There were moments during last week’s “Water Not Gold” rally outside the Alt Hotel at the Halifax airport where the “Gold Show” was in progress, when I was reminded of a video from 2011 during Occupy Wall Street.
That footage shows protestors marching along Wall Street, calling out money barons, greed, and the neoliberal system that has resulted in a handful of people owning half of all wealth on earth. Then the camera pans upwards to the balcony of a swanky building (the fat, white columns are the giveaway). There, a bunch of swanky-looking people had gathered to sip champagne, look down on, and photograph the protestors, as if they were exotic creatures in a zoo.
Although blurry and shaky, the video is remarkable because it captures, in just a over a minute, the great divide between the tone-deaf champagne-drinkers on the balcony, and the multitudes below protesting economic inequality and government complicity in creating it by colluding with the rich and powerful. The kinds of people partying on the balcony.
Of course the “Water Not Gold” rally held last week in front of the Alt Hotel was vastly smaller than Occupy Wall Street protests, and it specifically targeted gold mining, not global finance. And I expect that the industry and government officials gathered inside the hotel for the province’s first ever “gold show” were drinking lots of coffee, not champagne.
But, just as on Wall Street eight years ago, some of those on the inside did gather at windows on an upper floor to look down at and take photos of the roughly 90 people who had gathered on the grass below to protest gold mining in Nova Scotia and beyond.
One person who was able to gain entry (and who asked not to be named) told me that Sean Kirby, executive director of the Mining Association of Nova Scotia, informed participants early on that a rally would be held outside between 11:30 and 1:30. He reportedly encouraged them not to engage with the protestors for reasons of safety.
Every now and then, a few gold show attendees would venture downstairs and outside to smoke cigarettes, or approach the protest to snap photos with their phones. When I headed their way brandishing my microphone, they would scurry back inside.
The Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS), which organized the gold show together with the Nova Scotia Prospectors Association and with $52,000 of funding from the NS Department of Energy and Mines (DEM), promoted the Gold Show as a “private event” for industry and government representatives who were invited to “come learn about gold investment and exploration opportunities.”
On its website, MANS boasted to potential participants that “Nova Scotia is in the middle of a gold rush. One gold mine opened in 2017, four are in the permitting process and there is a lot of exploration taking place,” (which you can read about here, here, and here.)
The agenda for the day, which was sent to me by the person who attended, included the following speakers, and their presentations have now been posted on the MANS website.
- MANS Executive Director Sean Kirby
- Laurentian University professor, Dan Kontak
- Northern Shield Resources CEO, Ian Bliss
- Slam Exploration CEO, Mike Taylor
- Osprey Gold Development CEO, Cooper Quinn
- Malagash Metals and Mining president, Alastair McIntyre
- Saint Mary’s University geology department chair, Jacob Hanley
- DEM manager of resource evaluation, Bob Ryan
- MegumaGold CEO, Regan Isenor
- Ayarco Gold Corp. CEO, John Wightman
- DEM deputy minister, Simon d’Entremont
- Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada president, Felix Lee
- Transitions Metals CEO, Greg Collins
- Aerecura Capital president and managing director David Stein
In addition to the two government representatives on the list, energy and mines minister Derek Mombourquette, and executive director of the geoscience and mines branch in DEM, Donald James, also attended the gold show.
The media and the public were not invited.
The public kept out in the cold
For that reason, people opposed to the ongoing gold rush in the province contacted the Halifax International Airport Authority, the Alt Hotel, and the RCMP to obtain permission to hold a rally on a patch of grass outside the hotel.
The rally was organized by a network called “Flowing Together,” which campaigns against gold mining and exploration in Nova Scotia. It includes the Ecology Action Centre, East Coast Environmental Law, the Sierra Club, the St. Mary’s River Association, as well as citizen groups Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia and the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association.
Mi’kmaq grassroots grandmothers and water protectors were also present at the rally, which drew people from all over the province.
The main concerns, expressed by speaker after speaker, were the immense environmental costs of gold mining, which they said are inevitably left for the public to pay, as mine waste and tailings need to be monitored and maintained forever, long after the gold is extracted and the mines are closed.
Nova Scotians are about to pony up $48 million to clean up just two of 360 historic gold mines in the province – at Montague Mines in Dartmouth and Goldenville near Sherbrooke.
