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Faith in northern mine has eroded

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WABOWDEN -- What happened here six years ago is the dream of every economically famished town in northern Manitoba.

What followed is a cautionary tale about local implications of global trends and of lofty entrepreneurial ambitions gone sour.

It was with much fanfare the Bucko Lake nickel mining and milling operation opened near scenic Wabowden -- with a population of approximately 550 -- in late 2008.

At last the village, carved out of the wilderness off Highway 6 about 90 minutes southwest of Thompson, could reap the benefits of a sizable homegrown industry.

The mine would go on to employ about 150 people. With more than half of those workers aboriginal, many from the Cross Lake reserve, Bucko became a beacon of hope for job-hungry First Nations.

Just as importantly, Bucko proved mining in northern Manitoba need not be beholden to the internationally focused execs of Vale (with operations in Thompson) and Hudbay (Flin Flon and Snow Lake).

Instead, against multiple odds, a Vancouver-based junior miner called Crowflight Minerals would launch the $140-million development.

Even though construction wrapped up as metal prices disintegrated amid the recession of 2008, Crowflight plowed ahead with an opening late that year.

Wabowden resident June Chu remembers how the mine transformed the town's economy.

"They had lots of workers in town and they hired lots of local people, so everybody, almost, (had) a job," says Chu. "Everybody was just happy that they (could) stay home to work."

The elation was short-lived. In November 2009, Crowflight suspended operations at Bucko after conceding its strategy to reach full and steady production needed an overhaul.

Bucko was revived in March 2010, but Crowflight was still unable to achieve sustainable production levels.

The mine closed again in October 2010, giving Crowflight time to install its own equipment and workers in a bid to turn Bucko around.

Up to this point, Crowflight had outsourced production at its only mine to Ontario-based Dumas Contracting.

Dumas couldn't have been happy to lose the contract, but it was even more dismayed by what it claimed was $7.1 million in unpaid bills.

Crowflight and Dumas soon reached a settlement on the resultant lawsuit, and Bucko once more reopened in April 2011.

But more bad news came in late 2011 when Crowflight (now known as CaNickel Mining Ltd.) announced it would cut production at the mine by as much as 43 per cent.

A few months later, in May 2012, Bucko caught the attention of provincial safety regulators, who ordered CaNickel to temporarily cease blasting operations.

CaNickel got the go-ahead to resume blasting in July 2012, but rather than resurrect Bucko for a third time, the company took one look at still-depressed nickel prices and decided to keep the gate locked.

Today Bucko remains on "care and maintenance," a term mining companies use to suggest -- not always convincingly -- a mine will eventually recommence.

Among the other northern mines on care and maintenance are two gold operations, Puffy Lake near Sherridon and Tartan Lake near Flin Flon. They have been padlocked for a quarter-century.

Chu says while the latest Bucko closure hurt Wabowden, quite a few locals landed work at Hudbay's Lalor mine near Snow Lake.

She says Wabowdenites are hopeful Bucko will be back, but the community's faith in the project has probably been eroded.

If Bucko ever does start up again, it's an open question as to whether CaNickel will be involved.

As this newspaper reported in January, a construction company in The Pas is suing CaNickel and its directors for $377,805 in alleged back payments.

The lawsuit has the potential to prompt the court-ordered sale of the mine, but would any buyers bite the bait? Perhaps, since Bucko could have another 10 years of life, CaNickel's now-former CEO Mark Trevisiol said.

Premier Greg Selinger has rightly called mining "the bedrock of Manitoba's northern economy." Despite hype around wilderness tourism and the like, resources are where it's at in this region.

That is both an exciting and scary prospect. Just ask the folks in Wabowden.


Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2014 A13

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