
By their very nature, mineral processing and the treatment and management of waste products involve an intrusion upon the landscape. Minimizing the environmental impact of mineral processing will depend, to a large extent, upon the skills and sensitivity of the workforce towards the mandatory and voluntary sustainability standards.
The Canadian Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) is currently working on a counter-cyclical strategy to address the continued need to engage current and future mining employees who might be evaluating the prospect of building an existing or potential career in mining. Addressing the need for further implementation of environmentally sustainable practices in mineral processing should not be isolated from the need to create sustainable careers for the highly qualified people that the industry depends upon for its research and development capabilities. Collaboration between industry groups and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) would be an ideal focal point for the development of the resources needed to develop these capabilities.
The Mining Association of Canada points out in Facts & Figures 2008 that the competitiveness of the Canadian mineral processing industry also depends upon process optimization and the just-in-time management of mineral ore shipments and processed materials. Ore reserves are on the decline in Canada. Local ore reserves and base metal concentrates are gradually being replaced by supplies from other jurisdictions. This is fuelling the need for new and innovative ways of optimizing processes and building up local ore reserves so that the future of the Canadian mineral processing industry does not become dependent upon global supply chains for both its inputs and outputs.
The stability of supplies of ore to Canadian smelters and refineries will have an increasingly important impact on the ability to provide the stable careers needed to attract the highly qualified people that the mineral processing industry needs to stay competitive in a globalized economy. Competing with lower cost jurisdictions can be done by developing our human resources and improving productivity.
Canada’s universities are well suited to develop these human resources; however, these institutions have been hampered in their role by the boom and bust nature of the mining industry. A counter-cyclical strategy designed to prop up the mining-related faculties at Canadian universities will go a long way in supporting a viable mineral processing industry and moving it towards sustainable mining practices. It is crucial that environmental sustainability go hand-in-hand with human resources development so that the Canadian mining industry can become a socially conscious and innovative leader in mineral processing.
Jean Pierre Chabot is manager of research and policy analysis at MiHR, responsible for the analysis of HR policy options and constraints that impact the mining industry in Canada. Formerly the project coordinator for a number of Latin American projects, he brings an international perspective to issues facing the Canadian mining industry.