MiningWatch Canada co-founder and author of the new book Unearthing justice – how to protect your community from the mining industry, Joan Kuyek, was also at the rally. Speaking to participants, Kuyek drew on the words of Jacinda Mack, a Xat’sull leader in British Columbia and spokesperson for Stand for Water, a group formed after the disastrous collapse of the tailings dam at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in 2014. Said Kuyek:
This is a love story about protecting those places we cherish, and holding them dear, and defending our children and our grandchildren and future generations, with all our hearts and all our soul.
She said she had visited the Cobequid Mountains where the government wants to promote gold exploration, and gone to Sherbrooke, where the Australian company St. Barbara Ltd. (which acquired Atlantic Gold in July this year) wants to open a gold mine close to the St. Mary’s River.
I spent the last few days visiting these beautiful, beautiful lands that are worth more than gold can ever be worth. And I found myself thinking, what kind of person thinks this is a good place to put a friggin’ gold mine?
Standing with his back to the Alt Hotel, Mi’kmaq elder Billy Lewis told the protestors:
It’s not [up to] the people behind me in that big glass tower, but to us out here. That really is where the answer lies. The extractive industries are universal across the world, and they not only destroy us, they destroy the earth itself. And that’s what we’re here to protect. We’re here to speak for the earth. We’re not here to talk to those assholes. Quite frankly I don’t care [about them.] Because there’s enough of us starting to raise shit, we don’t have to listen to them.
Prospector Joe Richman, whose claims in Cape Breton have been optioned by the Sudbury-based company Transition Metals Corp, paused to speak with me on his way into the gold show. He expressed frustration with the organizers. He pointed out that for years, the government hosted its own annual “Mining Matters” conferences in downtown Halifax, which were open to the public, were “reasonable and intelligent” and never drew any protest.
In his view the gold show was:
… an extraordinarily lousy PR exercise for an industry that desperately needs good PR. Instead of figuring out a way to give that industry good PR, they figured out how they could do the opposite.
And, he said:
Clearly, they don’t have a clue about how to deal with disagreement, on principle, or otherwise. They have no idea about public relations. They have no idea about dealing up front with people that disagree with them, and solving the disagreement. They have obviously no interest in solving the disagreement. That’s pathetic.
When I asked him to whom he was referring when he spoke of “they,” he replied, “I’m talking about whoever is responsible for this circus.”
They’ve done themselves a disservice. They’ve done the industry a disservice. They’ve done all the people that make a living off the industry a disservice.
Gold mining in the media spotlight
It’s not really clear what MANS hoped to accomplish with the gold show.
Whether by design or miscalculation, it did result in a flurry of media attention.
There were more media present for the rally outside the Alt Hotel than there were inside for the gold show (which is understandable, as media were not welcome inside).
CBC Halifax Information Morning shone an overdue spotlight on the industry in a series of interviews relating to the gold show and the gold rush. The first was with Sean Kirby, cheerleader-in-chief for the mining industry. Repeating the talking points on the MANS website, Kirby argued that mining and quarrying in Nova Scotia contribute $420 million to the province’s economy each year, and that the mining industry is a “key creator of jobs and prosperity for Nova Scotians,” providing 5,500 jobs.
The next day Joan Kuyek was interviewed, and she countered Kirby’s pro-mining messaging, as did the Ecology Action Centre’s Ray Plourde the following day.
Then, on October 21, it was the turn of energy and mines minister Derek Mombourquette to be questioned by CBC Information Morning host, Portia Clark.
Mombourquette was unable to provide answers to her questions about how much Atlantic Gold paid the government in royalties and taxes for the Touquoy open pit gold mine at Moose River, or the amount of its reclamation bond for the mine.
This is surprising, given that all these figures are in the public domain.
Before Atlantic Gold was acquired by the Australian company St. Barbara’s Ltd for $722 million earlier this year, it was obliged under the Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act to report its payments to all levels of government to Natural Resources Canada, which are made available on the ESTMA reports site.
According to Atlantic Gold’s ESTMA report for 2017, the year that the company produced gold worth $24.9 million (according to the province’s 2019 Mineral Production Report), the company paid zero taxes or royalties to any level of government.
In March 2018, Atlantic Gold reported it had poured its 200th bar of gold, and produced 90,500 ounces. The value at the time would have been upwards of $150 million. But the company reported to ESTMA that in 2018 it had paid $0 in taxes to any level of government, and just $1,180,148 in royalties to the province.
