Dec '11/Jan '12

Canadians Abroad

Adventures in paradise

By R. Andrews

A nickel company’s number cruncher trades his Montreal office for a life in the South Pacific

Life is good for Pierre-André Viens, senior business analyst for Xstrata Nickel’s mining project in New Caledonia. As a Canadian, it is hard not to smile when you wake up on winter mornings to the swaying of palm trees outside your window.

The mining industry often requires its workers to relocate to remote and sometimes less attractive areas, but once in a while, you might get lucky like Viens, and find your project situated near turquoise water. “It’s the South Pacific paradise you see in the movies,” he says. “I live in a small house with a beautiful tropical garden where I grow coconuts, bananas and papayas.”

Located in the Western Pacific Ocean, 1,500 kilometres east of Australia, New Caledonia has a population of about 250,000; nickel is the economic lifeblood of this French territory. Nicknamed “le caillou” (the rock), the ore there has been mined since the late 19th century and the Melanesian island group sits on an estimated 25 per cent of the world’s nickel resources.

Xstrata Nickel has partnered with Société Minière du Sud Pacific (SMSP), New Caledonia’s North Province financial arm, to develop the massive Koniambo ore body on Grande Terre, the main island. The Toronto-based company holds a 49 per cent stake in Koniambo Nickel SAS; the remaining 51 per cent share is owned by SMSP. “Koniambo is a huge, long-life project with an open pit mine, a metallurgical plant and associated infrastructure, including a power station,” says Viens. “I conduct the business analysis and the economic models for the venture.”

Viens says his job is challenging, but he feels good about the work he is doing. “What makes Koniambo extra special is the support we get from the local populations,” he adds. “The plan to build a nickel processing factory in the North Province has been supported by elected representatives, provincial administrators and the local communities in an effort to support and implement the economic rebalancing written into the Matignon and Nouméa Accords.”

In fact, last year alone, about 4,000 people (mostly from the North Province) came to the site to see how it was progressing. “One of the main goals is to distribute the benefits of the project and raise the level of income of the people in the North Province,” he explains. “Enhancing wealth for the indigenous people is considered to be very important.”

Despite its attractions, Viens’ move from Montreal to Koné two years ago came with an initial culture shock. It was a far cry from his life of working in a Canadian industrial park, with completely different weather, landscapes and pace of life. But the locals were welcoming, and saying yes to the opportunity to work on an international operation quickly proved to be the right choice.

As well as a significant career move, the posting has changed Viens’ personal life. He makes the most of the island’s recreational opportunities and often jokes that he feels as though he lives in a resort. “I got my scuba diving certificate a while ago and can now explore one of the best coral reefs in the world,” he says. “Then I thought, why stop there? So I got my pilot’s license to fly ultra light aircraft as well. It’s fantastic to soar the skies over lagoons, mountain ranges, atolls and rainforests.”

Nevertheless, Viens admits that he sometimes gets homesick and misses his family and friends, so he makes a point of returning to Canada for Christmas. “I’m happy to come home, but I have to say, I’m ready to leave for the tropics again after a couple of weeks of a Quebec winter,” Viens laughs. “I don’t mind the thought of a few more years of white sands and palm trees, without shoveling snow, icy roads and wearing multiple layers of clothing.”

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