Last year it was a propaganda blitz. For several weeks in the spring of 2020, Atlantic Gold, which operates an open pit gold mine in Moose River in the Halifax Regional Municipality and wants to open three more along the Eastern Shore, bombarded people in Nova Scotia with its PR.
Atlantic Gold’s owner, Australia’s St Barbara Ltd that acquired the company in 2019 for $722 million (details on that are here and here), blanketed the province with mail-outs.
The flyers declared that St. Barbara is “deeply proud to create prosperity and opportunity for families in rural Nova Scotia,” a rather implausible claim coming from a corporation way down under and on the other side of the planet with one raison d’étre — maximizing profits for its shareholders, as Joel Bakan makes eminently clear in his book, The Corporation.
As if the flyers weren’t enough, Atlantic Gold ads then filled the airwaves on CBC TV and CTV, and if you missed the inspirational videos there, you could catch them on YouTube.
One video informs viewers that Atlantic Gold is “proud to be an environmental steward.”
This may come as something of a surprise to Krista Gillis and Mitchell Glawson, who have complained bitterly since December 2020 about the muddying of a brook near a site where clay is being excavated by a contractor for Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy mine in Moose River, as the Examiner reported here.
Even as I am writing this, I have been receiving photos and messages from Krista Gillis that the same thing has happened again downstream from the area where Atlantic Gold’s contractor, Alva Construction, is excavating clay for the Touquoy mine.
Nova Scotia Environment has laid 32 environmental charges against Atlantic Mining NS, a subsidiary of Atlantic Gold — the “environmental steward” — for alleged infractions between February 2018 and May 2020, and the company will be in Dartmouth Provincial Court on March 15.
Atlantic Gold also commissioned a dubious survey in 2020, as the Examiner reported, which produced equally dubious results that St Barbara continues to boast about, something we’ll come back to.
All of which is to say that in 2020, St Barbara / Atlantic Gold spent a lot of time and money trying to woo the Nova Scotian public.
But, as it turns out, it’s not just the public that St Barbara is busy trying to influence.
Bigger fish to catch?
This year, St Barbara has also decided to extend its influencing efforts in Canada a little closer to the top, to the nation’s capital where big decisions on environmental approvals for mining projects are made.
For the first time, St Barbara has hired a dedicated lobbyist to plead the Atlantic Gold case with the federal government in Ottawa.
Tiéoulé Traoré of NATIONAL Public Relations, who worked as a parliamentary assistant in the House of Commons in 2012 – 2014, began his stint representing the St Barbara / Atlantic Gold cause with the feds on January 7, 2021.
His target in Ottawa will be public officials in the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).
The federal lobbyist register says that Traoré’s “subject matters” are: Aboriginal Affairs, Economic Development, Mining and Regional Development.
His “subject matter details” are: “Policies or Program, Regulation: Seeking introductory meetings with senior elected and public officials to provide an overview of Atlantic Gold’s current operations in Nova Scotia”.
Perhaps it makes sense — at least in the peculiar world of corporate lobbying — that a hired shill in Ottawa is considered well placed to inform “senior elected and public officials” there about a mining company’s operations more than 1,400 kilometres away in rural Nova Scotia.
There are good reasons for St. Barbara’s focus on public officials in Ottawa.
The company’s open pit Touquoy mine in Moose River, operated these days by another corporate entity called Atlantic Mining NS Inc., is just one of four gold mines in what’s called the Moose River Consolidated Project that St Barbara needs to get going in Nova Scotia if it is going to continue to keep investors happy and attract new ones.
As the Examiner reported here, Atlantic Gold has plans for three more open pit mines at Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill, a project the company has referred to as its “string of pearls” in “back yard Canada,” by which it meant Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore.
In its 2019 technical report, Atlantic Gold stated that extraction at Touquoy would stop in 2023, after the company transitioned its mining operations to Beaver Dam where it would mine from 2021 until 2027.
In 2022, Atlantic Gold planned to start operations at Fifteen Mile Stream where it would mine for five years, and in 2023, it intended to begin six years of production at Cochrane Hill.
The hitch is that the approvals for these three additional mines — which are the full extent of St Barbara’s Canadian operations — are not yet secured.
And investors are starting to sound a little impatient.
On January 26, 2021, St Barbara Managing Director and CEO Craig Jetson held an “earnings call” to brief analysts and institutional investors on second quarter 2021 results. Participating in the call were representatives from Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Credit Suisse.