I asked Natural Resources Canada why the Atlantic Gold ESTMA reports were no longer available, if they had been taken down after St. Barbara bought Atlantic Gold, given that only mining companies registered on a Canadian stock exchange are required to report to ESTMA, and St. Barbara is on the Australian Stock Exchange.
The reply I received:
A company that is delisted from a Canadian stock exchange may no longer qualify as an ESTMA reporting entity, or be required to publish reports. However, the ESTMA requires reports to be made available to the public for a period of five years, and this obligation continues even if a company is acquired by an entity that is not subject to the ESTMA. We appreciate you bringing the broken link to our attention and will look into the matter.
As Atlantic Gold has been sold to St. Barbara, it no longer has a website with those ESTMA reports.
But surely the minister of energy and mines should have access to the information in them, and make sure he’s briefed on figures on royalties and taxes paid by Atlantic Gold before doing an interview with CBC?
When Portia Clark asked the minister for the amount that Atlantic Gold had paid in royalties, he replied, “I don’t have the exact number in front of me.”
Asked what tax credits the province had granted Atlantic Gold, he said:
I don’t have that information in front of me in regards to tax credits, but with any operation there is, ah, you know, they pay royalties. We have a close relationship with them …
When Clark asked him the amount of the reclamation bond that Atlantic Gold had to put up for the Moose River open pit mine, Mombourquette replied, true to form, that he didn’t have the “exact number” on him.
In fact, the provincial government makes the amount of reclamation bonds available online, and the amount for the Touquoy gold mine is $10.4 million. However, the Department of Energy and Mines refuses to say how this amount was calculated and in what form the bond is held, and the actual reclamation plan is not available, even through a freedom of information request. (I wrote about the lack of transparency on the reclamation plans and bond here.)
But … jobs
While Mombourquette seemed to have been woefully ill-equipped to provide important figures on what revenues the government receives from gold mining in the province, he seemed to have no trouble quoting numbers for jobs.
The Information Morning interview was specifically about gold mining in Nova Scotia. However, just as Sean Kirby of MANS had done in his CBC interview five days earlier, Minister Mombourquette came up with a number that included jobs in all kinds of mining and quarrying, saying “over 5,000 Nova Scotians are involved in the mining industry across the province.”
Clark pointed out that her question was about jobs in gold mining, not the whole industry. Mombourquette then acknowledged that only about 300 are currently employed in the one operating open pit gold mine in Moose River.
In his interview on the same show, Kirby had said there were 270 people directly employed at the Moose River mine, and they “generated” $8.5 million in taxes from their wages.
Given that Atlantic Gold paid no taxes in 2018, the only tax revenue “generated” by the lucrative gold mine in Moose River, which Sean Kirby boasts is the “lowest cost gold mine in Canada, the tenth lowest cost gold mine in the world,” seems to be coming off employee wages.
It probably helps keep the costs of the mine down when the corporation itself doesn’t pay taxes.
A closer look at the numbers
And where, I wondered, does that figure of 5,500 jobs come from? I wrote to Sean Kirby to ask him and received no reply.
I sent a similar inquiry to DEM. Spokesperson Gary Andrea replied that the data comes from a Gardner Pinfold study in 2012, which, he says, “is the most recent analysis and still reflects the current state of the industry.”
The analysis done by Gardner Pinfold involved information from a 2006 baseline study, and “impact ratios” were used to update the study to 2012.
But the age of the study is not the only problem. The data presented are vague and hard to decipher.
Under the heading “Total Economic Impact Associated including primary and processing activity,” for example, a category that Gardner Pinfold did not define or explain, the study claimed that there were 2,721 direct jobs and 2,763 spin-off jobs, for a total of 5,484, and a GDP contribution $419.7 million.
The study also looked at “Impacts associated with mining activity” (another vague term that was not defined), and specifically in “primary extraction” – presumably people working directly in mining or quarrying – and this time the figure for direct jobs is 1,467, with another 1,476 indirect jobs, for a total of 2,934, and a GDP contribution of $234.1 million.
Apart from the fact that there are good reasons to distrust economic impact reports, and as Tim Bousquet has written, “economic impact reports from Gardner Pinfold in specific,” let’s just accept just some of these figures for the whole industry (either the 5,484 or the 2,943) for a moment, and compare them with some other longer term and more sustainable industries in the province, which don’t leave behind mountains of waste rock and toxic tailings.
