Touquoy gold mine at Moose River. Photo courtesy Raymond Plourde/ Environmental Action Centre

It looks as if someone is getting a little nervous about the growing backlash to the latest gold rush in the province, and to the development of new open pit gold mines along the Eastern Shore, particularly the proposal by the Australian company St. Barbara, which acquired Atlantic Gold in July last year for $722 million, to put in a mine very close to St. Mary’s River, at Cochrane Hill, just north of Sherbrooke.

(You can read more about that acquisition here, and more about the proposed mine here. You can also read Halifax Examiner coverage of how Atlantic Gold had four people expelled from a public meeting in Sherbrooke in May last year, which resulted in the RCMP violently arresting John Perkins – here and here).

So far, two people have contacted me with concerns about a phone survey being conducted by Narrative Research, which aims to get their views on gold mining in the province and how best the public might be convinced that gold mining is good for them.

Both people said the survey questions seemed skewed, intended to elicit particular responses, and that there was no room for the respondent to deviate from multiple choice answers or add information.

Margaret Anne McHugh, who contacted me via Twitter to let me know about the survey, told me in a phone interview that she got the call twice, once on her cell phone early Saturday afternoon when she did the survey, and then again on her land line on Sunday afternoon, when she did not complete it as they were looking for a respondent between the ages of 18 and 20.

McHugh, who used to live on the Eastern Shore and now lives in Halifax, said this about the survey:

It is like a push poll. You cannot answer the way you want. Poor guy just had a bunch of tick boxes and my answers were not fitting in. It was about communications … They specifically ask about [the proposed mine at] COCHRANE HILL. Still furious about the questions. 

McHugh said the questions 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 she 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.

The other person who contacted me about the survey lives in Pictou County. Her concerns were similar to those of McHugh. She wishes to remain anonymous, but sent me an email describing her impressions of the survey:

I found this survey very frustrating. It only allowed answers that would sound positive for gold mining or that made you sound like you didn’t care about the economy and jobs. There was no way to say, “yes, I care about the economy and jobs, but I do not think gold mining is a good economic option for Nova Scotia because of its high environmental risks.” 

A number of the survey questions were leading, not neutral. One question provided a list of statements about gold mining in Nova Scotia, and you were supposed to agree or disagree. All the statements were positive, including “Gold mining in Nova Scotia makes safety a top priority,” “Gold mining in Nova Scotia operates in a manner that does not harm the environment” and “Gold mining in Nova Scotia provides local employment opportunities.”

The survey also asked, “What if anything do you need to know to increase your support of gold mining?” That’s hardly an unbiased question.

Both people who contacted me about survey felt strongly that it did not allow them to provide their actual views and answer the questions the way they wanted to.

Pollster says it gets “authentic” opinions

This doesn’t exactly match what Narrative Research says on its website about the research it does:

At Narrative Research, our job is to talk to people. We ask the right questions to unlock authentic thoughts and opinions, then transform the resulting data into meaningful understanding for you. [italics are mine]

And then there is this mind-numbing mouthful:

Our combination of both innovative and traditional methodologies, overlaid with in-depth analysis and advanced analytics, generates comprehensive and interactive reporting that tells a story you can use.

Such companies do not disclose the names of the clients for whom they are doing the research, but Narrative Research CEO and partner Margaret Brigley did tell me in an email that Narrative Research designs its own surveys. She also defended the survey on gold mining, saying it:

… asked opinion on a range of related topics. Questions on the survey included a good number of scale questions (which by design provide for a full spectrum of opinion, and from a statistical perspective, allow for full analysis across opinions). Further, the survey included multiple open-ended questions which provided opportunities for respondents to share their views.

Cochrane Hill

It is curious that the survey raises the name of only one gold mine — the one at Cochrane Hill that St. Barbara / Atlantic Gold has planned as the fourth open pit mine in its “string of pearls” along the Eastern Shore, which constitutes its Moose River Consolidated Project.

Atlantic Gold’s proposed Moose River Consolidated Project.
Atlantic Gold’s proposed Moose River Consolidated Project.

For the past year, there has been growing opposition to the proposed Cochrane Hill mine, led by the Friends of St. Mary’s River and the NOPE (No Open Pit Excavation) campaign. Some influential Nova Scotians are strongly opposed to the mine, including former CEO of Empire Co., Paul Sobey, who told the CBC that the plan to put a mine there was mind-boggling.

“NOPE” sign on the St. Mary’s Salmon Museum. Photo: Joan Baxter
“NOPE” sign on the St. Mary’s Salmon Museum. Photo: Joan Baxter

In May last year, the federal government contributed $1.8 million for the restoration of salmon habitat on the St. Mary’s River.

More recently, on January 10, 2020, Environment Minister Gordon Wilson announced that public consultations were beginning on six new protected areas in Nova Scotia.

The province’s announcement of new protected wilderness areas.
The province’s announcement of new protected wilderness areas.

One of the designated areas up for public consultation and protection in the new list is Archibald Lake Wilderness Area, which would protect 684 hectares (ha) of “woodlands, lakes and small wetlands in the watershed of Archibald Brook, an important tributary of the St. Mary’s River.

Atlantic Gold has its sights set on using Archibald Lake as a water supply for the proposed Cochrane Hill mine. But the province’s description of the Archibald Lake protected wilderness area contains a remarkably explicit message about the how the wilderness area could affect the planned gold mine:

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.

