On November 1, 2018, a year after Atlantic Gold produced its first gold bar at its Touquoy open pit mine in Moose River, 11 provincial public servants gathered for a two-hour meeting with four high-level representatives of the gold mining company.
Two were with Nova Scotia Environment, six with Lands and Forestry, and three with Energy and Mines.
At the next meeting in December, 16 public servants and five high-level reps from Atlantic Gold were present.
Public Accounts from 2018 shows that the average salary of those provincial officials was $114,323. Their time is obviously paid by Nova Scotian citizens, not by Atlantic Gold, which has paid $0 in provincial taxes since it began gold production in 2017.
These meetings are part of the process known as “One Window,” which dates back to 1994, the time of the Liberal government of the late John Savage.
The Nova Scotia government describes “One Window” as a process that:
…provides proponents with timely and consistent guidance for new and existing mining projects in the province. Mineral development in Nova Scotia is regulated by several government departments: Energy and Mines, Environment, Labour and Advanced Education. Therefore to simplify the review of mining projects in the province, the departments work together through the “One Window” process with the goal of improved efficiency and reduced overlap to ensure that all significant issues are addressed in a thorough and timely manner.
The “One Window” function is managed by a Standing Committee, consisting of representatives from Energy and Mines, Environment, Labour and Advanced Education and Aboriginal Affairs. It facilitates communication between industry proponents and government. Depending on the project, other provincial, federal and municipal government agencies are also consulted.
The government also developed a “User’s guide to the One Window process for Mine Development Approvals.” The guide suggests the purpose is to pave the way for the extractive industry in the province, saying:
The mineral industry is a major contributor to the economy of Nova Scotia. In the interest of encouraging future mineral development, the provincial government has sought to make the process of permitting and approval more efficient.
The One Window process “facilitates communication between industry proponents and government.”
A seat at the head table
Basically, what that means is that a mining company is given a seat at the table for long discussions with government ministers, deputy ministers, and a dozen public servants from a host of government departments, a privilege that is rarely — if ever — afforded regular citizens and journalists.
Nova Scotia’s One Window process doesn’t look all that different from the “one-stop-shop” investment promotion formula, part of the neoliberal dogma that the World Bank Group has promoted and financed in countries all over the world to encourage extractive industries and benefit the companies and investors involved, particularly in impoverished but mineral-rich ones in Africa like Guinea and Sierra Leone. The one-stop-shop works more or less as a red carpet for mining companies and their investors.
Investopedia defines corporate or regulatory capture as “the process by which regulatory agencies eventually come to be dominated by the very industries they were charged with regulating.” It adds:
Public interest agencies that come to be controlled by the industry they were charged with regulating are known as captured agencies. Regulatory capture is an example of gamekeeper turns poacher; in other words, the interests the agency set out to protect are ignored in favor of the regulated industry’s interests.
As recently as 2020, the provincial Mineral Resources Development Fund handed $75,000 to Atlantic Gold for gold exploration in the province, as part of the government’s effort to “support projects in the mining sector.” Since 2012, the company and its predecessors have received $200,000 for gold exploration in Nova Scotia.
Are the One Window meetings with Atlantic Gold a mechanism for the “capture” of — or at least undue influence on — Nova Scotia’s government departments whose roles are to regulate mining?
To find out, the Halifax Examiner submitted a Freedom of Information (FOIPOP) request for the minutes of the One Window meetings from 2017 until 2022.
A peek into One Window
The 29-page document released through the FOIPOP contained minutes of what appear to be five or six separate meetings in late 2018 and early 2019.
Three are handwritten notes that are very difficult to decipher. The most recent of those is from April 2019. It appears to be notes from a meeting involving Atlantic Gold, deputy ministers, and the ministers of Environment, Energy and Mines, Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (TIR), Lands and Forestry, and also Nova Scotia Environment enforcement officials.
There is no evidence of First Nations’ involvement in the meetings for which minutes were obtained.
The minutes show that the process involved “multi-tiered meetings” that consist of:
I. Ministers and Deputies meeting quarterly with senior company managers
II. Directors with middle managers of company meeting prior to Tier I meetings.
III. Managers and technical staff discussing issues prior to Tier II meetings
So, once Atlantic Gold middle managers met with the public service directors at the Tier II meetings, its senior managers then went behind closed doors to meet with government ministers and deputy ministers.
The minutes — at least the parts that are legible — do suggest that the government department directors and public officials were intent on doing their jobs, reminding Atlantic Gold to “submit overdue submissions (at Touquoy) to NSE (Nova Scotia Environment).”