In 2017, Fisheries and Oceans Canada reports that fishing-related employment in Nova Scotia was 17,669.
In 2014, before the McNeil government axed the film incentive tax credit, a PwC study estimated that film and television production created work for 3,200 people, with 1,600 full-time and 1,600 indirect jobs.
Back in 2012, when Gardner Pinfold claimed the “Total Economic Impact Associated including primary and processing activity” resulted in employment for 5,484, the figure for employment in the tourism industry in Nova Scotia was “over 40,000.”
In 2017, the provincial government estimated that tourism revenue in Nova Scotia was $2.7 billion.
It’s hard to imagine that many tourists will be interested in visiting a province riddled with massive gold mines, or taking a scenic drive along Highway 7 on the Eastern Shore if it is full of giant trucks full of mine ore headed from the proposed Cochrane Hill open pit gold mine near Sherbrooke, to Moose River for processing. And it’s hard to imagine that gold mining, a boom-and-bust industry that collapses the minute gold prices fall, would ever be able to provide even a tiny fraction of the long-term employment that tourism does.
There are also good reasons not to accept the Gardner Pinfold job numbers for mining jobs, which pale in comparison to fishing and tourism.
Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia has been delving into the employment question, and SuNNS member John Perkins notes to discrepancies between Kirby’s and Mombourquette’s numbers, and those crunched by Natural Resources Canada, which keeps track of mineral sector employment across the country.
The federal department reported in January this year that in 2017, only 610 people were employed in mining and quarrying in Nova Scotia, with another 140 in mining support activities.
In addition, 515 were working in “non-metallic mineral product manufacturing,” 30 in “primary metal manufacturing,” and 2,460 in “fabricated metal product manufacturing.” So the grand total of people working in the entire mineral sector in the province was just 3,755, with the vast majority of those in metal product manufacturing, not mining and quarrying.
So who to believe? The federal government using data from Statistics Canada for 2017? Or an economic impact assessment done by Gardner Pinfold in 2012, using data from 2006? For whatever reason, MANS and DEM prefer to believe the latter.
Damn the risks
In the Department of Energy and Mines 2019 mineral production report (which is riddled with photos contributed by Atlantic Gold, perhaps not surprising since Minister Mombourquette did say on CBC that the government has a “close relationship” with the company), there are lots of figures for the actual market value of the minerals produced in Nova Scotia.
Oddly, the report fails to report on how much of the value of those minerals — non-renewable resources that belong to the government of Nova Scotia — went into government coffers in royalties or taxes. There is no indication in the report that the government is calculating the real costs and benefits of the gold rush, let alone trying to maximize the latter. Rather, it continues to hand out money for gold-digging.
The day after Mombourquette defended gold mining on CBC radio, his department issued a press release praising its latest batch of handouts from the Mineral Resources Development Fund to mining companies and prospectors for still more gold exploration in Nova Scotia.
“Almost $1.2 million is being provided to 37 projects led by prospectors, mineral exploration companies, academics, recent graduates and students,” said the DEM press release.
Nine exploration grants totalling $409,300 went to mining companies, seven of which are seeking gold:
Another $305,200 went to individual prospectors. One of those, Perry MacKinnon, received $8,300 in prospecting and exploration grants, in addition to $76,500 that his company, 3302051 NS Ltd, received in exploration grants.
What this all suggests is that the government is determined to double down on its unquestioning support for still more gold exploration and mining in the province.
This, despite the lack of information on the revenue that gold mining would bring, and the abundant and growing amounts of information about the long-term environmental and health risks of gold mining, particularly during a climate crisis and increasing recognition that potable water supplies are particularly vulnerable to the changing climate.
Not only does gold mining use large quantities of fresh water, but its tailings management facilities must be monitored and managed in perpetuity to ensure that they do not break, or leach acid into aquifers and other water bodies.
Reacting to Mombourquette’s interview on Information Morning, former HRM councillor and hydrogeologist Peter Lund wrote that the gold mines proposed by Atlantic Gold, are “a disaster in the making that could last for generations long after the mining company has made their millions and left town.”
Such warnings were loud and clear at the Water Not Gold rally last week outside the Alt Hotel, but it seems the minister and the others inside just couldn’t hear them — or didn’t want to.
Cover photo of the Water Not Gold rally is courtesy of Michael Maclean.