Protestors at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada meeting in Toronto, March. 1, 2020. Photo: Joan Baxter

Hundreds of protestors from a network of 50 organizations blocked the entrances to the Toronto Convention Centre on Sunday in a “People Before Profit: Evict the Corporate Villains!” rally to protest the opening of the four-day Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) annual convention. For four hours they sang, shouted, danced, drummed, and decried mining injustices in Canada and around the world.

One of the speakers, Rachel Small of the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN), said that Canada, with the extractive industry at its helm, is propelling us “towards a planet that is unliveable.” She and the other protesters were demanding:

…an end to all extractive violence that enables colonization of Indigenous land, forced displacement, violent repression, and wide scale contamination of land, water, and air. And that starts with disrupting PDAC today.

PDAC attendees trying to exit the blocked entrance to the convention centre on Front Street definitely noticed the protest outside, but as far as I could tell it was pretty much business as usual on the inside.

Photo: Joan Baxter

Many thousands of people from all over the world mingled, shook hands, hugged, ate, talked gold or mines, cozied up to investors, and crowded escalators going back and forth between the two enormous buildings where the event is taking place.

Corporate propaganda covered walls, railings, columns, “volunteer ambassador” t-shirts, and PDAC bags emblazoned with the name “Teck,” this year’s largest, or “diamond” sponsor of the convention.

Teck PR material adorned the PDAC meeting site. Photo: Joan Baxter

Just as they seemed immune to the protestors outside the centre, the PDAC attendees seemed equally unfazed by the risk of the novel Coronavirus, Covid-19.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Seamus O’Regan, did at one point say, “Rarely has our planet been joined in such collective urgency.” But it turned out he was not talking about the Coronavirus; he was talking about climate change (although how he comes to the conclusion that our planet is “joined” in collective urgency on that issue is also beyond me in the time of Trump and climate-change-denying-or-ignoring populist leaders springing up all over.)

In the hour-long opening ceremony, Covid-19 was mentioned only twice, and both times only because of the effect it would have on the economy. No mention of human health or lives.

Last week in Morning File, I asked the question of whether mining promotion trumps public health, wondering if Canada’s public health agency was concerned about the risks that an event like PDAC might pose in helping to spread the virus.

My specific question, asked of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, was what she would advise people who were planning to attend the convention in Toronto, given that the organizers say it attracts upwards of 25,000 people from more than 130 countries. I also wanted to know what it would take her agency to ask organizers to postpone or cancel the event.

Her reply did not answer those questions.

Nor was there any hint that PDAC had even contemplated postponing the event. Instead, on its website, it listed a few precautions it intended to take.

In addition to regular health and safety procedures, the following additional measures will be implemented at PDAC 2020:

  • Increased cleaning and disinfection of all high-volume touchpoints, including registration touchscreens, surface areas, handrails, washrooms, door handles, microphones, etc.
  • Increased availability of alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Signage reminding attendees of hygiene recommendations 

We continue to monitor the situation closely and will adapt plans accordingly.

In recent days, I’ve learned that I was far from the only person having doubts about the wisdom of holding the big mining bash in this time of Covid-19, and about the mindset of an industry that would turn a blind eye to the human health risks of going ahead with the PDAC.

One of those is a seasoned geologist, Andy Abraham, who contacted me after reading last Friday’s Morning File. Abraham told me he has been attending PDAC for 30 years. But, he said, after much thought and in consideration of his family he was not going to attend this year, as much as he enjoys the event.

He said he had met up with some old friends who told him they weren’t going to attend either. Some, however, felt obliged to go because they were committed to speak, or had pre-arranged meetings, or were expected to represent their companies.

In a telephone interview, Abraham drew my attention to a LinkedIn message he had written about PDAC and Covid-19:

The news on the global spread of COVID-19 has prompted Switzerland and France to ban indoor events with over 1000 and 5000 attendees, respectively. Many major conferences have been cancelled including:

  • ·Mobile World Congress in Barcelona
  • ·Facebook Global Marketing Summit in San Francisco
  • ·Facebook F8 in San Jose, California
  • ·EmTech, Asia in Singapore
  • ·Google News Initiative Global Summit in Sunnyvale, California
  • ·Shopify’s developer conference, Unite, in Toronto  

Yet with new cases appearing in Canada, the government has not banned major conferences and PDAC, which has way over 5000 attendees, is ahead full steam. 

Abraham continues:

There will be people who stay away this year and there are many who will attend and, hopefully, hand sanitize their way through the event and festivities. In the end nothing may happen, the bullet will be dodged, organizers and attendees will breathe a sigh of relief and head home satisfied they made the right decision. 

The other prospect is what if one or a few people attending are infected and contagious. What happens if one attendee becomes ill? Tracking thousands of people here and back to their home countries becomes a much bigger problem. What happens if many attendees become ill or die? Who takes responsibility?