Jetson’s presentation showed the latest schedule for the four Nova Scotia mines, the “Atlantic project development,” and blamed the delay on the original mine opening plans on “changes in Federal regulatory permitting” that “have impacted project timelines.”
Alex Barkley of Morgan Stanley later asked Jetson when he expected the first gold production from Beaver Dam, whether he was looking at 2023 or 2024 as plausible starting dates.
“Do you know if you’re any closer to knowing whether we should expect that earlier gold production?” Barkley asked. “And could we get an update on that process, please?”
Jetson replied that they had “refocused” the business in Nova Scotia, and appointed a general manager, “to take the lead on that permitting, certainly interface with the First Nations and all the key stakeholders to make sure that doesn’t become problematic or managed accordingly and that permits are delivered on time from a sequencing-perspective and the project-perspective.”
Jetson continued, falling all over his own wordiness:
So that’s going very well, and leading the team are certainly engaging quite well. I think Beaver Dam, in terms of its sequence, will be really subject to the permitting and I think we’re working with First Nations and the government. We’ve put it in their timeline where we think the permitting will be. In my view, that’s conservative and we’ll certainly try to shorten that timeline down without guarantees, of course. A lot of things have to work and as you’d know, Alex, the permitting is not really something that we can control other than work with. So, I guess the quality of our applications is extremely important, so we make sure that we answer all the questions, we have all the technical solutions in place, and one that really explains as we submit the permit. So, I’m confident that the timeline will be less than what we have in that project plan … [italics added]
It seems much is at stake for St Barbara if there are any hitches or delays in the opening of its new mines in Nova Scotia, particularly when it comes to the permitting process and, it appears, also the “quality” of Atlantic Gold’s applications for environmental approval.
As the Examiner reported previously, St Barbara operates one gold mine in Australia, which has a history of underperforming. It has another aging gold mine in Papua New Guinea. These days, it appears to be banking heavily on its Nova Scotia operations.
Atlantic Gold holds thousands of exploration claims in Nova Scotia, and continues to drill all over the province for gold. But without the three mines along the Eastern Shore, its short-term prospects in Nova Scotia are not bright.
In other words, Atlantic Gold desperately needs to get government approval for Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill.
Environmental Impact Statements
Atlantic Gold – then the Australian company DDV Gold – was able to open its Touquoy open pit gold mine in Moose River with just provincial approval and avoid a federal environmental assessment in 2007, for some inexplicable reason.
The same is not true for the other three mines it has proposed.
The proposals for Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill are all undergoing federal evaluations with the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC).
Atlantic Gold submitted its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Beaver Dam proposal to the federal Impact Assessment Agency in June 2017.
The first round of comments and criticisms on the Atlantic Gold project submission from both federal and provincial government officials in Nova Scotia Environment and what was then the Department of Natural Resources (now Energy and Mines), were numerous, tough, and in some cases almost scathing.
Provincial officials made 55 criticisms of Atlantic Gold’s Beaver Dam Environmental Impact Statement, including damning ones like this:
The document does not provide sufficient evaluation, data or analysis on the duration, geographic extent and impact of residual effects of habitat loss (both qualitative and quantitatively) beyond the five-year operating life of the project on wetland function(s), wildlife (including turtles, moose, birds) and water. Consideration of these variables is required for a project such as this one, given the short operating duration (5 yrs) but with a large geography area of impact extended over a long-term that can be reasonably inferred to be negatively affected.
Federal officials had 37 requests for information missing in the Atlantic Gold EIS. The comments from the Impact Assessment Agency are riddled with criticisms such as lacks “sufficient detail,” “not clear,” “not clearly defined,” “misleading,” “ambiguous,” and “not identified.”
So ended Round 1 of the Beaver Dam assessment.
In February 2019, Atlantic Gold submitted its revised EIS with responses to the information requests from the federal and provincial governments, kicking off Round 2 of the assessment process.
In April 2019, Nova Scotia government departments responded to Atlantic Gold’s revised EIS for Beaver Dam. Once again, it appears that the government specialists were not impressed. This time they made 203 comments, with questions or requests for more information. The comments make for interesting — and worrisome — reading, raising questions about the quality of Atlantic Gold’s homework and its plans for the Beaver Dam mine, and highlighting the environmental risks of the project.
The federal environmental assessors then delivered their verdict in two parts on the revised Beaver Dam EIS.
In the first, on May 8, 2019, they identified 47 issues and information gaps or problems, with an even longer list of things that Atlantic Gold needed to do to complete the EIS.