At the October 31, 2018 meeting, it appears that a government minister referred to “NSE infractions” while others are “regional,” and asks, “what happens?” Parts of those handwritten minutes appear to have been severed in the FOIPOP release, as a large part of the page is blank.
The minutes also hint at how Atlantic Gold operates, or did in late 2018 and early 2019 when it was represented by, among others, Jim Millard, who left the company in 2021. The company was not above asking the province the favour of passing it insider information.
Atlantic Gold re-interprets provincial policies
During a November 1, 2018 meeting, for example, Jon Porter, then executive director of renewable resources in the Department of Lands and Forestry, described the formal process of designating a species at risk in Nova Scotia. Atlantic Gold then asked for an “informal (chit-chat) process to get a ‘heads up’ on what could potentially be coming,” like an “advanced ‘radar’ system.” According to the minutes:
… if the company knew ahead of time what species might be designated, then they could have people on the ground looking for them.
Porter said he would “explore ways to give the company” just such a “heads up.”
In the discussion that followed, it seems Atlantic Gold thought it knew provincial policy better than the policy-makers. There is this revealing passage from the minutes in which Jim Millard of Atlantic Gold seems intent on bending provincial rules on old growth forests:
Protection of “old growth” forests is in a Department of Lands and Forestry policy, and will be protected; it does not allow for options. Jim [Millard, then Atlantic Gold’s manager environment and permitting] says he didn’t get this from reading the policy and Atlantic Gold’s lawyers looked at it too. Maybe they’re missing something …
The forest at Cochrane Hill [near Sherbrooke on the St. Mary’s River, where Atlantic Gold has planned the third of three new open pit gold mines] meets the characteristics of old growth. Jon [Porter] explained the differences between old forest (which has the potential to become old growth with time) and old growth. Department of Lands and Forestry staff are regularly looking to identify old growth.
Jim explained Atlantic Gold’s process of gathering geological information in old growth areas at Cochrane Hill. They’ve hired a respected forester and are putting in “well thought out” trails, 5-6 m wide for access. Neither Tier II or Tier III regulators are able to grant access. Must be discussed at Tier I [One Window meetings between Atlantic Gold executives and Nova Scotia ministers and deputy ministers].
Jim argues they are simply collecting information that will go back to CEAA [Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which was replaced in 2019 by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada] and NSE for analysis to help them to decide. Jon explained they are not allowed to cut a single tree once a forest stand as been identified as “old growth” because the stand has been conserved under the Policy.
Department of Lands is not able to approve any activities in old growth. Atlantic Gold says there are alternatives such as dropping drills by helicopter at great expense. IRM [Integrated Resource Management] teams can make recommendations in old forest areas but not in old growth areas.
Jon committed to re-reading the policy. He said the intent was certainly to have no activities in old growth forests.
Related: Friends of St. Mary’s River say NOPE to Atlantic Gold
When it released the One Window meetings minutes through the FOIPOP, the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables (DNRR) said that “some of the information” in the record had been “severed” on the basis that it constituted “an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy” of a third person.
Although the FOIPOP request was for all the minutes of One Window meetings with Atlantic Gold between 2017 and 2022, the most recent minutes received were from April 2019.
The Halifax Examiner then contacted DNRR (which brought together former Energy and Mines, and Lands and Forestry after the 2021 provincial election), to find out whether the One Window meetings were still happening.
Spokesperson Patricia Jreige replied that the meetings were no longer ongoing.
The meetings only occurred at the request of the proponent. Typically, provincial government departments such as Natural Resources and Renewables, Environment and Climate Change, the Office of L’nu Affairs and Labour and Skills and Immigration attend the meetings. In addition, a federal department representative may attend (including Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada) depending on the permitting requirements for the project. Most departments would send at least one representative.
A meeting with Deputies does not occur often, and a meeting with Ministers is typically requested outside of the One Window process. The last meeting was in January, 2019. The request to stop the meetings was based on the increased understanding by Atlantic Mining of the provincial and federal permitting process, so there was no longer a need to meet.
This would explain why the FOIPOP release did not include meetings past 2019, although it did include scanty and hard-to-read handwritten notes from a meeting attended by four government ministers and deputy ministers, as well as other public officials, in April that year, four months after Jreige said the meetings ended.
Atlantic Gold tells a different story
In mid-2019, Atlantic Gold was acquired by Australia’s St Barbara Ltd for $722 million. While it still operates in Nova Scotia as Atlantic Gold, the St Barbara company that actually owns the Moose River open pit gold mine and is proposing three more on the Eastern Shore — at Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill — is now called Atlantic Mining NS.