Abraham pointed out that others share his concerns about Covid-19 at PDAC this year.

From James Webb’s “Midas Touch” commentary.
From James Webb’s “Midas Touch” commentary.

Author of the “Midas Letter Live” for investors, James West, dubbed PDAC 2020 the “Coronavirus Convention”:

Personally, I’m not going anywhere near PDAC this year. In an age where information and face-to-face discussion is easily and seamlessly (usually) enabled by modern technology, throwing a massive party for 3 days in the midst of a burgeoning pandemic is just idiotic.

I’m sure the swaggering tough-guy set out there are already mocking such sentiment, but that is precisely the mentality that viruses like Coronavirus exploit to achieve population growth. Stupid human beings, it will one day be noted in the historical ledger, are the greatest cause of premature death among the species.

I know I know I know….what kind of asshole shoots down the most important mining conference of the year in a year where the entire industry that has been suffering since 2012 is finally catching a break?

The Coronavirus has lately been tracking a 3 percent mortality rate. I’d rather suffer another lethargic year in my mining portfolio than I would face those odds for the sake of a convention where I basically shake hands with everyone I otherwise talk to on the phone throughout the year. One more year isn’t going to kill us…unless….

Bloomberg News headlined its story about PDAC and Covid-19, “A ‘Massive Petri Dish’: Virus Takes Shine Off Mining’s Big Show.” It carried a quote from Alex Black, CEO of Vancouver-based Rio2 Ltd: “I think anyone who goes is crazy and complacent about the issue … Any mining person knows that health and safety are the most important aspects of our business.”

Similarly, Rob McEwan, CEO and chief owner of McEwen Mining, issued a press release saying that because of:

… mounting uncertainty about the spread of Covid-19, and concern for the health of our employees and others, we at McEwen Mining have made the difficult decision to cancel our participation to the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention in Toronto this year. Just as our company holds high safety standards, the well-being of our investors and mining colleagues remains a priority. Our thoughts are with everyone affected through this challenging time.

As for precautions, I wish I could say I say I thought I saw enough of them. But I didn’t. I went from washroom to washroom, washing my hands long and hard and noticing that only a few others seemed to be doing the same (although the vast majority of attendees are men, so I don’t know what was going on in their washrooms). I looked for signs of the “increased cleaning,” and saw no sign of it.

Health advice at the PDAC meeting. Photo: Joan Baxter

There were a few signs with some tips to “help stop the spread of germs,” but those tended to be overshadowed by the giant corporate advertisements everywhere you looked.

Nor did PDAC itself provide an abundance of “alcohol-based hand sanitizer.” Although many individual exhibitors did have sanitizers in their booths, PDAC Hand sanitizer stations in the large public spaces are few and far between, and I saw only one person using one.

I guess some attendees are too caught up promoting mineral exploration and mining — and eyeing the profits to be accrued — to remember to pay attention to such details. After all, in his opening address, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister O’Regan did say that everyone should be “behind this industry,” declaring that “Mining’s moment is now!”

Let’s hope it’s not also Covid-19’s moment.

Mind you, the next day, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed up in an unannounced visit to speak to investors at PDAC, he did begin his speech with some comments, obviously meant to be reassuring, about the Coronavirus.

“Our government is taking a multi-departmental approach,” he said, and basing responses to the virus on the “best science and evidence available,” while continuing to monitor the situation globally, and “doing everything necessary to keep Canadians safe.”

I’m not sure anyone found this particularly comforting. And anyway, that was Day 2, by which time I noticed more people seemed to be taking more precautions — avoiding handrails, and regularly cleaning their hands with their own bottles of hand sanitizer. I even saw one cleaner wiping down the handrails on one of the escalators.

Day 2 at PDAC is Canada Day

Nation-state sponsors of the PDAC meeting. Photo: Joan Baxter

20200302 PDAC country sponsors

Day two of PDAC 2020 was Canada Day – and also Brazil Day and Peru Day, the three countries that directly sponsored the convention. In addition to Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit, two other federal ministers also graced the event with their presence, as did Premier Doug Ford.

And if anyone harboured even the tiniest of doubts that the federal government, or Ford’s provincial conservative government in Ontario, are enthusiastic backers of all things mining, the political speeches on Monday put paid to those.

Once again Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Seamus O’Regan took to the podium sounding like a zealous mascot for the industry, telling  representatives and investors, “This is Canada’s moment to shine,” and that in Canada, responsible resource extraction and development is our “family business.”

Apparently unaware of the often dismal record of Canadian mining companies abroad and growing opposition to extractive industries in Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau sang the praises of mineral extraction, and said that the government wanted to keep the mining sector strong and “maintain Canada’s stellar reputation.”

In between speeches and fascinating sessions — one of which informed me how dangerous it can be to investors when governments decide to change regulations or increase taxes or royalty rates — I had occasion to track down the Nova Scotia booth in the PDAC trade show.