In June 2019, after receiving comments on the revised EIS from Indigenous groups, the assessment agency identified another six major issues with the proposal relating to Mi’kmaq concerns about the Beaver Dam project, requiring Atlantic Gold to fill another 13 information gaps.
Residents of Mooseland, between the site of the proposed Beaver Dam mine and the Touquoy mine to which the ore is to be trucked for processing, have also expressed many concerns about the negative effects a haul road between the mines could have on moose and the environment.
On October 14, 2019, the Atlantic Gold subsidiary Atlantic Mining NS submitted the EIS for its proposed mine at Fifteen Mile Stream.
A month later, the Impact Assessment Agency informed James Millard of Atlantic Mining NS / Atlantic Gold that the EIS for Fifteen Mile Stream did “not conform” to the requirements of an Environmental Impact Statement. Attached to the letter was an Annex with a long list of “detailed conformity gaps” and corrections to the EIS. In a second Annex, three federal departments offered eight areas of “advice” to Atlantic Mining NS.
In January 2019, the Impact Assessment Agency provided Atlantic Gold with the guidelines for an EIS for its proposed Cochrane Hill gold mine. As the Guysborough Journal reported in January 2021, Atlantic Gold now says it has delayed its planned opening of the mine until 2026.
In late December 2020, the Examiner asked Atlantic Gold communications manager Dustin O’Leary when the company would be submitting its next round of revised Environmental Impact Statements to the government for Beaver Dam and Fifteen Mile Stream, and its EIS for Cochrane Hill. O’Leary replied:
With regards to the proposed mine at Beaver Dam, a full submission has been delivered to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC), in accordance with the approvals process, which addresses all possible impacts. The assessment evaluated impacts from sensory disturbance (i.e. dust, light, noise, etc) on receptors closer than 600 metres and those impacts, once mitigated, were deemed to be within guidelines and without need for further mitigation measures. Impacts to wildlife, including mainland moose, are assessed in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and updates will be provided in revised EIS documents, which are scheduled to be submitted shortly.
Pulling strings in Nova Scotia
The appointment of the lobbyist in Ottawa and a general manager in Nova Scotia to push on the permitting appears to be just part of St Barbara’s strategy to pull strings on this side of the ocean.
On January 7, the same day that St Barbara’s lobbyist started work in Ottawa, the Chronicle Herald’s Aaron Beswick broke the story that St Barbara CEO Craig Jetson had spoken on the phone in October 2020 with Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil.
A search of the Nova Scotia Registry of Lobbyists produced no results for St Barbara, or its subsidiaries Atlantic Gold or Atlantic Mining NS.
Still St Barbara’s CEO was able to speak with the Nova Scotia premier.
In his article, Beswick dutifully repeated statements made to him by the premier’s office that the two men didn’t talk about the controversial mine proposed for Cochrane Hill, which was undergoing a federal assessment.
Nor, according to the premier’s spokesperson, did the two men talk about the proposed Archibald Lake Wilderness Area, which Nova Scotia Environment Minister Gordon Wilson had announced in January 2020 had been designated for public consultation and protection.
The Parks and Protected Areas page for the new Archibald Lake Wilderness Area said it would “protect 684 hectares (ha) of woodlands, lakes and several small wetlands in the watershed of Archibald Brook, an important tributary of the St. Mary’s River.”
The provincial government description painted a glowing picture of an ecosystem that definitely deserved protection:
The candidate wilderness area consists of Archibald, McDonald and Rocky lakes (240 ha altogether), along with surrounding provincial lands. At least 300 ha is old hardwood forest on elongated hills (drumlins). The remainder is primarily mature or older hardwood forest on hills and mature softwood forest on flatter terrain. This forest provides important habitat for species that depend on or prefer old forest.
The watershed of Archibald Brook provides quality habitat for brook trout and other aquatic species.
Nearly the entire site consists of ecosystem elements that are poorly represented in Nova Scotia’s protected areas network, including the well drained hardwood drumlins. It also overlaps with a mainland moose concentration zone delineated by the Department of Lands and Forestry.
With the lakes and surrounding hardwood hills, this is a very scenic area. It is used and enjoyed for a variety of outdoor activities, including sport fishing, hunting, camping and camp use.
Three campsite leases occur on Archibald Lake. These will be honoured under the Wilderness Areas Protection Act.
However, as the Examiner reported here, in the province’s description of the new wilderness area, there was also this:
About 10 ha around Archibald Brook is subject to mineral exploration rights. These rights can be honoured under the Wilderness Areas Protection Act, provided activities do not degrade the wilderness area.