St. Barbara operates one gold mine in Australia, which has been underperforming. It has another aging gold mine in Papua New Guinea. These days, it appears to be banking heavily on its “Atlantic Gold operations” in Nova Scotia, and a key part of those operations — the Moose River Consolidated Mine project — is the gold mine it has planned for Cochrane Hill. The company also holds thousands of mineral exploration claims in the province.

With growing public opposition to the project, and the provincial announcement that the mine would not be permitted to use Archibald Lake for its water should the area be protected, there are likely some jitters being felt at St. Barbara Limited headquarters in Melbourne, Australia.

Who is behind the phone survey — whether it’s the company or some other cheerleaders for gold mining in Nova Scotia that I can think of — is really neither here nor there.

What matters is that Nova Scotians should probably start bracing themselves for an onslaught of pro-gold-mining messages that will be wrung and spun out of the survey, which will suggest, rightly or wrongly, that lots of people in the province think gold mining is good for them.

Joan Baxter

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

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  1. Old habits die hard. In 2007, when Atlantic Gold (also known at that time as DDV Gold) was attempting to get a provincial environmental permit for the then-proposed Moose River Mine, Eastern Shore Forest Watch received anecdotal notice that a telephone survey was in progress — about gold mining. The “official results” of the telephone survey was reported in Atlantic Gold’s Focus Report (Appendix U). Eastern Shore Forest Watch made the following comments in its review of the Focus Report:

    “Moose River Gold Mine Survey is unreliable
    In September 2007 DDV Gold commissioned NRG Associates to conduct a telephone survey about attitudes towards gold mining on the Eastern Shore and Musquodoboit Valley. Section 5.5 (p. 168 of pdf file) states: “…the [survey] results indicate a 66% level of awareness of the Project and a 67% level of overall support for the Project.”

    Query: Is there 1% (67%) more approval for the project than there is awareness of it (66%)? Or is the approval rating 67% of 66%, which is actually 44% of those polled? This smudging of numbers is relevant as an example of the poor quality of research found in the Focus Report.

    The methodology of the survey is suspect (Appendix U). We do not have all the information here, mainly because Appendices A, Survey Instrument, and Appendix B, Data Tables, are missing. This omission alone renders the results meaningless.

    It is instructive, however to look at the numbers of people polled from the three general areas. Appendix U, page 3 states: “A total of 502 interviews were completed, with 307 in Eastern Shore, 96 in the Musquodoboit Valley and 99 in Sheet Harbour.”

    According to Canada Post:
    the Eastern Shore, between Porter’s Lake and Tangier, is home to 6876 households, so the survey covered 307/6876 or 4.5% of the population
    the Musquodoboit Valley (Middle Musquodoboit and Upper Musquodoboit) has 928 households, so the survey covered 96/928 or 10.34 % of the population
    Sheet Harbour has 679 households, so the survey covered 99/679 or 14.58% of the population.

    Query: Why was the survey weighted substantially towards Sheet Harbour residents, at 14.58% of all residents, and simultaneously tilted away from Eastern Shore residents, at 4.5% of all residents? Was the pollster told that the Sheet Harbour area would bear none of the environmental risk from this project, and would therefore only benefit from the promise of jobs? Was the pollster trying to achieve a desired result?

    Eastern Shore Forest Watch became aware of this “survey” while it was in progress, as a result of a number of complaints and questions from Eastern Shore residents who felt badgered and bullied by a telephone pollster. ESFW sent out an email (see Appendix II) to find out how widespread this unprofessional behaviour was, and received a number of corroborating responses.

    One member of ESFW was rather intemperate, though perhaps accurate, in his remarks: “This is a pathetic attempt of the company to create the perception of support by attacking residents verbally and browbeating them into some measure of agreement.”

    At the time of the “survey” ESFW was conducting public information meetings about the proposed gold mine. We raised the issue with representatives of DDV Gold, faithful attendees, at two of the meetings. When first questioned, manager Peter Carter denied all knowledge of the survey. At the next meeting he admitted that yes, after all, DDV was conducting a telephone survey. ESFW detailed the reports of unprofessional, combative and intimidating behavior on the part of the pollster, and strongly suggested that the survey be abandoned as an impartial gauge of public opinion. Clearly that suggestion was ignored.

    The point to remember here is that DDV had full knowledge that this information was unreliable, and nevertheless used it in the Focus Report to generate the illusion of community support.

    This behaviour is unworthy of DDV Gold, and speaks to the issue of “Industry Credibility” (Section 5.7.5 of the Focus Report): “In recent discussions with parties concerned about the project a common sentiment has been implied that mining companies, and in particular gold mining companies, are run by management with low ethical standards.” Hmm-mmm.”

  2. I did complete the phone survey last Sunday, and there were a number of questions that allowed for an “unfavourable” rating to be applied. The young guy who led me through the survey had no information to offer on who was paying for this “survey”. It was possible to leave the impression that gold mining – really open pit excavation- is not an industry that will offer much employment and that the legacy of such operations is not pretty. Having done that, I’m unsure if the person doing the recording, which was ‘monitored for quality control purposes’ actually entered those comments that I offered; my guess is that they went unrecorded/ monitored.

  3. Just in case you need someone to say this out loud, “which by design provide for a full spectrum of opinion, and from a statistical perspective, allow for full analysis across opinions” is nonsense. It is trivial to design scale questions that don’t capture a full range of opinions. All the statistics in the world won’t help a poorly designed question.

    1. Even assuming the questions were well designed:

      > interactive reporting that tells a story you can use.

      “interactive reporting” : Cool whiz-bang graphs
      “you can use”: that justify your existing story