The Nova Scotia booth

The Nova Scotia booth and the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention in Toronto, March. 2, 2020. Photo: Joan Baxter

The booth takes up two contiguous spaces, one occupied by the Department of Energy and Mines (DEM), the other by the Nova Scotia Prospectors’ Association, with no clear division between them.

The NS Department of Energy and Mines and the Nova Scotia Prospectors’ Association had adjoining booths. Photo: Joan Baxter

I approached, looking forward to this opportunity to speak directly with DEM officials, with whom I have requested interviews in the past, always in vain. I was about to introduce myself to the one woman in the booth, but apparently I was known to her and she addressed me by name, although I’ve never met anyone in DEM.

I asked her which member of the delegation would be able to answer a few questions.

Turns out, she said, that no one could speak to me and I would have to contact the DEM communications director with any questions, and yes, he was not in Toronto, he was back in Halifax.

I pointed out that I’d come a long way to attend PDAC, and that the DEM officials were there representing the province, and that it seemed odd that they would not speak to the media.

It was a lost cause. The order was clear; I had to address any questions to DEM communications director Toby Koffman. So I stood there in front of the Nova Scotia booth in the Toronto convention centre and wrote an email to a government official in Halifax to ask my questions, saying:

I had hoped to speak with someone at the NS booth about the province’s participation at PDAC this year. Unfortunately, I have been told there will be no media interviews and that you have instructed that any requests go through you. Please could you let me know who at the booth would be able to answer some questions from the media, and let them know that I will be asking the following:

• What is the goal of DEM participation at PDAC 2020?

• How many visitors do you hope to receive?

• How many NS govt officials are present at PDAC 2020? Larger or smaller than last year? Can you provide a list please?

• Is the Warwick Mtn project being promoted at PDAC 2020? [DEM has closed an area in the Cobequid Mountains to prospecting because the department had been planning to send out a request for proposals for gold exploration in the area, which — as you can read here — was strongly opposed by Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia, and also something that concerned Colchester County Council, which has now voted to seek protection for the Tatamagouche watershed, which falls in the Warwick Mountain area DEM was eyeing for gold exploration.]

• Is there a province-funded breakfast this year? [The Nova Scotia delegation to PDAC traditionally hosts a breakfast at PDAC; the 2018 breakfast cost $13,555 and the province’s participation at PDAC $114,956.]  

• Was there any consideration of not sending a delegation this year because of Covid-19?

This is the emailed reply I received from Koffman in Halifax:

We’re going to decline to interview on this subject. However, we would like to provide the following answers to your questions: 

The mining sector is an important part of Nova Scotia’s economy. It creates jobs in rural communities across the province and provides revenue to government that helps pay for hospitals, roads, schools and many other programs and services for Nova Scotians. 

This paragraph, which sounds like something that the Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS) would write, or possibly has written, is an oft-repeated refrain that I get in response to my inquiries to DEM.

Koffman continued:

There are several reasons why we attend this conference.  Our principal objective is to highlight the province’s exploration potential to those who may wish to come to Nova Scotia to start an exploration program. We do this by promoting our geology and geoscience information and discussing our mineral tenure system. We also meet with people in the industry who are working in Nova Scotia.  We want to help their efforts to promote their projects, learn about the progress of their projects and find out if they have any concerns about barriers to investment or other issues.  This conference is also a professional development event for staff. There are many technical presentations that staff attend to improve their understanding of geology and what’s happening in mining, exploration and geoscience. Finally, we participate in federal, provincial and territorial meetings which coincide with the conference, such as the intergovernmental working group on mines and the national geological surveys committee.

So government officials, whose salaries are paid by Nova Scotia citizens, attend PDAC to help people in the industry “promote their projects” and “find out if they have any concerns about barriers to investment or other issues.” But they are not permitted to speak to the media.

Koffman’s email concluded:

We expect hundreds of people will visit our booth.  We ask to scan everyone’s badge who come by the booth so we get a good estimate. [They didn’t ask to scan mine, though.] Eight government officials are attending this year.  This is similar to previous years.  Those attending include Geoscience and Mines Executive Director Donald James and other staff members from the department.  

Warwick Mountain is not being discussed.  The area remains closed to mineral exploration. Nova Scotia is hosting a breakfast session this year.

We continue to monitor what’s happening with the Covid-19 virus and take appropriate precautions.

So that was that. A disappointing note on which to end Day 2 at PDAC 2020.

The question that continued to perplex and plague me as I walked through downtown Toronto back to my hotel is what justification there is for preventing Nova Scotian officials representing our province at a large public event from speaking to a Nova Scotian journalist.

Even if you weren’t by nature a suspicious person, you’d almost think someone felt there was something needs to be kept hidden from Nova Scotians.

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Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website:; Twitter @joan_baxter

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