Archibald Lake is also identified in Atlantic Gold’s description for the proposed Cochrane Hill Gold Project: https://ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/evaluations/proj/80159?culture=en-CA. The company’s proposed use of Archibald Lake cannot be permitted within a wilderness area.
The province’s announcement that Archibald Lake was on a list of candidate wilderness areas, and that Atlantic Gold’s proposed use of the area for its mine would not be permitted, didn’t go over well with the corporation’s powers that were.
In March, the Chronicle Herald published a “local perspectives” opinion piece by Maryse Belanger, decrying the announcement.
Belanger was hardly a disinterested party. She was president and COO of Atlantic Gold before it was acquired by St Barbara; when she penned the opinion piece she was “president Americas” of St Barbara.
If Belanger is familiar at all to Nova Scotians it might be as the woman who appeared on video presiding over the brutal arrest of John Perkins at a May 2019 Atlantic Gold public information session in Sherbrooke.
As the Chronicle Herald’s Aaron Beswick found out from his Freedom of Information request, in the spring of 2020, Atlantic Gold began trying to arrange a meeting with Premier McNeil.
St Barbara CEO Jetson wrote to McNeil in May and again in June, shamelessly flattering the premier and asking to meet with him, “with the future of the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine currently under consideration.”
Jetson finally got his call with Premier McNeil on October 20, 2020, four days after the province announced that it was not going ahead with the Archibald Wilderness Area.
As Beswick reported, the day after the call, Jetson’s quarterly presentation to investors stated that the decision to protect “Archibald Lake (proposed water source for Cochrane Hill Gold Project)” had been “deferred by government.”
But, of course, Beswick was told the two men never discussed any of this.
Which stretches credulity, but there it is.
On February 2, 2021, Nova Scotia Environment and Lands and Forestry announced that the province would be going ahead with the protection of 20 wilderness areas.
Archibald Lake was conspicuously absent from the list.
Local lobbying continues
In addition to its new hired cheerleader in Ottawa, Atlantic Gold has long had a strong ally and champion here in Nova Scotia in the Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS).
Sean Kirby, MANS executive director, has been a registered lobbyist on behalf of MANS and its members, among them Atlantic Gold, with the province since November 26, 2012.
Kirby’s registration lapsed on April 20, 2020, but he continued to work his thumbs hard on Twitter and Facebook as MANS executive director telling happy-ever-after mining tales and flogging the much-criticized survey that Atlantic Gold commissioned in 2020.
According to Service Nova Scotia spokesperson Tracy Barron, an in-house lobbyist who represents a company or organization:
… must be registered within two months of when the lobbying activities became a significant part of the employee(s) duties…
must register within 10 days of beginning a lobbying undertaking on behalf of a client.
Further, she said in an email, the registration term under the Lobbyists’ Registration Act “is six months and must be renewed (where the lobbying is continuing) within 30 days of the expiration of that six-month period.”
“It is an offence under the Act not to register within the specified time limits,” Barron wrote.
The Examiner emailed Kirby on the evening of February 2, 2021 to ask if he had done any lobbying of public officials in the nine months since his registration lapsed.
Kirby didn’t reply, but within hours his registration as a lobbyist had been renewed.
Details of St Barbara’s corporate structure and the management of its Nova Scotia companies are noticeably scarce on the St Barbara website and the current Atlantic Gold website, although there is no shortage of PR puff on the latter.
Atlantic Gold’s home page offers visitors a “Take Action Send a letter to your MLA” tab that links to another page that invites them to search for their MLA, with another tab to “SEND A LETTER TO YOUR MLA.” (Spoiler alert: nothing happened when I clicked on it.)
Atlantic Gold also devotes a page to its questionable 2020 survey, which it calls a “public perception study.”
There was good reason for Atlantic Gold to commission the study in 2020, and method behind its PR madness last year — all those flyers and TV ads.
Atlantic Gold hadn’t been getting a lot of great publicity.
There was strong and increasingly organized opposition to its Cochrane Hill gold mine, spearheaded by Friends of the St. Mary’s River and the NOPE (No Open Pit Excavation) campaign. Some influential Nova Scotians had also spoken out against the proposed Cochrane Hill mine, including former CEO of Empire Co., Paul Sobey, who had told the CBC that the plan to put a mine there was mind-boggling.
Nor had the violent arrest of John Perkins at the Atlantic Gold public information session in May 2019 done the company’s reputation a lot of good.
So it made sense, from a PR perspective, for Atlantic Gold to try to polish up its tarnished image with the broader public. And what better way than to undertake a telephone survey that it could use to prove that Nova Scotians thought gold mining was good for them?