The Examiner contacted Dustin O’Leary, communications manager for Atlantic Mining NS and St Barbara’s Atlantic Operations, to find out why the company stopped attending the One Window meetings in 2019, and if it had any plans to request the meetings start up again.
O’Leary’s reply contradicts the information provided by the DNRR spokesperson:
The One Window process is an option for ongoing communication that can be paused and resumed at the availability of all involved. To that end, One Window meetings have taken place at various times throughout 2020 and 2021, with the most recent meeting occurring in March 2021.
No minutes for meetings in 2020 and 2021 were released through the FOIPOP.
Some hidden costs
Even without the regular One Window meetings, professionals in the public service still spend untold numbers of hours, weeks, months — even years — poring over and working on environmental assessments, like the one ongoing for “modifications” the company wants to make at its Touquoy open pit mine in Moose River.
Public servants are responsible for assessing the self-monitoring reports that a company like Atlantic Mining NS is obliged to submit to ensure that it is adhering to government regulations and laws, and also occasionally making inspections to enforce the rules.
Then, when it turns out the company is breaking laws — as was the case when the provincial government laid 32 environmental charges against Atlantic Gold in September 2019, and the federal government three more in 2020 — there are also hefty legal costs for the public.
It took nine court appearances before Atlantic Mining NS finally pleaded guilty, and then one more for provincial court judge Alana Murphy to sentence the company to $250,000 in fines and penalties, of which $240,000 was divided equally between Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR) in Eskasoni, and the Mi’kmaq Conservation Group.
Related: Atlantic Gold sentenced to $250,000 in fines and penalties after pleading guilty to federal and provincial environmental charges
One could hope that the corporate taxes a company pays would not only cover all the costs that a mine incurs for the public, but also make a large contribution to provincial coffers, given the enormous environmental risks and liabilities an open pit gold mine and the tailings pose, which are likely to far exceed the $10.4 million reclamation bond for Atlantic Gold’s Touquoy mine.
Related: Who really benefits from Atlantic Gold’s Nova Scotia operations?
However, Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act (ESTMA) reports from Natural Resources Canada show that since it began mining gold in Moose River in 2017, Atlantic Gold / Atlantic Mining NS has paid no federal or provincial corporate taxes.
Based on its own annual reports, it appears that between 2017 and 2021 the company produced more than $763 million worth of gold. ESTMA reports show that the royalties paid to the province so far amount to less than $4.6 million. Nova Scotia spent more than half that amount — $2.7 million — just to repair the Moose River Road for the mine.
Next to all these costs to the public, the One Window meetings are relatively inexpensive, and perhaps they pay off, providing both regulators and Atlantic Gold with important information and guidance on how things are going at the open pit gold mine.
But there is always the risk of regulatory capture when corporate executives are given such a privileged seat at the table with elected and other public officials, and the public is shut out.
Even a FOIPOP request for the minutes of the meetings returns incomplete information about those meetings, and follow-up emails to the government and Atlantic Mining result in contradictory and confusing information.
Northern Pulp wants in through the window
Recently, another corporation — the Paper Excellence company Northern Pulp — has been asking to be let in to the corridors of power through the One Window process.
Northern Pulp’s sister company Northern Timber, incidentally, has a working relationship with the gold miners. Northern Timber leases land to Atlantic Mining NS for the Touquoy gold mine and the proposed mine at Beaver Dam.
In Northern Pulp’s February 2022 submission to Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change requesting changes to the Terms of Reference for the project to transform its Pictou pulp mill and effluent treatment facility, one of the audacious asks the company made was a “one window process.” Northern Pulp inserted this into the draft Terms of Reference:
The proponent [Northern Pulp] may apply for approvals to construct and operate the project during the environmental assessment. NSECC will use a one-window approach to achieve all required approvals under the Environment Act in a coordinated manner that balances environmental protection with the need for the project to proceed in a timely way. [emphasis added]
Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change appears to have ignored Northern Pulp’s request, as that sentence with its reference to a “one-window approach” is conspicuously absent in the final Terms of Reference.
But for now, at least, it appears the One Window process remains the domain of mining companies like Atlantic Gold.
And the public doesn’t even get a look-in through that window at what exactly happens at all those meetings, not even with a Freedom of Information request.
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The whole secrecy thing is so infuriating…. If the government is spending and giving away our money – and it IS our money – then the whole process should be public.
They need to call this ‘One Window’ thing what it really is a weekend of lobbying by big business.
It’s a shame what NS government after NS govenment does in the name of keeping big business operating here. The province gets nothing and the corporations and investors get rich off the tax payers of the province.
I am happy that they kept their word and pulled the plug on Northern Pulp.