As the Examiner reported in February 2020, two people who received the calls said the survey questions seemed skewed, intended to elicit particular responses, and there was no room for respondents to deviate from multiple choice answers or add information.
Narrative Research, which conducted the survey for Atlantic Gold, defended the survey to the Examiner at the time, maintaining that it, “asked opinion on a range of related topics.”
This contradicts the observations of, Margaret Anne McHugh, who took part in the survey that she called a “push poll,” with leading and loaded questions that focussed on what kind of things could convince her to support gold mining — whether the creation of 200 or 300 jobs in the community would do it, or if her support for mining would increase if she knew the environment would not be harmed.
When McHugh protested that the answers didn’t give her the option to express her real opinion, and asked if she could simply not answer such questions, she was told that the survey would then end.
Nevertheless, Atlantic Gold — along with the Mining Association of Nova Scotia — has used the dubious survey results extensively in its PR messages, and even in the dozens of form letters that its staff sent to Nova Scotia government ministers and Premier McNeil in support of the Cochrane Hill mine, which appear in a Freedom of Information package made public on January 29, 2021.
Without providing the actual questions and prescribed answers that were permitted to each, Atlantic Gold claims that, based on the answers from 700 people:
Overall, three-quarters of residents support gold mining in Nova Scotia. Support is slightly higher in the community of interest [Guysborough, Pictou and Antigonish Counties], with eight in ten residents expressing support. Creating jobs and contributing to the economy are the main reasons for residents [sic] support.
Then there is this remarkable statement:
Over eight in ten residents would be more inclined to increase their support [sic] gold mining in Nova Scotia if a gold mining company were able to demonstrate there would be no negative effects on the environment. [emphasis added]
Of course no gold mining company on earth can demonstrate any such thing. And what does it mean that they would be “more inclined” to “increase” their support for gold mining? From what level? And how much more inclined?
Atlantic Gold offers this rationale for its survey:
Atlantic Gold commissioned this study because [sic] are committed to helping rural Nova Scotia thrive. By creating high-paying jobs, people can build their lives here and return from working away – all while we protect the environment for generations to come.
Well, it could be true that a company would commission a mining survey so it could “help rural Nova Scotia thrive” and perhaps it could be true that blasting giant craters into the earth and creating massive tailings ponds that need to be maintained and monitored for centuries can be construed as protecting “the environment for generations to come.”
But it would have to be in a very distant universe.
 After St Barbara Ltd acquired Atlantic Gold, much of the information previously available on the Atlantic Gold website disappeared. Versions of the erstwhile website (http://atlanticgoldcorporation.com) can still be accessed by searching it using the Wayback Machine (https://archive.org/web/).
Re, the paragraph: “Atlantic Gold – then the Australian company DDV Gold – was able to open its Touquoy open pit gold mine in Moose River with just provincial approval and avoid a federal environmental assessment in 2007, for some inexplicable reason.” Informed sources point out that the reason that the Touquoy mine was not subject to the federal assessment is that until 2012, mines that size did not qualify for a federal environmental assessment. However, critics have pointed out that the single mine has now morphed into the Moose River Consolidated Project, which involves four mines, and a good deal of trucking of ore, all of which is to be processed at the Touqouy site, and that as such, the entire project should have to undergo a joint federal – provincial assessment looking at cumulative effects, rather than the three additional mines individually. The Touquoy mine at Moose River received environmental approval from the Nova Scotia government in February 2008.
Bravo, Joan, as usual! Your investigating articles should be mandatory reading for all the involved federal and provincial government officials. Thank you again.
Thanks for this work, Joan!
Great work as usual. I think this is an issue on which the whole province needs to be engaged. Do we really want to see the land torn up and watercourses ruined for a couple hundred (admittedly well paying) jobs? Aside from whatever income and sales taxes that may be produced there’s been no evidence that the development will generate revenues for the province – indeed it could be that reclamation costs will end up costing us a bundle after the mining companies have taken the money and run. We put our environment at risk with offshore gas, but at least we received a return in royalties amounting to billions. This gold mining initiative looks like a case of the proponent getting all of the rewards and the land and people of NS getting all of the risk. And a side note – the idea that this project is creating jobs for people in the economically depressed Eastern shore needs to be demonstrated. As the latest demographic stats show, the median age in Guysborough is 57 – not exactly the ideal age to begin a career in mining.
This kind of investigative reporting is why I subscribe to The Examiner. Thank you!